Introduction: This is a guest post from former blogger, Stuart Donovan, who now spends much of his time caring for his warrior princess, Alexandra, and tending to his voracious worm farm. And doing his PhD. In this post, Stuart summarises a course in urban economics he is giving in Amsterdam later this year. All Kiwis that attend receive a chocolate fish.

Many Greater Auckland topics have an urban economic dimension. The effect of the City Rail Link on employment in the City Centre, the effect of transport on where people choose to live and work, the effects of house prices on population levels and distribution, or the effect of the Auckland Harbour Bridge, all sit comfortably under the rubric of urban economics.

If you find these kinds of questions interesting, and you are footloose and fancy free from 6-20 July this year, then you may be interested in a summer school course that I am helping to deliver on the “The Economics of Urbanisation”. This course is part of the summer school programme run by Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, where I am currently studying towards a PhD.

Entry to the course is not restricted to economists; we welcome people from all disciplines and backgrounds, including professionals. Indeed, the course seeks to provide an intuitive introduction to key concepts in urban economics, highlighting challenges and opportunities for research and policy. This brings me to my favourite, and somewhat salient, economics meme.

Pray tell, what is an economic perspective? In my view, economics is simply a social science that seeks to explain people’s choices. Economists tend to approach choice problems by first developing models of individual behaviour (typically, people and firms), which can subsequently be compared to some hypothetical optimal outcome and/or applied to empirical data. No more, no less.

The key difference between other economic disciplines and urban economics is that, in the latter, people and firms can choose where to locate. Compare this to, say, the literature on international trade, where the location of firms and households—often represented in aggregate national level data—is usually fixed. Arguably, some of the most salient features of the modern economy arise not at the national level but instead eventuate at spatial scales that both smaller and larger. The clearly-evident core-periphery development pattern in Western Europe as seen from space, for example.

And when you allow people to choose their location, it quickly becomes apparent that—for your models to have real-world relevance—you need to also relax some assumptions that are common to many economic disciplines. Specifically, most people seem to value proximity, and be prepared to pay for it, even though proximity increases competition and prices for scarce resources, such as land. Fujita and Thisse (2013) put it rather formally in the following terms:

“If we want to explain the formation of cities or the existence of large differences between regions or nations in an otherwise homogeneous space, we must explicitly consider externalities or imperfect competition. In other words, to explain the most salient feature of the space-economy, that is, the presence of a large variety of agglomerations of economic agents, we have to appeal to non market interactions among agents or to imperfectly competitive markets.”

I mean, why on cod’s green earth would anyone choose to live in cold, dense city of Amsterdam?

While I’m working to update the syllabus from last year, in this year’s course I expect we will cover a similar range of topics, including but not limited to:

  • Countries, regions, and cities — and the concepts that link/distinguish them. The goal is to provide a “spatial” perspective on economic patterns.
  • Monocentric city model – which is a workhorse urban economics model that predicts, among other things, rents will fall with distance to the city centre, as compensation for higher transport costs. We also consider theoretical extensions and empirical evidence.
  • Agglomeration economies – that is, the advantages and disadvantages proximity offers to firms and households. And how relative advantages have waned and, more recently, waxed over time, for example due to changes in technology and industry composition.
  • Spatial equilibrium – which is a common “end-state” for urban economic models, such as the monocentric city model. In spatial equilibrium, prices (typically wages and rents) are assumed to adjust to compensate for local amenities. Spatial equilibrium explains, in part, why big cities and tropical islands offer high and low wages, respectively.
  • Transport economics – building from the concept of generalised costs, we consider transport systems and their implications for the cost structures of different modes, highlighting how the allocation of public vis-à-vis private costs can impact individual mode choice. Discuss short and long run costs, congestion externalities, and economies of scale/density within the over-arching theme of space-efficiency.
  • Technology and policy – which highlights the ongoing dance that exists between transport technologies and urban policy settings. We consider the historical examples of how the Netherlands got its cycle lanes, Moses’ motorways versus Jacobs’ urbanism, and road-pricing in Stockholm. Consider some emerging transport technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, drones, hyperloop, and e-scooters.
  • Economic policy analysis – specifically benefit cost analysis as a decision-making tool, understanding consumer/producer surplus, and various valuation techniques. We apply these tools to evaluate the merits of converting Amsterdam’s (famed) Vondelpark into housing. Attend the course to find out the answer!
  • Environmental sustainability – which considers merits of “compact cities” from an environmental perspective, with a focus on global emissions and local pollution. Highlights the important link between income elasticity and consumption patterns.
  • Heterogeneity and sorting –factors that drive spatial sorting, including natural features, e.g. beaches; socio-economic attributes, e.g. air pollution and crime; individual preferences, e.g. for retail services; and individual endowments, e.g. wealth and ability.
  • Social sustainability – considering concepts of equity and community. Introduce the famous “Tiebout model” (voting with their feet), consider arguments for/against Tiebout sorting, and implications of migration for urban governance. Highlight hard and soft barriers to mobility, such as restrictions on movement and land use controls.

Don’t think it’s all theoretical and/or hard work: The course contains no compulsory mathematics (some formal derivations are provided as notes) and during the 2-week course, students will participate in two organised excursions as well as have time to explore Amsterdam more generally.

And by the end of the two-weeks, you should be able to provide an urban economic perspective on the following types of settlement outcomes.

If you have questions that aren’t answered on the course page, then put them in the comment thread or, alternatively, contact me via Twitter (@StuartBDonovan). Hope to see you there!

Disclosure: Stuart Donovan is employed as a transport consultant by this firm.

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  1. Thanks Stu – I’d love to be able to come, but i can’t – despite the offer of a chocolate fish. But i have a question – the second-to-bottom photo – is that an actual city? Or just a damn good render? I can’t figure out where it would be. Looks like Queenstown crossed with Singapore. I’m perplexed…

    1. It’s Vancouver looking north from Broadway & Laurel-ish. Sometimes it kinda feels like a sci-fi city living here…

  2. Hello Stuart

    I would be interested if you or any of your colleagues have bench marking notes on – Mix use ground floor vs ground floor commercial only

    Do you think the team from ‘Greater Auckland’ see value in reposting from ‘Hamilton Urban Blog’
    Late last year I spent 3 weeks in Oude Tonge, South Holland, here is some of my observations.
    Oude Tonge – village of 6,000 people, people don’t travel here to shop – local are okay with this
    Ouddrop – same size as Oude Tonge, people travel here to shop and eat – nice
    Middelharris & Zierikzee – are double the size of above villages, the people living in respective islands are loyal shoppers to these town centres, these are regional centres – Ideal

    Spijkenisse city centre wants to be a regional centre, it is half mix use ground floor and half no ground floor residential, worth a visit to see how each feels. My wife and I stay here for 6 weeks in 2009 and have visited family there a number of times since. We did what most of the locals do each morning, hop on the metro and leave.
    What is interesting about Spijkenisse is that it is a nice place to live, the local supermarkets are handy, but people are not loyal to its city centre.

    Do you or any of your colleagues have notes on – Mix use ground floor vs ground floor commercial only

    And I would be interest to know if the team from ‘Greater Auckland’ see value in reposting from ‘Hamilton Urban Blog’, It may be helpful as number of Hamilton City Councillors have ask the city planners to relook at district plan.

    1. Hi Peter,

      Not sure precisely what you mean by benchmarking notes? Benchmarking on what outcome measure, exactly?

      Perhaps the inhabitants of these towns are content with where they live. Even if the land use outcomes vary, people’s preferences can also vary. Or may people are not happy, or maybe one town has higher crime that could benefit from street-level activation etc.

      So before we think too much about the relative merits of “mixed use ground floor vs ground floor commercial only”, I’d personally like to answer the “so what, who cares question”! That is, what is the problem you’re trying to solve, exactly?

      In terms of Hamilton Urban Blog, I suspect the GA Editors would love, love, love to have more content from the city to the south. So feel free to email them with suggestions on cross-posting.


      1. Thanks for The reply
        So what, who cares question! – Local Central Business Ass. are very good at convincing politicians to spent local taxes on CBD revitalisation projects.
        What is the problem you’re trying to solve, exactly? – *“We need to encourage more retail and promote businesses in this town but if we put people in there it will close that opportunity”
        Mixed use ground floor vs ground floor commercial only – *“It would discourage foot traffic and good retail requires foot traffic” Which would? Lets say there is over supply/underuse of retail shop fronts?

        A review of Hamilton District Scheme in mid 1970s did suggested “Street level residential development would disrupt the commercial zone’ Note it wasn’t a rule then.
        This century the District Plan now states ‘no residential activities shall be undertaken at ground-floor level’ which is now a rule. I can find examples of mixed use ground floor and I do not see the disruption.

        Nature of the challenge – ‘commercial survival of the centre requires a high level of attractiveness which can only be provided through the efforts of the local community itself’ (Middelharnis post)

        Benchmarking – I can find examples of mixed use ground floor and I do not see the disruption.
        Do you know how this disruption is/was measured?

        *Tokoroa was planned and grow fast so may not be the best town to use as benchmark.

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