Listen to the Suburbanites
Those who fled cities during the pandemic are mostly happy where they ended up. Urbanists should take note.
With a possible end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, one question that remains unanswered is whether or not the sizable number of people who moved from urban centers to suburban and exurban areas will return to the cities. While some cities will undoubtedly rebound, survey evidence reveals that an overwhelming number of Americans not only would like to live outside city centers, but also that they find that their social lives are anything but stale outside cities. Such appreciation for suburbia stands in stark contrast to countless narratives from urbanists who sing the praises of the city, often highlighting their financial, political, and cultural prowess and decrying the suburbs as monotonous and soulless. As such, planners and politicos alike should be cautious when thinking about planning after the COVID-19 vaccine has been administered. It may be foolish to assume that Americans who moved from urban cores dislike their new environs and will want to return.
Thanks to newly released data on civic life collected by the Survey Center on American Life, it is now known that even before COVID-19, Americans did not perceive that suburbs were economic or social dead zones. Fielded at the end of 2019 to over 3,600 Americans, the data makes it abundantly clear that suburban areas were the most desirable urban form while cities were actually the least preferred. Only 16 percent of Americans would opt to live in a city if they could live anywhere in the United States. In contrast, 36 percent—the plurality—preferred a suburban area, with another 28 percent stating a small town and 20 percent a rural area.
When age is considered, suburbs are still the area most in demand. This fact is worth noting, for it is widely thought that young people eschew the bland suburbs for cities. However, just 20 percent of 18-29 year olds would ideally live in cities, while 39 percent would prefer suburban areas and another 23 percent would like small towns. City life was even less popular among older Americans—just 12 percent of those 55 and older wanted to live in a city—and the data reveals that Americans across the board believed that cities were the least desirable conurbation.
Relatedly, narratives readily hold that suburban areas are both bland and spatially isolated, leading to a sense of spatial dislocation and loneliness when compared to cities, but the data does not suggest that there is truth to these ideas either. When Americans were asked how closely connected they felt to the area in which they lived, 62 percent of urbanites say very or somewhat close, but that figure barely moves to 61 percent for suburban areas. Moreover, 19 percent of urbanites compared to 16 percent of suburbanites claim to be lonely either nearly all the time or most of the time. These numbers are sadly too high, but not appreciably different.
When formal groups that are not religious such as sports teams, book clubs, PTAs, neighborhood associations, or political organizations are considered—and these are considered the glue of communal life by many social theorists—there are no real urban/suburban differences there either. Twenty-one percent of those in cities participate in such groups monthly, identical to those in suburbs. And, as for confidence in one’s local government acting in the best interests of the people, the differences are minor, with suburbs being a bit better: 57 percent to 53 percent. Neither cities nor their suburbs are particularly good models for overwhelmingly high levels of civic engagement, but it is not the case that city dwellers are participating in leagues and groups in any greater numbers compared to their suburban counterparts.
Going further, while attitudes about a place may not entirely square with empirical reality, how Americans think about place remains hugely important in their decision-making about living arrangements. And Americans were far more optimistic about their family’s future in suburbia compared to cities. Suburban Americans are more likely than city dwellers to think that they live in a place where people look out for each other (76 percent to 65 percent) and that suburbs are a good place to raise a family (90 percent to 77 percent).
Finally, one of the most salient measures of a social community is the existence of “third places”: places where people can go that are outside of their homes and places of work and mix and feel connected, from gyms to bars to bowling alleys. Once again, suburbs are not all that different from cities. In fact, when asked if you have a third place—a coffee shop, bar, restaurant, park, or other public place that one visits regularly—it turns out that two-thirds of Americans have such a place. While it is easy to think that the suburbs are empty and devoid of such critical places to meet up and socialize given that many think of houses and yards with people driving everywhere, suburbanites do have these places to socialize. In cities, 73 percent of Americans have such places, but so do 68 percent of those in suburban areas and small towns. Only 52 percent of rural-area residents have third places, so those areas are missing these amenities. But it is a myth that suburbs are devoid of social spaces or that they are social deserts.
This all being said, it worth noting the cities are often a bit more demographically diverse than their suburbs, and that is reflected in the sample here. In this data, 18 percent of those in cities, compared to 11 percent in suburbs, are Black. Whites make up 66 percent of suburbanites, compared to 45 percent of urban dwellers. Furthermore, larger numbers of suburbanites are generally more affluent in the sample.
However, relatively equal numbers of people live in cities and the suburbs by age. Thirty-seven percent of the 18-29 year olds and 40 percent of the 50-64 year olds, for instance, live in the suburbs, and fairly close numbers of married (41 percent) and unmarried (36 percent) people live in the suburbs as well. There are differences, but they are not huge, and more importantly, they reveal that those who live the suburban life are anything but monolithic.
Cities are wonderful places, but these new data powerfully show that it is imprudent to assume that socio-economic life outside urban centers is devoid of human connection. The problem with so much anti-suburban rhetoric is that many Americans are extremely happy with their lives in suburbia, and social life in America’s suburban areas is thriving; it is anything but empty, economically dead, or soul crushing. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many cities were already losing their allure and Americans rejected cities for numerous reasons including space, cost, and general difficulty in raising families. Cities may bounce back over time, but it would be presumptuous to think that those who left urban areas will be miserable and run back as soon as possible. For them, at least, the suburbs provide a richness regularly overlooked by many who write about the city and its virtues.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.