This rendering of the history of the UEA was drafted in June 2023 by Vernon Henderson with input from Kurt Schmidheiny, as well as Gilles Duranton, Diego Puga, Elisabet Viladecans-Marsal, and Daniel Sturm. Jacques Thisse, Matt Turner, and Henry Overman also read an early draft.
In the 1990s, some economists who were members of the North American Regional Science Association (NARSC) arranged with the association to have their own separate set of sessions at the NARSC annual meeting. This occurred in a period of renewed interest of the economics profession in urban economics, the rise of new economic geography models, endogenous growth theory, and greater technical capabilities in handling detailed spatial data. Masa Fujita led the effort with NARSC. Hesham Abdel-Rahman arranged the program and invitations. Invitees were both established mainstream urban economists and young researchers, a number of whom are senior figures in the field today. There was just one set of sessions in these NARSC meetings.
By the mid-2000s, many participants felt that the meetings needed to have open (rather than invitation-based) sessions, to have more and parallel sessions, and to reach out to new scholars in the field. Vernon Henderson, John Quigley, and Jacques Thisse led an effort to have an open call, a program committee to choose papers, and independent financing, but still under the umbrella of NARSC. It was decided to call this the Urban Economics Association (UEA). Jacques Thisse undertook preliminary negotiations with NARSC to set up the association under the NARSC umbrella. NARSC was supportive and liked the model, applying it in some other areas of regional science. In particular, Jean Claude Thill and later Neil Reid as NARSC Executive Directors were very supportive. The UEA sought to reach out to scholars doing urban and spatial work internationally to provide a forum for high-quality research.
The first North American meeting of the UEA was in 2006 in Toronto. Besides Vernon Henderson, John Quigley, Diego Puga, and Jacques Thisse, this first meeting was organized by Gilles Duranton, Jan Brueckner, and Richard Arnott. There was an open call for UEA sessions at the NARSC meeting: 94 papers of 131 submissions were accepted for presentation. The number of accepted papers at the North American meetings rose to an average of about 130 papers during 2011 to 2017. Each meeting had a local organizer, who found a venue, often a spectacular one, and arranged the catering for the social event. Venues included a very fancy social club in San Francisco and a clock tower in Denver. The quality of sessions was high, with the goal that any accepted paper would have a high probability of being accepted for publication in one of the three main urban field journals (Journal of Urban Economics, Regional Science and Urban Economics, and Journal of Economic Geography).
Many urban economists in Europe could not attend the UEA meetings in North America, given differential timing and nature of the teaching term in Europe and also funding and flights. Jacques Thisse, working with other European members, led the initial effort to arrange with the European Regional Science Association (ERSA) to hold a separate set of UEA sessions as part of the ERSA conferences. The first European Meeting of the UEA took place in Barcelona in 2011. Henry Overman, Diego Puga and Kurt Schmidheiny served on the Program Committee and Elisabet Viladecans-Marsal organized the reception. Over the years, the European meetings involved difficult negotiations with ERSA over the allocation of slots to the UEA.
Setting up an association in 2006 and having meetings required financing, a website, a submission evaluation process, and governance procedures. In thinking about governance, the UEA (even the name) was not without controversy among some long-time economists in NARSC. The association was not a legal entity, did not have membership fees, and had a more distinctly broad approach to what constituted “urban economics”. As today, the association was a coalition of top scholars willing to volunteer their time and resources to further the field. The initial governing structure consisted of the Urban Economics Council, which met in person during the NARSC annual meeting. The Council initially consisted of the 5 editors of the 3 major field journals, with responsibility for choosing the Chair (later renamed as President). In addition, initially the 4 members of the Program Committee, the 3 elders, and the Treasurer served on the Council. About 2011, the Council evolved into a new and stable form that lasted through 2018: there was an Executive Committee with a President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, an at-large-member, an editor from each of the 3 journals and the Chairs of the Program Committees for the NARSC and later European meetings.
Vernon Henderson served as the first President from 2006 to 2014 and John Quigley served as Vice President until 2012, with responsibility for the overall structure, further negotiations with NARSC, fund raising and recruiting people to serve as treasurer, secretary, and on the program committee. However, a large range of people were involved and contributed enormously. These included Diego Puga, who set up the website and ran it until Kurt Schmidheiny took it over in 2009. Kurt served from 2012 to 2021 as Secretary and was a key player in negotiating over the years with NARSC and organizing the life of the UEA. François Ortalo-Magné, Kris Behrens, and Nate Baum-Snow served as the first treasurers and helped with fund-raising. Then there were the many program committee members and chairs over the years and other folks named above and below. Such wide-spread participation and volunteering were and remain critical to success.
John Quigley and Vernon Henderson embarked on fundraising in the mid-2000s, focused on key US business schools with a real estate program. The sums raised were crucial and helped fund the annual social event at the meetings, other expenses, and a reserve. Elsevier, publisher of two of the main field journals, made significant annual contributions (as negotiated by Stuart Rosenthal), and Oxford University also made some contributions (as negotiated by Henry Overman). After several years, there was a second and successful round of fundraising from business schools led again by Vernon Henderson and John Quigley (who sadly passed away in the midst of this). NARSC started to kick back some of the conference fees paid by UEA members. There were also contributions either monetary (World Bank) or in-kind (Federal Reserves and other local organizers) to support meetings.
As the start of the concerted effort of the UEA to provide educational services and motivation to PhD students across the globe interested in urban and spatial economics, two things happened simultaneously. Don Davis organized the first "summer school" in the fall of 2015 at Columbia University. There were 9 lecturers and 98 PhD students in attendance at this first educational event, and Davis raised substantial monies to support this event. Also in 2015, Jacques Thisse and Elisabet Viladecans-Marsal agreed there needed to be a summer school in Europe that appealed globally. Elisabet Viladecans-Marsal organized and raised money for what became the second UEA summer school held in 2016. This event has been held annually since 2015, twice more in Barcelona.
As with any organization that is growing and developing, it became apparent that changes were needed. Working under the regional science association umbrellas had its limitations. These included timing of the meetings, city venues which were often not very accessible by international travelers, choice of keynote speakers, limits on the number of sessions and room space offered by NARSC, which was struggling to accommodate the expanding UEA, and, most critically, the lack of recognition by younger scholars of regional science and the history of its relationship with urban and spatial economists. There was also a sense that the UEA needed to offer its own dissertation prizes.
Fundamental change required an (amicable) divorce from NARSC and ERSA and establishment of the UEA as a legal entity with a wider committee structure and new financial arrangements, as the funds raised initially by the UEA were being depleted. Gilles Duranton in his term as President led the effort to establish the UEA as a legal entity with independence coming in 2017. The Kraks Fond started to give substantial funds and funded the first independent meeting of the UEA in Copenhagen in 2017. The keynote speakers at this event were symbolically the first and second Presidents of the UEA: Vernon Henderson and Thomas Holmes. The association, with its own legal structure and independent meetings, could now charge conference fees, in order to be more self-financing.
The first independent meeting in North America was at Columbia University in 2018 organized by Don Davis, the next President. Don arranged significant contributions from Columbia University. Independence led to a large increase in submissions: from 241 submissions in the previous year to 434 in 2018, with the number of accepted papers increasing to 261. This was the start of the current UEA structure and events, with its broad participation in the economics profession, large meetings, educational events reaching out to graduate students, and its own keynote speakers and awarding of prizes.
 Major contributors included the Paul Milstein Center for Real Estate at Columbia, the Fisher Center for Real Estate & Urban Economics at Berkeley, the Anderson School at UCLA, the Richard S. Ziman Center at UCLA, the Zell/Lurie Real Estate Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the Lusk Center for Real Estate at USC, and Department of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics at Madison.