Study finds that downtown Ann Arbor's post-COVID recovery surpasses Austin, Chicago, other cities

According to a recent study, downtown activity in Ann Arbor has exceeded that of comparable cities in the post-pandemic period.
The study was conducted by the University of Michigan's (U-M) Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences (QMSS) program in collaboration with Ann Arbor SPARK. The QMSS program was designed for U-M undergraduate students to conduct research related to economic development while staff members from SPARK provide guidance and oversight.
U-M students obtained data from the University of Toronto (U of T), which published research on the recovery rates of various North American cities’ downtowns in 2022.
"Locally, [the University of Toronto study] got us thinking about: What does our recovery look like?" says Melissa Sheldon, SPARK director of research.
U of T researchers tracked downtown activity by analyzing visits by 18 million smartphones to "downtown points of interest." After obtaining the methodology and data used by U of T researchers, and using the same methods, U-M students were able to produce results concerning Ann Arbor’s recovery.
Those results showed that not only has Ann Arbor’s downtown fully recovered from pandemic-era stagnancy, but it has also surpassed comparable cities, such as Austin, Chicago, Detroit, and others.
"Anecdotally, there was worry that our recovery was slow and that other regions hypothetically were performing better than we were," Sheldon says — but the data have proven the opposite.
QMSS found that the greatest driving factor behind Ann Arbor’s recovery rate is the student population. The study showed that recovery quotients were lower during times when students were off campus (such as breaks) but spiked again when students returned to campus.
U of T researchers also found that downtown areas with a higher concentration of arts and entertainment-related businesses, as well as health care centers (which typically require in-person visits), tended to see higher levels of activity than downtowns with a higher concentration of industry related to finance, insurance, science, and technical fields.
"The work that [U-M] students did really helped to put into perspective that … we have recovered in terms of activity," Sheldon says.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Graphic courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.
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