A number of city-dwelling Americans say they live in suburbs

A new survey from Trulia shows some city residents see themselves as living in a suburb, highlighting the blurry lines between urban and suburban areas in some cities:

To develop a standard definition of suburban that reflects what residents experience, the online real estate site Trulia, where I am the chief economist, surveyed 2,008 adults from across the U.S. We asked them to describe where they live as urban, suburban or rural, and we purposely did not define these terms for them. We also had each respondent’s ZIP code, which we used to identify his or her city, metropolitan area and state of residence. For this research, we treated ZIP codes as neighborhoods even though many ZIP codes encompass more area than what people may think of as a neighborhood.

It turns out that many cities’ legal boundaries line up poorly with what local residents perceive as urban. Nationally, 26 percent of Americans described where they live as urban, 53 percent said suburban and 21 percent said rural. (This comes close to the census estimate that 81 percent of the population is urban if “urban” is understood to include suburban areas.) Within “principal cities” of metropolitan areas (the census designates one or more cities in each metro as “principal”), respondents split 47 percent urban, 46 percent suburban and 7 percent rural, though those percentages include people in many small cities and metro areas. Looking only at respondents in the larger principal cities (those with a population greater than 100,000) of larger metropolitan areas (those with a population greater than 500,000), the breakdown was 56 percent urban, 42 percent suburban and 2 percent rural. That means close to half of people who live within city limits describe where they live as suburban.

Our analysis showed that the single best predictor of whether someone said his or her area was urban, suburban or rural was ZIP code density. Residents of ZIP codes with more than 2,213 households per square mile typically described their area as urban. Residents of neighborhoods with 102 to 2,213 households per square mile typically called their area suburban. In ZIP codes with fewer than 102 households per square mile, residents typically said they lived in a rural area. The density cutoff we found between urban and suburban — 2,213 households per square mile — is roughly equal to the density of ZIP codes 22046 (Falls Church in Northern Virginia); 91367 (Woodland Hills in California’s San Fernando Valley); and 07666 (Teaneck, New Jersey)…

Furthermore, the new census population data shows that the fastest-growing large cities tend to be more suburban. Among the 10 fastest-growing cities with more than 500,000 people, five — Austin, Fort Worth, Charlotte, San Antonio and Phoenix — are majority suburban, and a sixth, Las Vegas, is only 50 percent urban. Only one of the 10 fastest-growing, Seattle, is at least 90 percent urban.

Several quick thoughts:

1. As this article notes in addition to a number of scholars, it is difficult to measure exactly what the suburbs are. The Census Bureau definition put the suburbs between central cities in metropolitan areas and rural areas though geographically limited by county lines. As this survey notes, there are official geographic boundaries but then there are also the lived experiences of residents.

2. It is not surprising that Sunbelt city residents may be more likely to see themselves as suburban. These cities are often much bigger than cities in the Northeast and the Midwest which were hemmed in by more restrictive annexation laws around the turn of the 20th century.

3. This gets more complicated in surveys if you allow people to choose that they live in a small town as many suburban residents would choose that option.

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