Overall, Americans in the Suburbs Are Still the Happiest

The first results of our State of the City Poll. 

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City centers and downtowns across the United States may very well be in the midst of a comeback or a renaissance, be reaching a moment of triumph or successfully transforming themselves into magnets for millennials and retiring boomers. But according to the new Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll, when it comes to overall community satisfaction, the suburbs are still king.

The State of the City Poll, which surveyed a representative sample of over 1,600 U.S. adults on a wide-ranging set of topics related to quality of life and local government policies, found that all things considered, Americans who live in suburban areas are the most satisfied with the places where they live. Among suburbanites, 84 percent of those surveyed rated the communities where they live as overall excellent or good, compared to 75 percent of urban dwellers and 78 percent of rural residents.

At the same time, 25 percent of urban residents rated their communities as only fair or poor overall, compared to 15 percent of suburban residents and 21 percent of rural residents who answered only fair or poor.

The findings suggest that despite all the rhetoric in recent years about the comeback of America’s urban centers, U.S. cities have plenty of work yet to do to improve perceptions of overall quality of life among their residents and within their communities.

Over the coming weeks, CityLab will share State of the City Poll results in a series of stories that we believe represents a first-of-its-kind look at the relationship between three broad categories of communities—urban, suburban, and rural—and satisfaction across a broad set of topic areas such as public schools, traffic congestion, and local police departments. The survey also asked Americans both inside cities and out for their thoughts on the best ideas for improving quality of life where they live, and we’ll be reporting those findings as well.

Before we go further, a note on methodology: Throughout this series, we’ll refer to survey respondents as living in urban, suburban, or rural areas, or in some cases, just urban or non-urban areas. We realize this is an imperfect set of descriptors: for example, some suburban areas feel much more “urban” or much more “rural” than others. But for the purposes of this survey, each respondent’s location was slotted into one of these categories based on U.S. Census Bureau definitions of Census tracts, using either self-reported ZIP codes or landline telephone locations. You can read more about the methodology of the survey here.

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Some of the biggest differences in community satisfaction revealed by the survey fell along racial, economic, and generational lines. There were also stark divides between college graduates and non-graduates, as well as those who own their own homes versus those who rent.

Within urban areas, whites were far more likely than minorities to say they were happy with their communities as places to live. Eighty-four percent of urban whites rated their communities as excellent or good, compared to 63 percent among those who identified themselves as non-white minorities. Urban Hispanics (71 percent) were somewhat more likely to rate their communities as excellent or good than urban African Americans (67 percent).

Outside of the cities, the difference between whites and minorities was less pronounced. Eighty-three percent of non-urban whites (those in the suburbs and rural areas combined) rated their communities as excellent or good, while 78 percent of non-urban minorities answered similarly.

Income also played a big role in responses. Overall, Americans who make $50,000 or more each year were more likely (86 percent) to rate their communities as excellent or good than those who make less than $50,000 (73 percent). The divide was even wider between those who make $75,000 or more (88 percent) compared to those who make under $30,000 (66 percent). Among urban dwellers only, the income divide looks similar: 82 percent of urban residents who make $50,000 or more rated their communities as excellent or good, compared to 69 percent among those who make less than $50,000.

Age was also clearly a factor. Overall, younger adults were less likely to characterize their communities as excellent or good than their older counterparts. Seventy-five percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 49 answered excellent or good, compared to 85 percent of those over 50. And when age groups were broken down further, the trend became even clearer: the older the respondent, the more likely they were to hold favorable views of the place where they live.

The age gap looks similar when we look at only those who live in cities versus those who live outside cities, though younger urban adults were much more likely to rate their communities as “only fair” than any other age-related demographic.

What looks to be the biggest divide was found between city dwellers who do and do not hold college degrees. Urban residents without college degrees were more likely to rate their communities as only fair or poor than any other demographic group we surveyed. Fully 33 percent of urban residents without college degrees described their communities as only fair or poor, compared to 19 percent of urban college graduates and 21 percent of non-urban residents without college degrees.

Owning a home was also a major predictor of whether someone gave their community high marks, both inside cities and out. Renters in urban areas were particularly likely to answer only fair or poor.

We also asked each survey respondent whether quality of life had gotten better, stayed about the same, or gotten worse since they had lived in their current community.

Rural residents were the most likely to perceive their communities as having declined. Twenty-three percent of rural Americans surveyed said overall quality of life in their communities had gotten worse since they’ve lived there, compared to 17 percent of urban dwellers and 14 percent of suburbanites.

Americans living in suburbs were slightly more likely to see their communities as having improved or stayed the same compared to their urban or rural counterparts. Eighty-five percent of suburban residents said quality of life in their communities had gotten better or stayed about the same, compared to 81 percent of urban dwellers and 76 percent or rural residents.

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Scholars who study U.S. urban issues have long argued that the lines between city and suburb are increasingly blurry. As transportation networks have improved and local economies function more and more on a metro area or regional level as opposed to solely a city one, many of the differences revealed by this survey may in fact matter less and less, or not at all. Still, these findings are striking to the extent that they appear to reinforce decades-old notions of how American society is organized: an overall preference for the suburbs; a concentration of less educated, less satisfied minorities in urban areas; the classic American dream of homeownership associated so strongly with perceptions of high-quality communities.

That said, in the coming weeks we’ll also share the rest of our findings, which in fact show quite a bit more nuance in terms of satisfaction within and across America’s urban, suburban, and rural communities. On many of the topics we’ll explore, including crime and policing, transportation, education, affordability, housing, energy and infrastructure, the differences between urban and suburban areas are much smaller, and in some cases, cities come out on top. So stay tuned.

The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,656 U.S. adults by telephone between July 23 and August 4. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

Top image: spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com.