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.

Academic research with all that location data collected by smartphones

If you really want to understand places in the United States, wouldn’t the location data collected by smartphone apps be useful?

At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information, The Times found. The database reviewed by The Times — a sample of information gathered in 2017 and held by one company — reveals people’s travels in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.

These companies sell, use or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds. It is a hot market, with sales of location-targeted advertising reaching an estimated $21 billion this year. IBM has gotten into the industry, with its purchase of the Weather Channel’s apps…

To evaluate location-sharing practices, The Times tested 20 apps, most of which had been flagged by researchers and industry insiders as potentially sharing the data. Together, 17 of the apps sent exact latitude and longitude to about 70 businesses. Precise location data from one app, WeatherBug on iOS, was received by 40 companies. When contacted by The Times, some of the companies that received that data described it as “unsolicited” or “inappropriate.”…

Apps form the backbone of this new location data economy. The app developers can make money by directly selling their data, or by sharing it for location-based ads, which command a premium. Location data companies pay half a cent to 2 cents per user per month, according to offer letters to app makers reviewed by The Times.

Sure, this could all be monetized for advertising purposes. But, it’s longer-lasting influence could come in helping us better understand location patterns across people. There are many different ways to understand places, the sets of human activity and meaning associated with particular spatial arrangements. The location data from apps could reveal all sorts of interesting things: commuter patterns and responses to traffic/delays, how far people travel from home or work for certain activities, where leisure time is spent, and how locations differ across various demographics (race/ethnicity, social class, gender, age, etc.).

What are the odds that this data will be made available to researchers? Very slim. But, I hope someone is able to get access to it and find some intriguing patterns in urban and suburban life.

 

The geographic inconsistencies of Roseanne and the placelessness of TV shows

Roseanne may be based on Elgin, Illinois but the show draws on various locations in Illinois and Indiana:

“Roseanne” is filmed on a studio lot in Los Angeles, but is set in the fictional Illinois town of Lanford. Where in Illinois is Lanford supposed to be? Some conflicting clues about the town’s location are sprinkled throughout the series, which originally aired from 1988-97.

Consider Season 1, Episode 20. Amid fierce winds, Dan Conner turns on the radio for the weather report: “As of 5 p.m. Central Standard Time, a tornado watch is in effect for Fulton County.” Darlene Conner bursts into the room: “Hey, that’s us!” In real life, Fulton County is west of Peoria.

Now Season 8, Episode 7. While in the car with her sister, Roseanne Conner suggests going to “that big outlet mall up in Elgin.” Jackie Harris sniffs, “Elgin? That’s an hour away.”

A representative for the ABC network, which aired “Roseanne” in the ’90s and will air the new season starting March 27, said Elgin is used as the reference for Lanford, both geographically and demographically…

The exterior of the Conner home is also not an authentic representation of Illinois. The series features shots of a house in Evansville, Ind., about 325 miles away from Elgin.

Geographic inconsistencies are not unknown in Hollywood. Television shows use various devices – verbal suggestions, establishing shots and some exterior images, fandom for local sports teams, architecture, attempts at accents or local eccentricities – to suggest a location but rarely pinpoint a real life location or community. What we see is more of a pastiche of a location. Most of the action takes place inside in interior settings or generic outdoor settings that could be anywhere. The shows want to both hint at a particular place and be generic enough to appeal to a broad audience. Roseanne may claim to be about Elgin, Illinois but it has to roughly match hundreds of working-class locations (or match perceptions of working-class places) across the United States.

More broadly, this suggests television shows may be more or less explicitly attached to particular cities and locations (crime shows often are) and yet they often exist in a placeless world much of the time. If anything, the biggest cities in the United States – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – are the most depicted on television while other cities or smaller communities are anonymized. But, even these big cities are not really the focus of the action; the characters swoop in and around recognizable locations while certain parts of cities or everyday urban life never are on the screen. This is depicted effectively on The Simpsons where the location of Springfield is not clear, the city itself and its surrounding area can change according to the whims of the writers, and the action ranges from the mundane to the absurd.

The permanent placelessness of suburbs

Can suburbs provide permanence or a sense of place?

Fortunately, the perils of mobility have not gone unrecognized. Those who care about place, permanence, and civil society have taken up the argument for remaining in one’s hometown. Justin Hannegan, writing in The Imaginative Conservative, presents a compelling case for hometown living, urging Americans to consider that “perhaps permanence—the guardian of family, tradition, practical wisdom, environment, and culture—is worth it.”

But what happens when suburbia is our place? The explosion of the suburban model of development in the postwar period has put record numbers of Americans in the uncomfortable position of having no other place than placeless suburbia to call home. By some estimates, as many as 53 percent of Americans describe their residential area as suburban. Adolescence in suburbia has become such a common experience that it now pervades our pop culture, as the familiarity of the references on (and, frankly, the mere existence of) Buzzfeed’s list here shows. The ubiquity of suburban modes of development has pitted the ideals of permanence and place against each other.

The inverse of Kauffman’s question, then, becomes arguably more pressing for those who value permanence and place: Why not just move from your manicured suburb with high average SAT scores to a small town (or city neighborhood) with a built environment much more conducive to fostering civil society? It seems many millennials are making the gamble to do just that, as demand for walkable, mixed-use developments is on the rise, and increasing numbers of city dwellers are eschewing the previously obligatory flight to the suburbs as they start families.

Yet is this really the solution to the ails of suburbia? As much as flight from suburbia may help to mitigate the aforementioned obstacles to a robust civil society, it will also trigger the malevolent effects of rampant mobility. It’s quite possible that those who settle in small towns or city neighborhoods from the suburbs will develop a sense of rootedness in their new place. But in doing so, local and familial ties to place are necessarily severed, which simply further atomizes American life. Mobility, even if undertaken with the intention of building community, is by its very nature an act of severing previous communal bonds.

This is a question that has plagued suburbs for decades: do they have their own unique and enduring qualities even though people regularly move in and out and their physical form looks similar to other suburban places?

I think this conflates two issues: (1) mobility and (2) whether suburbs are truly places. Regarding mobility, Americans are historically a mobile people (though this has decreased a bit recently). The suburbs were a place where a good number of people moved in and out regularly as they became the primary places for Americans to live after World War Two.

The second issue is trickier. I suspect much of this idea comes from critics of the suburbs. Such refrains began decades ago as mass produced subdivisions and suburbs (though the Levittowns put together by one builder were the exception, not the rule) became more common. All the similar-looking houses within new suburban street patterns were assumed to lead to conformity and a lack of individualism. Later critiques added that such places were not all that social: even with plenty of families and children living near each other, social ties were limited. (There is more academic support for this second claim: see The Moral Order of a Suburb.)

Yet, this does not necessarily mean that suburbs have no place to them or lack permanence. I’ll bring up two points of evidence from my own research to counter these. First, different suburban communities do indeed have different characters as a result of numerous decisions made by local officials and residents. See my study “Not All Suburbs are the Same.” Second, suburbs do have permanence. The oft-criticized postwar suburbs are now at least several decades old but many having already passed the fifty year mark. Additionally, numerous other suburbs were founded prior to World War II and have longer histories. For a case study of one such suburb, see my study “A Small Suburb Becomes a Boomburb.” Even these transient suburbs have unique features accrued over decades.

As a final thought, the final two paragraphs cited above suggest that moving to either small towns or city neighborhoods would provide residents a stronger sense of place and permanence. I am not so sure. A good number of Americans think of their suburbs as small towns. Plus, urban neighborhoods often involve a good amount of change. Simply having more history or time as a place does not necessarily mean that a sense of community organized around this occurs. Placemaking is a process in cities, suburbs, and small towns that for a variety of reasons happens more or less in different locations.

In the end, suburban communities do not have to be placeless. This is one way to look at them but I’m not sure it is a sentiment shared by many suburban residents nor is it something that worries them if they do acknowledge it.

I drove past the same scenery for almost eight years

I realized a few days ago that I drove almost the same route every day to and from work for almost eight years. It was not a bad drive: it usually took about 15-20 minutes to go roughly 7 miles, I saw a lot of greenery due to Forest Preserves and a private park, I drove past some important local institutions, and there were not too many traffic lights.

But, as I was recently driving part of this route for another destination, I noticed that I had not seen this part of the world for a few months – and I live just a few miles away. With no daily commute along this route, I do not need to bother with this territory.

Does it matter that I do not keep up with this area any longer? It did not appear that much had changed. Yet, I felt like I missed something that had been part of my life for years. Now, I see different things on my daily route: new houses and buildings, new cars, and new obstacles to avoid in order to reach work faster.

It was easier when I was younger to simply explore my own suburbs and those around it. Although slower, this could be accomplished best by bicycle and with no set destination. This could even be accomplished when driving was still exciting in the early years (and gas was very cheap and what else was there to do in high school and college). Today, my goal is usually to get to a place quickly.

In the end, it is easy to see one set of sites for years and years. At the least, we can try to pay attention to those sites and be a part of the place (even if that means passing through at 30+ MPH). On the flip side, we can blindly go along that same route for a long time and also miss out on numerous other nearby places that are just off our daily route.

New Yorkers who find their dream home

The New York Times looks at seven New Yorkers who worked really hard to acquire their dream home:

These people go to remarkable lengths to snag their dream home. They hound real estate agents, besiege landlords, tack notes on doors, drive doormen crazy. They plant their names on waiting lists for hard-to-access buildings. They send beseeching letters to owners, promising to be model tenants. Even if they don’t spend the rest of their days in the home of their dreams — because even the happiest love affairs sometimes wind down or crash entirely — they rarely express regrets.

There’s a reason such obsessions flourish in New York. “In this city, we’re all walkers,” said Andrew Phillips, a Halstead broker who has received his share of “Call me the second the place becomes available” entreaties. “We pass the same building again and again, we walk down the same block, and we think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to live there?’ Being a New Yorker is being slightly voyeuristic. And as we take the same route over and over, our dreams start forming.”

The fact that demand typically outstrips supply compounds the yearning. “The available housing stock is so limited, so fought over,” Mr. Phillips said. “Plus, most people can’t afford exactly what they want. Plus everyone wants what they can’t have.”

Reading these seven stories, I was struck that each of these New Yorkers seem to have a heightened sense of space or rootedness. This means that particular locations or housing units were really important to them and then prompted them to center their lives around their home. The article suggests this could be due to the tight housing market in New York City, simnply supply and demand, but I wonder if there are other cultural factors at work. This behavior sounds like it is in contrast to many Americans – after all, 11.6% mobility over one year is an all-time low. For more mobile Americans, either they have many dream homes or they don’t have the same attachment to places. Both of these attitudes could be related to consumerism which would suggest homes are just another commodity or product. It could also be tied to a more suburban lifestyle where homes are more plentiful and the specific neighborhood might matter less than the features of the home or the idea of living the suburban lifestyle.

What’s in a name? Certain subdivision names lead to higher housing values

A study suggests homebuyers are willing to pay extra in subdivisions with certain words in their name:

According to a study by two researchers at the University of Georgia, homebuyers pay an average of 4.2 percent more when the development has the word “country” in the name. And if it has the term “country club” as part of its name, buyers will pay 5.2 percent on top of that.

That’s a total of almost 10 percent more that people are willing to pay for the prestige associated with the term “country club.”

A joke? Hardly. The study, the results of which were published last year in the Journal of Real Estate Research, is a serious investigation of sales in the Baton Rouge, La., area over 15 years. It carefully controlled for such variables as location, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and days on the market, among others.

“This is the first study to find through empirical research that buyers are willing to pay more for certain property names, with all other attributes of a house being equal,” the paper said. “In fact, buyers of more expensive houses may be willing to pay more for a name that conveys prestige than they are willing to pay for a good school for their children.”

No wonder, then, that the naming process is often a psychodrama, with builders and their marketing teams becoming more hung up over what they will call their communities than they are over the copy for a $10,000, full-page ad in the local newspaper.

There is no tried-and-true naming method. Some builders resort to the old standards — station, park, commons, woods, village, farms, hunt, square and gardens. Some look to history for a name, while others use location or a characteristic of the property. A few pick a name that immortalizes themselves or their loved ones.

It sounds to me like this is all about status. Living in a subdivision with a certain word in its title conveys status and wealth, important considerations for homeowners, particularly when selling a home.

Several thoughts come to mind:

1. I assume that this effect only works at certain income levels. For example, could you build a run-of-the-mill townhouse development, slap the “country club” label on it, and expect a price premium? I would guess not. To some degree, I would guess there is a relationship between the price of the properties (which then limits who can live there in the first place) and the names. Additionally, builders don’t want to dilute their products by suggesting that “normal” homes are upscale in name alone. (It is unclear to me whether the researchers were able to control for all the factors that would separate an upscale suburban subdivision from a typical subdivision.)

2. Beyond “country” or “country club,” do other words or names not matter? If not, then you simply get a muddled mess of subdivision names that don’t really signal much of anything except general references to tranquility, pastoralism, and perhaps some local landmarks or figures.

2a. Are there names that have a negative effect on price?

3. I wonder how much the generally bland subdivision names feed into the critique that suburbia is a homogeneous place. With many subdivision names not anchored to any particular place, you could be in a “Thousand Oaks” in Ohio just as well as Texas. Is this simply another piece that suggests that Americans aren’t anchored to any particular places?