Skip to main content

Lexington Evolves From College Town to 'University City'

By Jenny Wells, Whitney Harder

(Nov. 9, 2015) — It's a partnership unlike any other, relying on each other to complete pivotal projects and daily deeds, constantly working together to find solutions. Yes, the city of Lexington and the University of Kentucky are intertwined, but a recent discovery proves it's much more than a partnership — it's a new species of community.

Lexington, often referred to as a college town, has evolved into a "university city," according to new research by Lexington's own Scott Shapiro, senior advisor to Mayor Jim Gray, which was confirmed in an analysis by UK Department of Statistics Professor and Chair Arnold Stromberg. As a university city, Lexington boasts the positive characteristics of both a large city and a college town, making it a very special place to live, work and play.

"These research findings confirm how special our community truly is and what is possible when a flagship university and thriving city support each other," said UK President Eli Capilouto. "We serve the entire Commonwealth, and we are proud to call Lexington home. Together, we are primed to move forward as a university city, serving mutual interests to foster a creative, well-educated and prosperous community."

Only five other cities in the U.S. join Lexington with this new classification, including Madison, Wisconsin; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Fort Collins, Colorado; Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Lincoln, Nebraska. Being classified as a university city is simple — each has a major research university in its urban core, a population between 250,000 and 1 million, and students making up at least 10 percent of its population.

"With universities there's research money that flows in, they hire a lot of people — a lot of well-educated people — and they tend to ride out recessions pretty well, so they're an anchor of stability in any community," Shapiro said. "That’s true of any research university. But when you have a college town, you can only leverage that so much. When you grow into a university city, with a diversified economy, there's all kinds of network effects that happen."

For example, research from labor economist Enrico Moretti shows that having more highly degreed people in a university city (40.1 percent of persons age 25 and older in Lexington have a bachelor's degree or higher) does not only raise median income for those folks, it also raises productivity and income for those without degrees in the same city.

And highly degreed graduates leaving the university aren't necessarily leaving the city. In fact, in a university city like Lexington, many of those graduates are staying and pursuing their careers here, unlike a lot of college towns.  

Another economic effect is the level of patent use. Other research finds the prevalence of entrepreneurship and patents available here raises the level of patent use by companies that have no direct connection to the university.

Like large cities, these university cities have high rates of educational attainment, new business startups and economic growth. But similar to small towns, university cities also have low cost of living, low unemployment rates (3.5 percent for Lexington according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and low violent crime rates. According to the research, university cities' violent crime rates are 36 percent below the average of other cities the same size.

"So that's one reason why Lexington, for example, has the lowest violent crime rate of any city its size in the country," Shapiro said.

Another unique feature of university cities is their outsized arts and culture sectors, morphing Lexington into what Shapiro calls a "culturally rich idea-filled community."

"In fact if you look at the arts and cultural institutions per capita, university cities have more than average of the largest 15 cities in the country," he said. That higher demand is driven by educational attainment levels, Shapiro said.

In June, USA Today ranked Lexington sixth, right behind Los Angeles, on its list of 15 most inspiring cities for young artists, noting Lexington's art institutions, affordability and high percentage of students. Larger cities like Seattle, Portland, Denver, Austin and New Orleans ranked further down on the list.

University cities are perhaps most distinct though in that their positive network effects happen organically; it would be difficult for other similarly sized cities without a major research university at their cores to replicate. Those cities could invest in one area or another — their police force, startup business community, arts and culture sector or initiatives to lower unemployment rates — but, as Shapiro pointed out, there isn't enough money to invest heavily in all of those areas.  

“The data show that Lexington is off the charts in terms of its highly educated workforce, outsized arts and culture sector, low unemployment rates, low violent crime and low cost of living. That turns out to be the perfect formula for the 21st century knowledge economy, for advanced industry,” said Shapiro. "One interesting thing about this idea is that because it's based in data, there's a certain sort of truth about it."

That truth, confirmed by an unbiased statistical analysis, proves this new type of city isn't rhetoric, it's reality. After Shapiro began examining data of numerous cities, he asked Stromberg to conduct an analysis of all cities with a population between 250,000 and 1 million.

"So we did something called the cluster analysis, which basically starts by grouping the two closest cities together mathematically," Stromberg said.

Stromberg and the Applied Statistics Laboratory looked at 48 cities across a range of data sets — such as population, the percentage of students in the city, crime rates and employment variables — and confirmed that these six cities are in a class of their own.

"Our Applied Statistics Lab does data analysis for hundreds of projects every year so when the city called with a question, we're going 'oh, we better answer this,'" Stromberg said. "We like to collaborate with city and state officials, as well as those internal to the university. ...We do it because we're part of these communities."

"Yet another advantage of being in a university city is that you get to work with brilliant experts like Dr. Stromberg," Shapiro said. "In the mayor's office we work with the university quite a bit on a range of issues, so it seemed very natural for me to reach out to him."

Shapiro also reached out to assistant professor of geography Lynn Phillips, who specializes in urban planning, as well as Ernest Yanerella, professor and chair of the UK Department of Political ScienceMerl Hackbart, professor and interim director of the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration; and Rosie Moosnick, a lecturer in the UK College of Arts and Sciences, to receive feedback on the research.

So what's a community to do after discovering its new status as a university city? It leverages the information.

"Knowing that we're a university city, and knowing that Lexington is really built for the knowledge economy, helps us plan our economic development initiatives, our workforce development policies and our land-use planning as well," Shapiro said. "That means we have to plan ahead for things like traffic, we have to plan ahead for affordable housing."

Part of that planning includes a university cities conference hosted by UK and the city of Lexington, which Shapiro is currently working to organize with UK College of Arts and Sciences Dean Mark Kornbluh. The plan is to invite other university cities, as well as foundations and think-tanks, to compare data and best practices. And collaboration with one university city has already begun as Mayor Wade Troxell of Fort Collins is scheduled to speak at the 2016 Lafayette Seminar, hosted by the Gaines Center for the Humanities at UK.

"I think UK and Lexington know that their fates are intertwined and what this research really shows is that each benefits from the other in ways we’re only beginning to understand," Shapiro said.