Data on Americans’ preferences for small towns

Following up on yesterday’s post, here is some survey data from recent decades which shows the preference Americans have for living in small towns:

  • From a 1985 Gallup survey: “In the latest poll, the category preferred by the largest percentage of those surveyed, 23 percent, was a small town with a population of less than 10,000. This group, combined with the 17 percent who said they preferred to live on a farm and the 8 percent who wanted to live in a rural area but not on a farm, accounted for the 48 percent who preferred less populated settings.”
  • From footnote #2 in the first chapter of Wuthnow’s Small-Town America: “[A] 1985 Roper Poll found that 61 percent of those surveyed thought a small town was best for “the kind of friends you’d have,” compared with only 12 percent who thought a big city would be best (26 percent volunteered “no difference”). Small towns received equally large or larger preferences as places for leading a healthy life, privacy, and raising children.”
  • From Pew in 2009: “Americans are all over the map in their views about their ideal community type: 30% say they would most like to live in a small town, 25% in a suburb, 23% in a city and 21% in a rural area.”

A significant issue may be what exactly counts as a small town. A good number of Americans think a small town can include a suburb – this is different than traditional definitions of rural small town. From the same Wuthnow footnote:

Poll results are difficult to interpret because, as I mentioned in the preface, many Americans who live in large metropolitan areas imagine themselves to be living in small towns. In a 2006 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, for instance, 26 percent of those who responded said they lived in a small town, 16 percent said they lived in a rural area, and 57 percent said they lived in a city or suburb (51 percent said they would prefer a small town or rural area if they could live anywhere)… If those responses were taken at face value, 78 million Americans lived in small towns, whereas the US Census showed that only 52 million lived in unincorporated places of under 25,000 (including incorporated places of that size that were in metropolitan areas), and indicated that 222 million Americans lived in urban areas, whereas the poll responses suggested only 174 million…

However you want to put it, a good number of Americans may still prefer small-town values but they now express that by living in suburbs.

America’s small towns are now in the suburbs

A piece arguing that rural small towns are at the core of America misses an important point: many of the American suburbs are now the small towns of today.

There’s been a recognition, he says, that communities must adapt or die. After his book, Hollowing Out the Middle, was published, Carr heard from a number of people from different regions, who were trying a variety of rejuvenation tactics. For example, a career academy in Iowa had begun providing training for high-school students, both college-prep and vocational. Elsewhere, educational and civic jurisdictions were pooling resources and asking employers for input about their needs.

But if such initiatives are to succeed, Conn suggests, they’ll have to listen to Arthur Morgan and stay open-minded. Immigrants can boost local economies; small towns should welcome them, not oppose them. Government is not the enemy of small towns, but many in small towns have grown to distrust government at all levels: The TVA, a giant federal project, was largely a success, and so was rural electrification, another federal project. Today, many small towns rely heavily on state and federal money to keep their economies afloat. Resentment of cities, especially the often mistaken impression that cities soak up all the government spending, is counterproductive. Even Morgan recognized that “the village was too small a unit to fulfill the destinies of human society.” The United States needs its cities. But it need its small towns and rural areas, too.

The population shift of Americans away from small towns and rural areas from the early 1900s to today is quite dramatic. But, it was not just cities that grew: the suburbs came out as the biggest winner with over 50% of Americans now residing there (roughly 30% live in big cities and under 20% live in rural areas).

Even though there are plenty of existing American small towns, for many Americans the true small towns are now suburbs. They have some similar features to the small towns of earlier decades including what residents perceive as a more responsive local government as well as significantly fewer people than the big city. At the same time, they differ significantly: they are not as close-knit, any small suburb is not as cut off socially or geographically from larger population centers, and urban amenities are not far from the suburbs.

Finding the price and usage at which to not own a car

Two researchers crunched the numbers and have some thoughts about when you should not own a car:

The decision for owning a vehicle or using mobility services is unique to every individual. If you purchase a highly efficient vehicle for less than $25,000 and drive it more than 15,000 miles per year until it falls apart, then you should definitely own a car if your goal is to save money.

But, if you drive less than 10,000 miles per year, face long waits in traffic, or place a high value on your time that would otherwise be spent driving, our calculations show that mobility services might be the cheaper option. Geography can also play a role—it’s not a coincidence that there have historically been so many taxi cabs in New York City, where the high cost of parking and slow pace of traffic consume time and money.

As noted before on this blog, owning a car can be a substantial part of middle-class expenses. With their physical layout, the sprawling suburbs probably then do not make much sense for not having a car. Yet, those denser suburbs for the older millennials and companies hip to them may be the true spots where suburbanites can ditch their cars. A combination of walkability, some mass transit, and car sharing in these denser suburbs could be enough to push people toward limiting car ownership.

On the other hand, perhaps driverless cars will render this all moot within a short amount of time. Within ten or twenty years, few of us will even need to own a vehicle if we just buy into a car sharing option.

Employers now looking for millennial workers in denser suburbs

Even as some companies go to the big cities looking for young talent, others are headed to denser suburbs to find millennials with families who are attracted to suburbia:

Fresh college graduates might be attracted to downtown bars and carless commutes, but these days, for older millennials starting families and taking out mortgages, a job in the suburbs has its own appeal. “What people find is that the city offers a high quality of life at the income extremes,” said Lamphere, who is chief executive of Van Vlissingen & Co., a real-estate developer based in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire, Ill. “The city is a difficult place for the average working family.”

Many employers, hoping to attract millennials as they age, are trying to marry the best of urban and suburban life, choosing sites near public transit and walkable suburban main streets. “What’s desired downtown is being transferred to suburban environments to attract a suburban workforce,” said Scott Marshall, an executive managing director for investor leasing at CBRE Group…

None of this means the suburbs will supplant central cities as job hubs. After all, jobs traditionally based in cities-jobs in professional industries as well as the service jobs that support them-are growing faster than those typically based outside of them, according to Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed.

At the same time, Americans are more likely to live in the suburbs today than they were in 2000, and even the young, affluent ones drawn to cities tend to move once their kids reach school age, Kolko’s research shows. Many of those workers will suffer long commutes into the city center. Others will opt for jobs closer to their suburban homes.

Which of these two patterns is more true: (1) employers chase locations in a cyclical nature with more moving to the suburbs after World War II and then returning to the city or some cities in more recent years as certain urban locations became trendy and/or desirable or (2) employers since World War II have regularly gone back and forth between cities and suburbs depending on their employee needs and changes within metropolitan regions. Since I do not study this exact topic, I do not know which explanation the data matches (or if there is even a third option). Yet, certain interested parties – the media, city and suburban leaders, and companies often like to push a particular narrative to help their side look better.

Indeed, this article suggests a third option: employers want to find millennials who want both the suburban life – nice, safe, quiet communities – and the urban life – exciting cultural scene. Certain suburbs do offer this kind of lifestyle and some academics have argued this is the way the suburbs are going: even as some will still be interested in spreading the edges of suburbia further and further out, at least a few suburbs will become denser and influential small cities. I’m not sure this is entirely tied to millennials as such locations could appeal to older suburbanites who want a more walkable area and may not require single-family homes.

In other words, the jury is still out on this as a possible trend.

Responding to “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs”

A recent episode of Adam Ruins Everything addressed how racism helped create the American suburbs. Here are my quick thoughts in response to “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs.”

-Using the Settlers of the Suburbs game as a visual tool is a clever technique with its Monopoly appearance (though I could also imagine linking it to Settlers of Catan). Urbanists over the years have developed numerous classroom activities involving games to help show students who development works. Like games, development tends to follow certain rules or patterns (even if from the outside those rules are hard to see or, in the case of the suburbs, it all looks fairly haphazard). Also, for a simulation of residential segregation, see the modeling of economist Thomas Schelling where the preferences of individual residents to live near people like them can add up to a racist system. For a good board game that gets at suburban development (though there is only a limited racial dimension), see my quick review of Suburbia.

-The main emphasis here is on redlining: federal guidelines for making loans based on the neighborhoods the home was in was then also picked up by private developers. There is a lot more to this story including what were the patterns already in place that make redlining seem logical to the government in the 1930s (the book Sundown Towns can help explain a lot as black Americans had truer geographic dispersion from roughly 1865 to 1890 but then were restricted in where they could live in the North) as well as what other groups were discriminated against with these policies. Redlining certainly did a lot but it was not the only technique used to limit where non-whites could live. Other options included restrictive covenants, provisions written into deeds, racial steering, blockbusting, and riots and bombings. And the groups targeted included blacks, Jews, Asians, Mexicans, and others. In other words, redlining was an important part of a large package used by white structures and individuals to keep their communities all white.

-The video then nicely suggests that the effects of redlining compounded over time: growing individual wealth for white homeowners, new development in whiter communities, limited wealth in redlined communities, and segregated schools in the long run. This is the Matthew Effect in action.

-At one point, Adam suggests Levittown is still mostly white. This may be the case yet minorities have moved in increasing numbers to suburbs in recent decades. At the same time, the legacy of housing discrimination lives on as racial and ethnic groups are not necessarily evenly dispersed across suburbs. And, as noted later, black and Latino residents still have a harder time obtaining loans and continue to face housing discrimination. This is despite the 1968 Housing Act which was intended to eliminate such discrimination; the sociologists who wrote American Apartheid suggested that we lack the political will to see the Housing Act through.

-Nikole Hannah-Jones of NYT makes an appearance to talk about school funding and how white suburbs can draw upon a larger property tax base. Yet, Hannah-Jones goes much further in a 2015 episode of This American Life titled “The Problem We All Live With.” I highly recommend this and have had multiple classes listen to the story of segregated schools in Ferguson, Missouri and other nearby suburbs of St. Louis. By a loophole in state law, Ferguson students were allowed to attend a wealthier white district and it worked…until the loophole was closed. School funding is not the major issue. The deeper issue is the segregation of schools which we know can help minority students. And we know that integration – the 1966 Coleman Report made this clear and busing was tried in a few places for a few years until the outcry was too great – would work but few suburbanites want to consider it as a legitimate option.

-The video closes with these two lines: “The suburb you live in was built on a foundation of segregation. And we can’t close our eyes to that.” I imagine many white suburbanites would still object. At least two good academic books addressing two different contexts (White Flight in Atlanta and Colored Property in Detroit) show how white suburbanites in the 1960s made a switch from race-based arguments for segregation to economic-based ones. Now, if you ask suburbanites about race and ethnicity in their community, they will tend to say that they do not know of any issues or do not contribute to the problem yet they are more willing to talk about quality of life, property values, and good schools. Additionally, suburbanites tend to associate certain classes with certain racial and ethnic groups, leading to different treatment. Of course, race and class are intimately intertwined in the United States and class can often be used as a proxy for excluding by race or ethnicity.

-Just a note on sources: the video uses an interesting mix of scholarly and journalistic sources. There is a lot of excellent academic literature on race and the suburbs and I have tried to point to some of those in this review.

In sum, this video could be a great start to a discussion of ongoing racial disparities in the suburbs. Residential segregation is not just present in large cities and it has long-lasting consequences. Even though the oft-cited histories of the American suburbs – such as Crabgrass Frontier – acknowledge redlining and discuss its implications, many Americans may be unaware of how race strongly influenced the creation of suburbs. (There were other influential factors present as well but that is a long story.) Going further, there are easy ways to go beyond this video and draw upon more complex studies of race in the suburbs.

 

Rethinking the largest American crop: the lawn

With droughts, shrinking water supplies, and changes to housing, here is one effort to question the traditional American lawn:

After all, your front lawn is not an inevitability. It’s a work of art — an antiquated design aesthetic, a handed-down invention, one we stopped noticing ages ago yet remain coerced by property codes to maintain. There was a time when the front lawn was tied largely to contentment, to everyday middle-class life: Anyone who grew up in a suburb has a mental slide show of images — bikes cast to the side, lazy games of catch, parents admiring their green thumb, trick-or-treaters, snowmen and nervous dates idling in curbside cars — linked inextricably with front lawns. In earlier eras, these were reflected through sitcoms, light family comedies, late-century Updike novels. When we had free-range children, a kid’s weekend would begin a lot like that image of John Wayne in “The Searchers,” hovering at the front door, an expanse of land before them. Then, at least since the 1970s — John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” say — our image of American front lawns became less benign….

Your front lawn, in a sense, became a malignancy, a vacant space within a vacant place, soulless and mowed to a sterile sheen — cultural shorthand for the dullness covering a cancer. Think of all the front lawns in the new movie adaptation of “It” — long and wide and distracting from the threat gestating beneath the town’s idyllic streets, covered up by village elders. Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” in which people allow bad feelings to simmer for way too long, begins with a house fire, its main characters standing on the front lawn: “Lexie watched the smoke billow from her bedroom window, the front one that looked over the lawn, and thought of everything inside that was gone.”…

“By the 1950s, it’s firmly rooted that a front lawn is a painting, a non-productive space,” said Elaine Lewinnek, a professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, and author of 2014’s “Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.” “The front lawn is designed to be useless, to simply increase property values. It’s also intended to separate neighborhoods that have lawns from cities — you see rules against drying laundry in front yards, for instance, because suburbanites are different than ‘those people‘ drying clothes in public (in the city). ‘Sophisticated suburbanites use machines.’ Still, you need a great lawn to fit in. William Levitt (who created the seminal planned community of Levittown, N.Y.) said if you own a lawn you couldn’t be a communist — you had too much to do.”

A small anti-lawn movement began in the 1960s, sprung partly from this pressure to maintain appearances. Lorrie Otto, a housewife just north of Milwaukee, created a stir when she let her front yard revert to prairie. She found her lawn wasteful, boring — and many agreed, starting “Wild Ones” groups that, to this day, advocate for naturalistic landscaping. “This argument against lawns, it gains its steam in tandem with the ’60s environmental movement,” said Terry Ryan, a landscape architect with Jacobs/Ryan Associates, whose work includes Chicago Riverwalk. “People start to realize lawns take water and chemicals to maintain — sometimes herbicides and insecticides — and though grass is green and cooler than pavement, it starts to seem like a poor use of resources.”

This is a decent quick history of the lawn and the meanings attached to it. Yet, there are few alternatives suggested here. In times of severe drought, such as recently experienced in California, residents are innovative: paint the lawn, change the lawn out for drought-resistant plants or stones, use greywater for watering, or water the lawn anyway despite public mockery or fines. But, if Americans are truly serious about doing away with the traditional lawn, the answer lies with new ways of designing housing and spaces. Doing away with the grass lawn does not necessarily mean the loss of a private yard but they often go together. Imagine more single-family homes with much smaller lots or more row homes or, going further, more condos and apartments built up rather than sideways. If the lawn is a waste of resources and land, a sign of oppressive middle-class conformity, and not worth the time it requires, some major changes would be needed to shift away from it.

Ikea as suburban economic engine and sign of suburban change

The wealthy Indianapolis suburb of Fishers now has an Ikea and the community hopes it spurs economic growth:

When Ikea opens Wednesday, it could alter the character of this northern suburb city from a drowsy residential nook into a dynamic regional shopping mecca. The giant Swedish furniture retailer’s gravitational pull has already attracted other businesses nearby and prompted major highway and road work.

Which is why city officials expect the residents to get along just fine with the new kid. For one thing, Ikea has cache, even if the store is three times the size of a Walmart. For another, Ikea’s guests are quiet and well-behaved. And most importantly, Ikea will contribute millions of dollars to the local economy in sales taxes and in-town spending at other stores…

But for Mayor Scott Fadness and the City Council, the wave of development is the cornerstone to expanding and defining the city. It follows a similarly aggressive flurry of construction just blocks away, across I-69 in downtown proper, now called the Nickel Plate District. Over a five-year period, the city encouraged residential and business development to get people living and working downtown. Two high-rent apartment buildings with first-floor restaurants and shops were built next to City Hall and several high-tech firms set up shop nearby, earning Fishers the reputation as a technology hub…

Ikea asserts, and experts agree, that it’s 44 U.S. stores draw customers from as far as 200 miles, and they spend money at more places than just the furniture store.

It is not enough for many places to be well-regarded bedroom suburbs: many of these communities now want more.

  1. An expanded tax base. Bringing in businesses means more money for local services and a reduced tax burden for residents.
  2. Excitement about the community. Many postwar suburbs have experienced decades of development. Newer suburbs or exciting urban neighborhoods offer new options. How will a high-status suburb stay on the radar screens of people within the region and elsewhere? New development always brings excitement.
  3. A new vision for the future. What will the suburb look like in the 21st century? Can they develop new plans and visions? The postwar suburban era is over; what will these suburbs look like by 2050?
  4. Number two and number three above are linked to attracting young professionals. These are high-status people who can contribute to the tax base, provide employees that high-end employers want, and bring energy to the community.

The moves in Fishers echo those of many other suburbs across the United States. Some, like Fishers, are well-positioned with their wealth and location to take advantage of possible opportunities. Others will pursue some of these options but ultimately lack the ability and/or resources to carry them out.