Why Americans identify their communities as urban, suburban, or rural: quality of schools, safety

A recent study in City & Community by sociologists Chase M. Billingham and Shelley McDonough Kimelberg titled “Identifying the Urban” includes these findings:

To do so, we utilize data from the 2010 Soul of the Community (SOTC) survey, a joint effort of the Knight Foundation and Gallup “focused on the emotional side of the connection between residents and their communities” (Knight Foundation 2017) in 26 metropolitan regions of the United States. While specifically designed to explore the factors associated with residents’ loyalty to and satisfaction with their communities, the SOTC project also yielded data that allow for an analysis of how people describe the communities they inhabit. We first compare the labels that individuals attach to their residential communities (“urban,” “suburban,” “rural,” etc.) to a categorization of those communities based solely on ZIP code designation, exploring the extent to which people whose ZIP codes reflect a central city, suburban, or rural residence actually characterize their communities as urban, suburban, or rural. As we demonstrate, the data indicate a fair amount of disjunction, with approximately one‐third of respondents embracing a residential identity different from that suggested by their ZIP code…

“Urban” is an imprecise term, open to multiple interpretations and contingent upon a variety of physical, demographic, and social factors. The label that a government bureaucrat or social scientist attaches to a given community does not necessarily reflect what those who inhabit that community believe about their geographic identity. Similarly, next‐door neighbors might disagree about whether they live in an urban, suburban, or exurban area. Municipal boundaries matter, of course. Overall, our findings indicate that a postal address that places an individual within the official city limits is the best predictor of whether that individual identifies his or her community as “urban.” Yet municipal boundaries alone cannot account for the wide variation in individuals’ perceptions of their communities. When most people characterize their communities as “urban,” “suburban,” or “rural,” they do so not by pulling out a map, but by reflecting on how they experience daily life in that community.

As the analyses presented here indicate, two factors in particular — individuals’ assessments of the local schools and how safe they feel in their neighborhood — play a significant role in the identity ascribed to place. A person residing outside the borders of a region’s central city, but in a community where she felt unsafe and had little faith in the local schools, was about equally likely to say that she lived in an urban area as someone with the same characteristics who lived within the city borders, but who felt safe in her neighborhood and had high confidence in the local schools.

Importantly, however, the understanding of place also varies by race. Even when they inhabit similar parts of their respective metropolitan regions, black, Hispanic, and white Americans have different experiences and report different community identities. Most U.S. metropolitan areas no longer resemble the stark “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs” pattern (Farley et al. 1978) that prevailed in the late 20th century. The lived experience of community is still racialized, however, even as racial and ethnic minorities increasingly settle in suburban communities and gentrification brings new cohorts of whites into central‐city neighborhoods that their peers avoided in previous generations. For blacks, the geographical divide, at least as operationalized by ZIP code designation, is far less salient than it is for Hispanics and non‐Hispanic whites. Rather, our analyses suggest that blacks see the distinction between urban and nonurban living more as a function of community characteristics, especially personal safety. These social factors influence the perceptions of place for all respondents, but they are particularly meaningful for blacks.

Summarizing: the study suggests how residents rate their local public schools and their safety in their neighborhoods affects whether they view their own location as urban or not.

This study sheds light on a long-running American tension between urban and non-urban life. From the beginning of the country, people debated whether city life or more rural life was preferable. They likely did not overlay the issues of public school performance and safety on the conversations but the debates could take on moralistic tones. Move to the mid-1800s and beyond and the arrival of new immigrants as well as industrialization and urbanization changed perceptions of cities. In the twentieth century, suburbs emerged as the morally safe places for many Americans, due to some of these issues as well as changing demographics in cities and increased support for suburban living. At the same time, the image of rural life lost luster.

Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, will the meanings of urban, suburban, and rural places be the same? It will be interesting to see what stays the same and what changes.

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