Fewer Americans Want to Live in Cities in 2021

Fewer Americans Want to Live in Cities in 2021

46% say they prefer to live in the suburbs
family playing in backyard

In 2020, more than 272 million people, or roughly 82.66% of the U.S. population, lived in cities and urban areas. But where people live and where they would prefer to live are not necessarily aligned.

In a new survey, the Pew Research Center looked at the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on communities and preferences of where to live. Respondents reported on how the pandemic has affected their local health and economic conditions, and shared an increased preference for life in suburban areas.

More people want to live in the suburbs

Suburban areas were by far the most preferred places to live in 2018. In the last year and a half, since the onset of the pandemic, that popularity has increased just slightly:

  • 46% of people say they want to live in suburban areas, up from 42% in 2018
  • 35% would prefer to live in a rural area
  • 19% would prefer to live in an urban area

In a recent jobs survey from staffing firm Robert Half, the majority of workers (54%) said they're looking for remote positions in a new city or state. As remote work creates more opportunities to leave urban centers, it may be increasingly easier for people to relocate to the kinds of areas they want to live in.

Here's what people in the Pew survey say they look for in a community:

  • A good place to raise children (58%)
  • Access to recreational and outdoor activities (45%)
  • Strong sense of community (32%)

Other important factors include living near family, having access to art, music and theater, being in a community with racial and ethnic diversity, and living in a community where most people share similar political views.

Pew points out that this list has remained relatively unchanged since 2018. What has changed since then, in addition to remote work opportunities, are housing prices. About half of the survey respondents (49%) say that the availability of affordable housing is a problem in their community — an increase in 10 percentage points over the 2018 survey.

A move away from cities could not only provide more access to the kinds of communities people say they're looking for, but according to a Realtor.com report on housing demand, it could also mean gaining access to more affordable homebuying markets.

COVID-19 has a greater impact on city dwellers

Respondents in the Pew survey also reported on pandemic-driven trends they've observed on local and national levels.

Perhaps the biggest trend noted in the Pew survey is related to divisions brought on by the coronavirus crisis, with 77% of respondents saying that the pandemic has divided the country as a whole. Respondents agree that these divisions have been exacerbated on both local and nationwide levels, however Republican-identifying respondents were more likely to say that it has driven people apart.

Respondents also reported disproportionate economic and health impacts based on certain demographics and location:

  • 45% of urban residents say the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis is a major problem in their local community, versus 31% of suburban residents
  • Black respondents were most likely to say their community experienced negative economic (48%) and health impacts (46%) from the pandemic
  • People in lower-income communities were most likely to report negative economic (43%) and health impacts (33%)

Some respondents say that their local community will never fully recover (14%); however, more than a third (36%) believe it will take over two years for their community to return to the state it was in before the coronavirus outbreak.

Methodology: A survey of 9,676 U.S. adults was conducted Oct. 18-24, 2021 using Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. The survey defines "Middle income" as two-thirds to double the median annual family income for panelists. "Lower income" falls below that range.