Some satisfied Americans in Holland, Michigan. Michigan Municipal League/Flickr

Urbanites and suburbanites in the U.S. have a lot more in common than you might have guessed.

We know a lot about what makes Americans satisfied with their personal lives, jobs and careers, but much less about what make them satisfied with the places where they live. I’ve long argued that choosing the place where we live is the single most important decision we make—more important than the choices we make in our personal lives (who we date, marry, or make friends with), the choices we make regarding our educations, and the choices we make about careers. That’s because our location structures all of those other decisions.

So what are the key factors that really shape how happy we are with the places we live?

Over the past month, my colleagues at CityLab have used the Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll to look closely at a wide variety of community satisfaction measures, discovering that suburbanites are happier with where they live than city dwellers and that the young and poor are the most likely to move, among other conclusions.

With help from the Martin Prosperity Institute’s Charlotta Mellander, I took a deeper look at the factors that affect how satisfied we are with the places we live. We ran a basic correlation analysis of the key factors affecting how survey respondents rate their communities on a one to four scale, from excellent to poor. These included the availability of jobs and employment opportunities, crime and safety, schools, quality of roads and infrastructure, access to parks, green space and recreation, access to arts and culture, the availability of good paying jobs, air and water quality, and volunteer opportunities. We examined the associations for survey respondents overall and for urbanites versus suburbanites and home-owners versus renters. As usual, I emphasize that correlation does not imply causation, but rather points to associations between variables.

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Looking at the survey responses overall, several factors turned out to be relatively more important to how residents rated their communities.

Topping the list was personal safety, measured specifically by how safe people feel from crime when walking in their neighborhoods after dark (with a correlation of .44). That makes obvious sense: if you don't feel safe, if you feel threatened and insecure in your neighborhood, you're unlikely to be happy there. But a cluster of other factors were also positively associated with residents' ratings of their communities: the availability of high quality parks and recreation (.37), the availability of good-paying jobs (.34), air quality (.33), and the availability of high-quality arts, culture and nightlife (.30). Also important, though not quite as strongly correlated, were the quality of water that comes out of the tap (.26) and the physical condition of roads, bridges and infrastructure (.25).  Residents' ratings of their communities were positively associated with income (.25). This is in line with broader studies of happiness that find overall well-being to be associated with income.

Happiness among all Americans is correlated with feeling safe while walking at night. (harminder dhesi/Flickr)

More interesting, perhaps, are the factors that were less closely associated with residents' satisfaction with where they live. Most people believe that schools factor mightily into how residents view their communities. While this may be true, especially for families with school-age children, the correlations between our survey questions regarding schools and residents' ratings of their communities were substantially weaker than might be expected (.22 with the ability of local public schools to prepare children for college and .18 with the ability of local schools to prepare them for work). And while housing costs and housing affordability are hotly debated issues, neither the availability of affordable rental housing (.16) nor the availability of affordable homes for purchase (.17) were closely correlated to how residents rate their communities.

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Things get more interesting when we look at the things that matter to urbanites versus suburbanites. Among urbanites, safety again tops the list (with a correlation of .47, the highest correlation of any question we analyzed). Next in line was the availability of high-quality parks and recreation facilities (.40). Following close behind was the availability of good paying jobs (.37), and the availability of high-quality arts options (.35), both of which are more often present in urban settings.

Other factors associated with how urbanites rate their communities include air and water quality (.35 and .21, respectively), the physical condition of roads and bridges (.26), and the quality of local non-profits, volunteer groups and religious institutions (.25). Finally, satisfaction was associated with income (.24); those with higher incomes were more likely to say they were satisfied with their communities.

Urban-dwellers like green spaces, like the Boston Common (Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism/Flickr)

Again, perceptions about the quality of local public schools were somewhat less important for urban respondents, with correlations of .21 and .16, respectively, for questions regarding the ability of schools to prepare kids for college or work. And despite all the talk about high housing prices and the lack of affordability of city living, our results suggest that neither the availability of affordable rental housing (.12) nor homes to buy (.17) are strongly associated with how urbanites rate their communities.

For suburbanites, the factor most strongly associated with community satisfaction was also safety (.42), followed by high quality parks (.35) and availability of good jobs (.32). Next in line was water quality (.33), air quality (.29), and availability of high-quality arts, culture and nightlife (.28). Again, the community satisfaction of suburbanites was associated with income (.28).

Surprisingly, given how much attention is paid to the perceived quality of suburban schools, this factor appears to play a less important role (with a correlation of .23 to the ability of local schools to prepare children for college). The availability of affordable housing was also less significant, with correlations of .20 with the availability of affordable rentals and .16 with the availability of affordable homes to buy.

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When it comes to renters and homeowners, some interesting patterns emerge as well. Renters are the only group for which safety is not the number one factor. The most closely associated factor for them was high-quality parks (.40), which makes sense given most renters live in cities where backyards or private green spaces are much more limited. Safety came in second (with a correlation of .39).  Renters' ratings of their communities were also associated with the availability of good jobs (.33), access to high-quality arts and cultural options (.32), and air quality (.30). The quality of roads and bridges was less important, with a correlation of .21.  Neither the quality of schools or affordability of housing appeared to factor highly in renters' ratings of their communities.

When it comes to those who own their own homes, safety again tops the list (.43), followed by the availability of high-quality parks and recreation (.34), the availability of good paying jobs (.33) and air quality (.30). The availability of arts and cultural amenities drops a bit further down (.27). But this is not too surprising, as homeowners are more likely to live outside urban centers and in suburbs where access to arts and culture is more limited. And while it is commonly thought that the quality of local schools figures highly in why and where people buy homes, we find weaker associations between schools and the owners' ratings of their communities (.22 for preparation for college, .18 for preparation for work). The correlations for the availability and affordability of housing were among the weakest of any in our analysis (.12 for affordable houses to buy and .10 to rent).

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The big takeaways: despite differences among urbanites and suburbanites, the same basic factors seem to drive the way residents rate the places they live. Those include feeling safe at night, and having access to good jobs, high quality parks and recreation, and arts, culture and nightlife. Furthermore, it's not any one single factor, but the interplay of several that shape how residents' rate the places where they live.

As I've noted before, our satisfaction with where we live resembles psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of the pyramid—what we need the most—are feelings of safety and security. Once that need is met, we need to be able to make a living and find a job that we actually like. Then, as we advance through higher stages of the pyramid, we want things that make for a better quality of life, or what I term "quality of place"—access to great parks, clean air and water, and exciting arts and cultural opportunities.

The biggest surprises turn out to be the things that do not matter as much. The quality of schools turned out to be much less important than we might have thought. And while much has been made of the growing urban housing affordability crisis for many Americans, we did not find it to be a big factor in how residents rate their communities.

Despite the many differences in the values, living styles and preferences of urbanites and suburbanites, renters and homeowners, the things that connect and attach us to our chosen communities are remarkably similar.

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