Commentary: If Demography Is Destiny, So Are Suburbs and Small Towns

cars parked in front of red brick building
by Ryan Streeter


Policy and politics often collide at the intersection of geography and demographics. The non-urban, non-college-educated white voter causing concern among Democrats these days, the suburban voter of 2018, and the heartland voter of 2016 are all profiles built on the common interests of certain people in certain types of places.

After 18 months of domestic migration prompted by a pandemic, another interest in addition to where people live has emerged in this equation: where people wish they lived.

Americans of all stripes, including young people, have long preferred suburban to urban living despite the prevailing (mis)conception in the media, but the twin crises of Covid and urban unrest in 2020 have clearly accentuated Americans’ desire to leave denser places. Not only have Americans continued apace in their usual migration from cities to suburbs, they also now aspire to live in towns and hinterlands more than one might expect.

Americans’ desire to live in big cities is at the same level as when Gallup polled people one month after 9/11 when cities suddenly felt like terrorist targets – about 8 percent, down from 12 percent three years ago. Comparatively, 27 percent of Americans would prefer to live in a rural area.

When you look at where Americans live compared with where they would prefer to live, it is perhaps no surprise that a plurality of people in each type of municipality – big city, small city, suburb of a big city, suburb of a small city, town, or rural area – live in the kind of place they prefer. Still, with the exception of rural areas, a majority of people wish they lived somewhere else, and their preferences are almost always for smaller, less-dense places.

This “flight from density” proclivity shows that real people’s geographic interests depart from commonly accepted media narratives in some important ways.

First, a greater share of big city residents wish they lived elsewhere than residents in all other types of municipalities. According to new national survey data from the American Enterprise Institute, a greater share of people living in big cities would rather live in the suburbs than the city where they live (32 percent vs. 29 percent). Suburbanites, on the other hand, are fairly happy where they are, and those who are not mostly prefer something even less dense. Forty-three percent of people living in the suburbs of a big city say they prefer where they live to other places, while only 18 percent wished they lived in a city and 38 percent prefer a suburb of a smaller city, a town, or rural area.

Second, big cities are not as popular with young adults as is commonly thought. Except for Generation Z, there are more people in every generational group living in a big city than actually want to. And even though slightly more Gen Zers wish they lived in a big city than actually do, a greater share still prefer suburban living to the city. Perhaps most surprising is that 80 percent more millennials wish they lived in a rural area than actually do. This phenomenon is nearly identical among Gen Xers and Boomers. Roughly the same share (about 30 percent) of millennials prefers the suburbs as lives in them, while more millennials live in cities than want to.

Third, highly educated and affluent people are more suburban than is commonly assumed. Forty-eight percent of those earning more than $150,000 want to live in the suburbs versus 26 percent who prefer cities. Only 27 percent of college-educated Americans want to live in cities compared to the 37 percent who actually do, while 40 percent prefer the suburbs and another third prefer a small town or rural areas.

On the flip side, there are some aspects of the flight from density that reinforce some common assumptions. For instance, 21 percent of those with a high school degree live in a rural area but 34 percent would like to. Only 3 percent of people who describe themselves as “very conservative” want to live in big cities, compared with one in five who are “very liberal.” And even though 22 percent of conservatives live in rural areas, 39 percent wish they did. Moderates, perhaps fittingly, are likely to live in big city suburbs, and are quite content with suburban living. Nearly half (48 percent) of white evangelicals prefer to live in rural areas compared to the 30 percent who presently do, and while black Protestants are the most likely religious group to live in big cities, only 13 percent of them prefer big city living while 30 percent would like to live in a big city’s suburbs.

A kind of “density paradox” is at work in this general trend to suburbs and towns. Americans are, on the one hand, happiest when they live close to a blend of amenities such as parks and cafes, and yet when asked to choose between proximity to amenities and larger lot sizes farther from amenities, 57 percent prefer the latter. There are important ideological variations on this point, though. A little more than half of liberals prefer smaller houses and amenity proximity, while two-thirds of conservatives want larger houses farther from amenities. Moderates fall closer to the middle. Less than a third of white Evangelicals prefer compact communities with proximity to amenities, compared to about half of Black Protestants and nearly two-thirds of Jews.

As contented large city dwellers, there is very little about the flight from density that makes sense to us personally, but it is important for urbanites – and especially the cosmopolitan class over-represented in the media and political intelligentsia – to understand why so many Americans desire life outside big, dominant cities.

One reason is the atomization that can come from city life. Big city dwellers who want to leave are more disconnected from their community than those who want to stay, and live further away from amenities that make healthy community life possible. Only 9 percent of city dwellers who want to move away live in neighborhoods rich with amenities.

Urbanites who want to stay in the city report higher levels of neighborliness and a belief they have a say in what goes on in their neighborhood than those who want to leave. They are also more likely to say they have people they are close to and much less likely to feel isolated or left out.

For urbanites who want to leave big cities, crime is their biggest concern by a long shot. In a year when violent crime spiked across American cities, it is no surprise that “leavers” feel less safe at night than “remainers,” and they are more likely to favor an increased police presence in their neighborhood.

A greater share of homeowners in big cities want to leave the city than stay, which is flipped considerably in the suburbs where homeowners mostly want to stay put. Local taxes are a much bigger issue for Americans across the board than is commonly reported, which helps explain why homeowners in urban neighborhoods that are light on amenities and heavy on crime want out.

Suburbanites who wish they lived in towns and rural areas are less likely to be homeowners and more likely to be concerned about crime than contented suburbanites. High taxes are among the biggest concerns of all suburbanites.

For policymakers interested in how geography and demographics intersect in America at the moment, it is indisputable that the appeal of less density is ascendant, which is in turn driven by basic concerns such as safety and cost of living. Narratives about cities that many of us wish were true, simply aren’t.

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Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Kawit Promrat is a research assistant at AEI.

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