More Americans Want the Suburban Dream

Post-pandemic, they want houses that are farther apart.

The suburban dream

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It is a standard trope among urbanists and Treehugger types that density and walkable communities are green and that car-dependent suburbs are bad. But according to the Pew Research Center, more Americans now say they prefer a community with big houses, even if local amenities are farther away.

Pew Research Center

The shift is significant given it is just a two-year spread. Pew attributes the change in attitudes to the pandemic, noting the shift occurred in a period of working and schooling from home, and when so many businesses were closed or restricted.

"Today, six-in-ten U.S. adults say they would prefer to live in a community with larger homes with greater distances to retail stores and schools (up 7 percentage points since 2019), while 39% say they prefer a community with smaller houses that are closer together with schools, stores and restaurants within walking distance (down 8 points since 2019)."

That on its own would be bad enough, given the amount of fossil fuel burned is inversely proportional to urban density due to gasoline for driving and natural gas for heating. But we are also getting a big dose of what Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing called The Big Sort in their 2008 book, where "Americans have sorted themselves geographically, economically, and politically into like-minded communities." A review noted (in 2008!):

"Bishop worries about the future of democratic discourse as more and more Americans live, work, and worship surrounded by people who echo their own views. A raft of social-science research underscores the growing difficulty of bipartisan compromise in a balkanized country where politicians win office by satisfying their most radical constituents." 
partisan gap
Pew Research Center

And here we are in 2021, with the majority of people wanting to live in larger houses fuather apart, but with the people living in suburban and rural areas leaning seriously to the right. However, the lure of suburbia covers the full spectrum:

"While about eight-in-ten rural Republicans (83%) say they prefer more spread out communities, a narrower majority of rural Democrats (60%) say the same. Among those who live in urban communities, 63% of Republicans say they would prefer to live somewhere where homes are large, far apart and require driving to other parts of the community; a smaller share of Democrats (42%) express this preference."
democrats vs republicans
Pew Research Center

When you look at it in greater detail, it seems that almost everyone, even half of the people living in urban environments, wants larger houses farther apart, even if they have to drive to get a quart of milk; even the majority of young people aged 18 to 29. Only very liberal Democrats and Asian-Americans want what we green urbanists have been selling: smaller homes closer to schools, stores, and restaurants.

A year ago, when people first started talking about the pandemic-inspired suburban boom, I suggested they had it wrong—that it was, in fact, a response to a demographic crunch—writing:

"Young people can't get houses because the boomers won't sell, they can't get apartments because the boomers won't let anything get built, and then in 10 years, the boomers are probably going to be stuck in houses they can't sell and have nowhere to move anyway because they fought every new development."
Changes in two years
Pew Research Center

But the numbers appear to prove me wrong. Almost everyone seems to want the suburban lifestyle—in every age, and even every political stance—and more than ever before. Just look at the shift in just two years.

So, while there is still a partisan divide among rural, suburban, and urban, it might be un-sorting a bit, if only because it seems that more people of all ages and political leanings want to move to the suburbs and they are turning politically purple. Perhaps because of this, the suburbs will change. In her book, "Radical Suburbs," Amanda Kolson Hurley says this is happening already:

"Already, some suburban jurisdictions are adapting to new realities, transforming themselves into 'urban 'burbs' with pedestrian downtowns, light-rail lines, and new forms of housing. This conscious urbanization is savvy in terms of meeting younger people's preferences, but it’s also the only environmentally responsible course."

So while more Americans apparently want the suburban dream, when they wake up there it may be a very different place.