The love story between art and cities is one as old as time. Today, more and more research and policy centers around creativity as an economic stimulus and social glue, and the media buys into it and buzzes around it. As such, local and national governments pour millions into public installation, educational facilities, events, housing, galleries and just about anything you can prefix with the word ‘art’ in an aim to revitalize downtrodden neighborhoods or add character to upscale districts. And while gentrification is real, afflicting artists and benefiting bankers, there have been few attempts to quantifiably link art with property prices. In a study recently published by The Royal Society Open Science, researchers from the UK’s University of Warwick have used a novel, digital media-driven approach to measure the impact of the mere presence of art in inner city neighborhoods in London on property price increases. The source of their data? Photo sharing site, Flickr.
“[Q]uantitative evidence linking the presence of art with changing economic conditions of urban neighborhoods is lacking. Several studies focus on specific neighborhoods that fit this narrative, rather than carrying out broader investigations to determine whether this pattern holds in general. Other studies use broad definitions to examine the role that artists or creative people play in the economic improvement of urban neighborhoods, thereby including groups of people with differing agendas. For example, studies often include professions such as engineering, mathematics and computer science or categories such as ‘Architectural Services’ and ‘Dance Companies’. Other research attempting to use art galleries and arts organizations to quantify arts-led redevelopment in urban neighborhoods suggests that once art institutions have moved into a neighborhood, redevelopment is already taking place or a high level of income is already present,” reads the justification for the study by behavioral scientists Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe, Tobias Preis and Helen Susannah Moat.
With the astounding and unfettered access to user generated data the online world affords us, the researchers are convinced that patterns of online activity can lead “to several insights into real-world human behavior,” citing a previous study by Preis and Moat which also used Flickr to track protests. “Specifically, such studies demonstrate that we can use these new data sources to quantify aspects of human behaviour that have previously been too costly, time-consuming or awkward to measure.” Whittling down their search to just London, the team created their indicator of the presence of art by simple finding photos of Flickr tagged with the word ‘art’. “In order to create an indicator of ‘art’-related images, we search all the textual elements of each image, including the title, description and tags, using the regular expression ‘<art>‘, which ensures that only the whole word ‘art’ is found,” explains the study about their search methodology. Knowing that tourist hotspots, such as the London Eye or Big Ben, will have a disproportionately higher number of photos on Flickr in general, they then divided the number of ‘art’ images by the total number of images tagged in each postcode over the whole time periods (2004 – 2013) in order to more fairly compare one neighborhood to another.
Immediately, the researchers noticed that some London postcodes had abundantly more ‘art’ images than other, with East and Southeast London having a visible concentration, while some pockets of heightened ‘art’ activity Southwest, North and East Central districts. Next, the team set about retrieving information on property prices for the same inner London postcodes they’d mapped the photos to. “We track residential property prices in Inner London using data from residential property sales registered at the Land Registry from 2004 to 2013. To understand the relative increase in house price in comparison with other areas, we first calculate the mean residential property price per Inner London postcode. We then rank the postcodes according to mean residential property price, where a rank of 1 indicates the highest mean residential property price. Finally, we calculate the relative changes in property price by determining the difference between the 2013 rank and the 2004 rank for each Inner London postcode. Thus, negative changes in rank signify an area becoming relatively more expensive, and positive changes in rank signify an area becoming relatively less expensive.”
The simple math confirmed what the media has been saying all along – the increased presence of art is correlated with increased property prices, with East and Southeast London postcodes seeing the largest relative increase. Conversely, outer East and North London neighborhoods with less ‘art’ tagged photos on Flickr, have become relatively less expensive in terms of property prices. “However, in general, measurements of social and physical characteristics can be clustered in geographical space, and thus spatially dependent, where nearby observations may have similar values simply due to their proximity,” continues the study, but further analysis, which accounted for simple knock-on effects, still found the positive correlation between art and property prices to be true. “Our results suggest that art is indeed associated with improving economic conditions of urban neighbourhoods. More generally, our analysis demonstrates that data on our online interactions can provide novel measurements of the environment in which we live. These measurements reveal that the visual environment may affect aspects of our life as crucial as economic development.” The question left unanswered, however, is the one opponents of gentrification will continue to ask as governments pump in money to revitalize a city through culture and creativity – where are the artists in this equation?