Urban Economics, History and Society: Description

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Objectives and areas of research

Over the past ten years, urban studies have developed rapidly and the boundaries of knowledge are being pushed back at an increasing rate, due in particular to the use of new sources of geolocated data and the methods associated with them. Two dimensions seem particularly promising to help bring about advances in the field: the historical dimension and the societal dimension, as well as their interaction. These dimensions are at the intersection of several academic disciplines, including economics, history, sociology and geography.

The historical line of research provides the necessary perspective to better understand the formation of cities, the static and dynamic gains derived from their agglomeration economies, as well as the costs of massive urbanization (in terms of environment, housing, segregation, or pandemics). For instance, some projects carried out by historians consist in digitizing archives that show the evolution of population location and the structure of local activity since the 14th century for some countries, at a very local scale[1]. Similarly, digitizing old maps makes it possible to document the evolution of the structure of cities and transport networks with far more perspective than would be possible with the data currently available.

The first objective of this collaborative project is therefore to look at urban issues from a historical perspective using urban data. In particular, it is designed to facilitate interactions between economists who have developed formalized and empirical approaches to urban mechanisms, historians who have in-depth knowledge of the historical contexts and sources, and geographers who have refined the tools for analyzing geolocated data.

Concretely, these interactions should allow us to further investigate the following questions: What are the underlying mechanisms of urban development and sprawl? To what extent does the persistence of built-up areas generate inertia? In what ways have structural changes such as industrialization and the shift to a service economy played a role in the formation of cities? How can we build coherent databases to study the evolution of cities over several centuries?

As for the societal line of research, it allows for a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying these urban trends, such as the choice of transportation mode, choice of location, behaviors in the local labor market, and environmental trajectory. Among other things, urban studies seek to better understand the economic, social and environmental consequences of the urban form, of infrastructure, or of local public policies. For instance, social interactions appear to be an essential theoretical component connecting these different factors, and yet they are still largely under-researched due to insufficient documentation. In particular, it is interesting to question the relationship between social interactions and urban forms, as well as the way in which individuals make choices in an urban context. The environmental question is especially important here, as these interactions have an impact on our living environment. Improving our understanding of the interplay between individual economic behavior, the environment and public policy emerges as a natural and essential development in urban studies.

The second objective of this collaborative project is therefore to develop a collaboration between economists who study behaviors in an urban context, sociologists whose monographs and field surveys improve our knowledge of the reality of urban social interactions, and geographers who explore the relationships between the social structure and organization of the city. The aim is thus to initiate a discussion about the methods for investigating urban issues, whether quantitative or qualitative.

Concretely, these interactions should allow us to further investigate the following questions: How do interurban transport networks affect the spatial organization of activities, the performance of economic actors and long-term urban trends? What is the impact of transport and intra-urban morphology on travel, economic interactions, and local pollution? How do neighborhood effects influence the educational and occupational trajectories of low-income neighborhood residents? What are the actual effects of rent control on housing markets? Such an interdisciplinary perspective certainly allows for a better understanding of the “problem of the suburbs” and urban violence, as well as the challenges faced by public policy in attempting to bridge the social or territorial divide (yellow vests…).

These two dimensions of interest should not be considered separately. On the contrary, they complement each other: the historical data provides a temporal depth that allows us to better study the societal dimension and to evaluate public policies in the long term (city policies, transport policies, housing policies, sustainable development policies, etc.). In order to expand the field of knowledge in these two directions, it is necessary to become acquainted with machine learning techniques, applied not only to high-dimensional databases (new geocoded administrative data, or data collected on the web), but also to the systematic exploitation of archival manuscripts or old maps. This project plans to achieve this purpose by facilitating interactions with researchers who are familiar with these methods, both inside and outside PSE.

Research team and proposed collaborations

The project is led by Camille Hémet and was set up in collaboration with three other PSE researchers working in the field of urban economics: Gabrielle Fack, Laurent Gobillon and Miren Lafourcade.

Even before the project started in September 2020, other researchers, both internal and external to PSE, had already expressed interest and have been participating regularly in the sessions and activities described in the next section. This initial team consists largely of urban economists working either in academia or in an institutional setting. Other subfields of economics are also represented, including economic history. In addition to this, the team includes researchers in history, sociology or geography, whose approaches differ from those of economists, but who share common objects or fields of study and methodological tools. Since the actual start of the project, other researchers, as well as doctoral students, have joined the group and now participate in its meetings, either on an ad hoc basis or more regularly depending on their research interests.

Regular activities and integration of the project within the PSE framework

This collaborative project is designed first and foremost as a space for reflection and discussion, allowing the research work of its participants to progress and new ideas to emerge.

Since September 2020, the group has been meeting regularly at workshops held every four to six weeks. Each session focuses on a pre-defined theme prepared by one or more group members, or sometimes by an external speaker whose methodological input is relevant to the discussion. Although each workshop gives the speaker the opportunity to present their work, it is not a seminar in the traditional sense. It is sometimes dedicated to developing a specific methodological point (introducing a new database or innovative method, for example), and other times to highlighting the different approaches used to tackle the same issue in various disciplines. Ultimately, the main goal is to initiate a discussion among participants about current research and to explore new research questions.

In parallel, we will organize an annual interdisciplinary workshop (in the spring) during which both French and foreign scholars will be invited to present research standing at the intersection of the issues identified during our sessions.

It should be noted that this project fits into the PSE environment in several ways. First, the scope of the group’s discussions can occasionally be broadened through the Regional Science and Urban Economics Seminar. This half-day PSE workshop co-organized by Laurent Gobillon and Miren Lafourcade regularly brings together some 30 researchers in regional and urban economics, who can then interact with members of the collaborative project. Moreover, the project is already strengthening interactions between the Labour and Public Economics research group (under which urban economics is represented at PSE) and other groups such as Economic and Social History or Regulation and Environment.

Expected outcomes

The activities of the group created for this project are featured on the website of the Labour and Public Economics research group: presentation materials used for each session are regularly posted online, together with the corresponding interdisciplinary bibliographical references and information notes on the databases used in the published papers.

In terms of scientific output, the discussions with researchers from other fields are expected to lead to joint research work at the crossroads of the various disciplines represented. Finally, and in keeping with the objective of further developing urban studies at PSE, a longer-term ambition would be to establish a research center focusing on these issues, modeled after the François Simiand Center (which also originated as a PSE collaborative project).

[1] One example is the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, whose projects include mapping the occupational structure of Britain’s population since 1379 (