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A detailed new analysis.

I’ve long believed that choosing a place to live is the single most important decision we make. It has an impact on everything from our career and bank accounts to the people we meet, the relationships we forge, and where we send our kids to school, not to mention our overall happiness and well-being.

A new report from the Centre for Cities—a London-based research and policy institute—takes one of the most detailed looks at this question I’ve seen to date. It uses comprehensive survey data from urban areas across Great Britain to examine what urbanites and suburbanites value the most (and like the least) about the neighborhoods they live in, including key factors like housing costs, proximity to jobs, transit, amenities, open space, and quality of both built and natural environments. The report draws from two YouGov surveys: a national survey of more than 2,000 people across 59 cities in Great Britain and a more targeted survey of 1,725 people in Brighton, Manchester, Sheffield, and Swindon.

What matters most

Not surprisingly, the key things that matter to people about the neighborhoods they live in include a mix of housing costs, being close to family, and proximity to where they work. More than a quarter (28 percent) of respondents cited housing costs and proximity to friends as key factors in the neighborhoods where they live, followed by the size and type of available housing (22 percent), and proximity to their workplace or their partner’s workplace (21 percent).

I have long argued that people make three big moves: in our mid 20s when we complete school and embark on careers (this is the age group that is most likely to move), when we have kids and start a family, and when the kids leave home and we become empty nesters.

The study finds considerable variation by age and stage of life, as Figure 1 clearly shows.

For young people between the ages of 18 and 24, the leading factor (at 28 percent) is simply that they live in the same neighborhoods where they grew up. This make sense, of course, since many in this age group are still living at home with their parents: 17 percent said they were studying in the neighborhood. Close behind was proximity to friends and family at 26 percent, while just 17 percent said being close to their workplace or their partner’s workplace matters (which makes sense, as fewer in this age group work). But living at home has its drawbacks. This young cohort reported being dissatisfied by a lack of available public transit (19 percent) and living too far away from restaurants and other leisure facilities (17 percent). Of course, being close to schools matters little to this age group, and just 7 percent said they valued being close to green space.

People between 25-34 years of age—the group that is most likely to move to embark on their careers—are more drawn to jobs and amenities than their younger counterparts. Nearly a third of them (31 percent) valued being close to their workplace or their partner’s workplace. This is about the same as those who said they still lived in the neighborhood where they grew up (32 percent), and those for whom the cost of housing (30 percent) was a key factor. A smaller share of this age group (9 percent) said that being close to restaurants, cultural, and leisure facilities are important attributes of where they choose to live. Eleven percent valued being close to green space and 8 percent said that the quality of the natural and built environment was a factor. Nine percent said safety and security was a key factor in their choice of neighborhood.

Those in the 35-54 age group—the group most likely to be having families and raising kids—placed a high value on the cost of housing (30 percent), the size and type of housing (21 percent), safety and security (17 percent), and proximity to good schools (13 percent). With kids in the household, 27 percent valued being close to family and friends. And after fully entering the working years, a quarter (25 percent) said that being close to their workplace or their partner’s workplace was important. Twenty percent said that being close to green space was important, and another 11 percent valued the quality of the natural and built environment. But considerably fewer respondents (just 4 percent) reported access to restaurants and other cultural amenities as a factor.

People over 55—retirees and empty-nesters whose kids are out of the household—had different priorities. Topping their list was proximity to the countryside and green spaces (30 percent), followed by the size and type of housing (29 percent). Still, nearly a fifth of people in their retirement or close-to-retirement years valued proximity to their workplace or their partner’s workplace. More than a quarter (27 percent) of people in this age group said being close to family and friends was important. Many older parents, after all, value being close to their adult children. And 17 percent of older respondents said that the safety and security of the neighborhood was another key factor.

City versus suburb

What about the preferences for cities versus suburbs? What kinds of people prefer these options, and at what ages? What is it about cities and suburbs that draw people in?  

The study notes that large cities have seen the biggest population growth in Britain over the past decade or so. From 2001-2011, large city centers grew by 108 percent, medium city centers increased by 35 percent, and small city centers grew by just 22 percent. The growth of large cities was driven by students and young people, with more than half the overall growth from 2001-2011 attributable to an influx of students, and another third attributable to young grads under 35 years old. In fact, by 2011, over a third of British residents in large city centers had a college degree, and most of them were between 25 and 34 years old. While residents of large city centers tended to work in high-skilled professions, residents of small and medium-sized cities tended to work in low-skilled professions, but were more likely to have a family and commute to jobs in the suburbs.

The chart below summarizes the key results for three groups: city dwellers, suburbanites, and those living in more rural hinterlands.

City dwellers placed greater importance on proximity to restaurants, leisure, and cultural facilities, public transit, local shops, and living close to their workplace. Suburbanites and those in rural hinterlands placed higher value on the cost of housing, the size and type of housing, safety and security, good schools, green space, and being close to family and friends. They were also more likely to live in the neighborhood where they grew up and were much less concerned with being close to where they worked.

The next chart shows the factors or qualities that urbanites, suburbanites, and rural dwellers found least favorable about their neighborhoods. For urbanites, their least favorite qualities were housing costs (31 percent), followed by pollution (25 percent), and distance to the countryside and green space (21 percent). Also high on the list of urbanites’ least favorite things were living too far from family and friends, poor safety and security, and the size and type of housing.

Suburbanites and rural dwellers had fewer complaints about their neighborhoods. They were more likely than urbanites to identify the availability of public transit and being too far away from restaurants and amenities as their least favorite things about their neighborhoods. They also cited housing costs and being too far away from family and friends as among their least favorite things about where they live.

The case of London

London is not just the UK’s most dominant city. Alongside New York, it is one of the world’s two leading superstar cities. London has grown substantially in recent years, drawing in young, talented, and skilled residents (by 2011, 48 percent of its residents had college degrees, according to the report), in addition to becoming a choice location for the global super-rich. At the same time, it has developed a vibrant tech economy to complement its long-established finance and media clusters. All of this has put considerable pressure on its housing prices.

The chart below shows the main reasons why Londoners chose the neighborhoods where they live. Access to public transit was the top-ranked factor overall. This makes sense, given that 90 percent of workers in central London either use public transit or walk or cycle to work and 30 percent of London’s jobs are located in its core. Next in line was cost of housing in that neighborhood. Other factors that matter include being close to family and friends, proximity to their workplace, and—perhaps surprisingly—having grown up in that neighborhood.

Changing priorities

While some of us are inherent urbanites or suburbanites, our preferences change over the course of our lifetimes. Many young people may prefer big cities, with their vibrant job and dating markets and abundant amenities and things to do. Those with families prioritize bigger homes with better schools and more parks and green space. Ultimately, we look for the cities and neighborhoods that fit us best at the time. That said, most of us put the same things at the top of our lists: housing we can afford, being close to family and friends, and living not too far away from where we work. As much as our preferences may differ by who we are or the stage of life we’re in, all of us—urbanites, suburbanites, and country-dwellers alike—tend to value the same basic things in the places we choose to live.

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