A suburban Atlanta house with downtown skyscrapers in the background
Whether Americans live in urban, suburban, or rural areas, many want the same things for their communities. David Goldman/AP

No matter the nature of the locale—urban, suburban, or rural—differences stem more from who we are than what we want in our communities.

Our images of life in urban, suburban, and rural America are dominated by clichés: urban hipsters living in loft apartments, suburbanites mowing their lawns, rural Americans hunting and fishing.

Now, a fascinating new survey explores many of these long-standing tropes and finds that urbanites, suburbanites, and rural residents are much more alike than different in what we want from our communities. The survey, conducted in January of this year by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy in conjunction with the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, covers a random sample of more than 1,000 Americans across all 50 states.

Not surprisingly, more Americans identify as suburbanites than urbanites or rural dwellers. Almost half of survey respondents (46 percent) say they live in a suburban area, 27 percent in rural areas, and a quarter in urban communities. This is a slightly smaller share of suburbanites than identified by the U.S. Census, which cites 52 percent of Americans as living in suburban neighborhoods.

Even though Americans’ mobility has declined, two-thirds of survey respondents say they currently live in a different community from where they grew up. And many have moved to different kinds of places: More than half of those who have moved say they have lived in a suburb (53 percent) or urban area (51 percent) before, while only a third (35 percent) say they have previously lived in a rural community.

The graphic below summarizes the key findings from the study, detailing the key factors urban, suburban, and rural Americans say they consider to be extremely or very important where they live. Some of the things on the list confirm intuitions, others are more surprising. But most of all, we are surprisingly similar in what we desire from our communities.

What Is Important

The most important thing we want in our communities, regardless of the type of community, is high-quality public schools. Nearly six in ten survey respondents named this as extremely or very important, breaking down as 62 percent of suburbanites, 57 percent of rural dwellers, and 55 percent of urbanites.

Amenities—or more precisely, certain kinds of amenities—are also highly desired. Half of survey respondents said having easy access to restaurants and stores is extremely or very important. This was more important to urban and suburban Americans than to their rural counterparts, who by definition are more spread out and farther from such amenities. That said, being near arts amenities like museums and theaters is not important to many. Nearly half of respondents overall said it was not at all important or not very important.

Affordability also matters. Nearly half of all survey respondents (47 percent) list “living in a place where you could afford more space” as extremely or very important. What’s interesting is that, despite what we know about the high cost of housing in expensive superstar cities, affordability is a greater priority for suburban and rural Americans than for city dwellers.

Being close to family is another key factor as well. More than 40 percent of survey respondents list “being near your extended family” as extremely or very important to what they desire in their communities. That includes nearly half of rural residents, 44 percent of suburbanites and more than a third of city dwellers.

What’s Not Important

Our common image of America is of a polarized nation where people sort by politics, ideology, cultural issues, and religious affiliation. But that image is at odds with what Americans say they want in their communities. Just 12 percent of Americans say that “living in a place where people share their same political views” is an extremely or very important factor to them, and that includes just 11 percent of urbanites and suburbanites and 15 percent of rural dwellers.

The same can be said of religion. Just 15 percent of Americans say living in a place with many people who share your religious faith” is extremely or very important to them, though this is more important to rural Americans (22 percent) than suburbanites (14 percent) or city dwellers (10 percent).

Where We Differ

Our biggest differences revolve around our preferences for the outdoors and nature. Forty-four percent of rural Americans want to have “easy access to outdoors for things like hiking, fishing, and camping.” This compares to 36 percent of suburbanites and just 22 percent of urbanites. It makes sense: Those who choose the rural life do it because they want more space, less crowds, and closer proximity to nature. Meanwhile, suburbanites like their big back yards, and urbanites are happiest in denser, more crowded locations.

Americans also differ, though less so, in preference for diversity. More than a third of urban Americans say living in a place with “a mix of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds” is either extremely or very important to them, compared with less that a quarter of suburbanites and less than fifth (18 percent) of rural residents.

Who We Are

Our biggest differences, according to the survey, are based on who we are, not what we want in our communities.

Forty percent of urbanites are between the ages of 18 and 34, compared to 27 percent of suburbanites and 28 percent of rural residents. Urban areas also have a much greater share of singles, with 36 percent of urbanites saying they have never been married, compared to 22 percent of suburbanites and just 16 percent of rural dwellers. That said, 14 percent of urbanites say they are living together with a partner, compared to 4 percent of suburbanites and 8 percent of rural Americans (not depicted on chart).

Urban areas are majority people of color, 53 percent of households are non-white households. African-American households are 20 percent of urban areas, more than double that of suburban (9 percent) or rural (7 percent) areas; and the percentage of urban Hispanic households (20 percent) is also higher than in suburban (16 percent) and rural (13 percent) areas.

Meanwhile, suburbs and rural areas are majority white, with white households making up more than two-thirds (67 percent) of the suburbs and nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of rural areas.

People living in the suburbs and rural areas are also more likely to be married—more than half of each (55 percent of suburban and 54 percent of rural) compared to just 31 percent of households with married partners in urban areas.

While the educated and affluent may be moving back to cities, suburbs still have the greatest hold on them. Forty percent of suburbanites have a college degree, compared to a third of urbanites and a fifth of rural residents. Just 6 percent of suburbanites have failed to complete high school, compared to 12 percent of urbanites and 18 percent of rural Americans.

Suburbs are the most affluent places in America by far: 12 percent of suburbanites have incomes over $150,000, double the share of urbanites (6 percent), and triple the share of rural residents (4 percent). The middle class (defined roughly as households with incomes of between $50,000 and $150,000) is far larger in the suburbs as well, comprising more than half (51 percent) of suburbanites, compared to 39 percent of urbanites and 46 percent of rural Americans. Conversely, disadvantage is disproportionately concentrated in urban areas: Half of urbanites have incomes of less than $40,000, compared to 40 percent of rural dwellers and 30 percent of suburbanites.

The drives one big point home: Urban, suburban, and rural Americans have much more in common in what they want than we typically think. Our differences are based more on who we are and less on what we want in our communities.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of a woman on a SkyTrain car its way to the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia.
    Transportation

    In the City That Ride-Hailing Forgot, Change Is Coming

    Fears of congestion and a powerful taxi lobby have long kept ride-hailing apps out of this transit-friendly British Columbia city. That’s about to change.  

  2. Life

    American Migration Patterns Should Terrify the GOP

    Millennial movers have hastened the growth of left-leaning metros in southern red states such as Texas, Arizona, and Georgia. It could be the biggest political story of the 2020s.

  3. Life

    Dublin Is Changing, and Locals Hate It

    The recent loss of popular murals and local pubs is fueling a deeper angst over mass tourism, redevelopment and urban transformation in the Irish capital.

  4. a photo of a bike lane in Boulder, Colorado.
    Transportation

    Why Boulder Blocked Electric Scooters

    The famously bike-friendly Colorado city has some of the best cycling infrastructure in North America. But electric scooters still aren’t welcome to use it.

  5. A photo of a homeless man on the streets of Los Angeles, California
    Equity

    L.A. Wanted to Use This Building as a Shelter. Now Trump Does Too.

    Los Angeles homeless providers were rebuffed when they asked to use the Hawthorne Federal Building, which the White House is eyeing to relocate Skid Row residents.

×