Kolko and his colleagues got a survey sample of 55,000 households to sound off about whether their neighborhoods were urban, rural or suburban. That let them build a model looking at which factors predict how respondents will answer.
Unsurprisingly, many people defined their neighborhoods in part by their population density. But a whole host of other factors also made the prediction more accurate. For example, areas with higher median incomes were more likely to be called suburban. Areas with older homes were more likely to be called urban. Areas with lots of senior citizens were more frequently called rural.
The researchers—Kolko, Shawn Bucholtz of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Emily Molfino of the U.S. Census Bureau—have released data online showing how their model classifies every neighborhood in the U.S., as well as an academic working paper detailing their methods and findings.
It’s a question that matters quite a bit because, by the researchers’ survey, more than half of American households identify as suburban: 52%, versus 21% rural and 27% urban.
A few thoughts based on this summary:
- This suggests defining places requires more than just political or geographic boundaries: how people perceive communities and neighborhoods matters. There is a cultural, meaning-making dimension to where people live that is often not picked up in these kinds of definitions.
- The next step after #1 is this: if residents of some places may technically live in a big city but they perceive it to be more suburban, they may act differently. Or, if they think of their suburban area as urban, they could lead different lives and favor different policies.
- I wonder how this overlaps with previous survey data suggesting Americans prefer small towns which could fit into suburban or rural settings. Here, the feel of a small town might be more important than the actual designation.
- The overall proportions of Americans living in different settings are not that different than what the Census Bureau calculates. What then makes this useful information is the ability to provide micro-level data about specific neighborhoods and communities.
- Without looking at the working paper, my guess is some of the discrepancies between this model and the Census definition is on the edges of areas: the fringes of big cities where residents could be suburban or urban and on the edges of suburbia where areas could be suburban or rural. These areas straddling municipal boundaries as well as lifestyles could be in flux for a long time.
- All of this points to an ongoing recognition of “complex suburbia.”