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The Social Wellbeing of New York City’s Neighborhoods: The Contribution of Culture and the Arts

October 9, 20199 October 2019

Social benefits of the arts

Social Impact of the Arts Project, University of Pennsylvania


Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert

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This three-year study examined the presence of cultural assets in New York City neighbourhoods and their impact on dimensions of social wellbeing, using data collected from City agencies, borough arts councils, other arts organizations, and qualitative interviews. The study found that “low- and moderate-income residents in New York City neighborhoods with many cultural resources are healthier, better educated, and safer overall than those in similar communities with fewer creative resources”.

The researchers created a ten-dimensional framework of social wellbeing indicators, outlined in the table below.

Dimension Indicators
Economic wellbeing Income; labour force; educational attainment
Housing burden Percentage of income for housing; overcrowding
Ethnic and economic diversity Income and ethnic segregation and integration
Health access Health insurance rates
Health Birth outcomes; child abuse/neglect; morbidity
School effectiveness Test scores; school environments
Security Major crime rates
Environmental amenities Parks; land use; summer heat
Social connections Non-profits
Cultural assets Arts organizations; artists; cultural participants

Using this framework, the researchers analyzed the distribution of opportunity across the City (i.e., identified areas with concentrated advantage or disadvantage) and analyzed “the relationship of neighbourhood cultural ecology to other features of community wellbeing”.

The study found that, after controlling for socio-economic status and ethnic composition, the presence of cultural resources in a neighbourhood is “significantly associated with improved outcomes”, including:

  • “A 14 percent reduction in indicated investigations of child abuse and neglect
  • A 5 percent reduction in obesity
  • An 18 percent increase in kids scoring in the top stratum on English, Language Arts, and Math exams
  • An 18 percent reduction in the serious crime rate”.

The authors argue that “if the arts and culture are to make a contribution to urban vitality, we need to look beyond shiny destination facilities and hip places where ‘creatives’ live and work and see cultural spaces and opportunities as a right for all residents, regardless of income, education, race or ethnicity”.

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