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Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics


Ph.D. Students Zhang and Wrenn Win the Graduate Student-Led Paper Competition at the 2012 Meeting of the North American Regional Science Council

Nov. 12, 2012

The North American Regional Science Council’s (NARSC) 59th annual conference was held from November 7-10, 2012 in Ottawa, Canada. This annual meeting brought together hundreds of regional scientists in North America and provided a forum for interaction and discussion. The last day of the conference included an awards ceremony and at this year’s event AEDE Ph.D. students Wendong Zhang and Douglas Wrenn were awarded the Graduate Student-Led Paper Competition Award for “Tests of the Urban Economic Model Using a New Measure of Leapfrog Development”, which they authored with AEDE Professor Elena Irwin.

In conducting their research, Zhang, Wrenn and Irwin were interested in testing existing leapfrog development patterns, an important realm of research in urban economics that remains relatively untapped. Leapfrog development consists of spatial land use patterns in which land that is located farther from urban centers is developed before the land that is closer to urban centers. Leapfrog development was first documented in the 1960s, but to this date, there remains little theoretical explanation and data analysis regarding this pattern of land use. As the three researchers explain, “The traditional urban economic model explains leapfrog development as the result of intertemporal optimization by landowners who maximize expected net returns by developing land that is farther from the city in earlier time periods and developing land that is closer to the city in a higher-valued use at a later time. Despite this longstanding theory, none have provided an accurate empirical test of whether urban development patterns conform to these predictions.”

Figure 2 from “Tests of the Urban Economic Model Using a New Measure of Leapfrog Development”,
which shows how the researchers measured leapfrog development. In the figure, the white area represents vacant land that could be developed. The higher the percentage of white area within the road buffer, the higher the leapfrog metric associated with a particular subdivision.
The research by Zhang, Wrenn and Irwin is important as they are the first to attempt testing of leapfrog development patterns using detailed spatial and temporal data. To do this, Wrenn led the researchers in developing a unique dataset on urban land development using data on the location and timing of individual subdivision development from 1960 to 2005 for Carroll County in the Baltimore, Maryland region, which developed rapidly over this time period. Zhang developed and implemented a new way to measure leapfrog development by developing a new, subdivision-specific metric of leapfrog development based on accessibility with the road network. 

The three found that the development patterns for the sample they tested were consistent with the basic theory of leapfrog development offered years ago, including systematic reductions in leapfrog development over time, greater leapfrog development over distance to urban centers, and higher-density infill development in later time periods. However, they also found evidence of land use development that does not fit into the existing leapfrog development theory and conclude that land use policies are also significant in determining the location and rate of leapfrog development. Based on this, the researchers conclude that the basic theory of the determinants of leapfrog development is correct, but that land use policies also play an important role in influencing leapfrog development and sometimes in unintentional ways.

Tests of the Urban Economic Model Using a New Measure of Leapfrog Development” was presented by Zhang at a session sponsored by the Urban Economics Association at the NARSC conference. Professor Jan Brueckner, a fellow of NARSC and a leading urban economist, was the discussant of the paper.

Click here to read more about AEDE’s participation at the 2012 NARSC conference.