Menus Subscribe Search
car-city-view

(PHOTO: BASSKWONG/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Why Your Big Move to the Big City May Be Your Last

• December 19, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: BASSKWONG/SHUTTERSTOCK)

A new pair of studies helps to explain why city-dwellers seem to fall deeper in love with the urban environment the longer they spend there.

Television and movies are littered with fish-out-of-water tales about city slickers or country yokels transplanted into an unfamiliar environment. In recent years the farm-to-city example set by The Beverly Hillbillies way back in 1962 has been far more common among Americans than the reverse trek that forever changed the life of a young Kevin Bacon in Footloose. According to census data, the percentage of Americans living in urban areas increased from 79 percent to 80.7 percent during the ’00 decade, while rural areas saw a corresponding decline.

It’s not hard to see why people might be tempted to move to the city. There are high-paying jobs; delicious foods; and the opportunity to see, hear, and experience world-class cultural events. But the desire to move to the city is only one part of the equation. In order for the share of city-dwellers to increase year over year, residents of cities must also choose to stay put.

A pair of recent studies might help to illustrate how city residents perceive their surroundings in a way that encourages them to stay put.

Participants who lived in denser or more developed neighborhoods reported a larger perceived risk of crime, but a diminished fear of it.

The first study, led by the University of Western Australia’s Sarah Foster, investigated how neighborhood density influences perceptions of crime. Over a five-year period the researchers collected data from nearly 1,200 people who had resided in their homes for about 36 months. Survey items were used to measure fear of crime and perceived risk of crime, while data on walkability, density, and commercial development was collected from public records.

Foster’s team found that the participants who lived in denser or more developed neighborhoods reported a larger perceived risk of crime, but a diminished fear of it. In other words, being surrounded by more people made residents more likely to believe they would be victims of a crime, but less likely to fear the specifics of such an outcome. Because high crime tends to be a major downside of living in an urban area, not fearing it can make life a lot more pleasant.

In another study, based in part on the late Nalini Ambady’s ideas regarding the power of instant judgments called “thin slices,” researchers from the University of Surrey examined how a mode of transportation influences a person’s evaluation of what they observe. Participants in the experiment watched one of four different ambiguous videos in which two teenage boys fought over a sheet of paper as a teenage girl sat sending text messages on a nearby park bench. The only difference between the videos was that they were shot from either the perspective of a car driver, a bus rider, a cyclist, or a pedestrian.

The researchers found that participants who saw the video from the perspective of a car rated the actors higher on negative characteristics (threatening, unpleasant) than participants in the other three conditions. Participants who saw the video from the perspective of the pedestrian rated the actors higher on positive characteristics (considerate, well-educated) than those in the car condition.

How might these findings influence residency preferences? Imagine you randomly select two people who spend an evening in a city, one who lives there and another visiting from a rural area. It stands to reason that the person from the rural area will spend a higher proportion of their time traveling through the city in a car relative to the person who lives there. So for each scene the two people observe, the city resident, more likely to be on foot, ought to walk away with a more positive evaluation. Over time, the tendency to evaluate urban environments from the pedestrian perspective will lead city residents to place a higher value on city life.

Spending more time in a given place will almost always lead to more comfort and less fear. You learn the streets, find a favorite restaurant, and establish a warm familiarity with your surroundings. But these studies show how psychological tendencies can accelerate those changes among urban residents beyond what you might otherwise expect. Whether it’s due to becoming less fearful of crime or evaluating surroundings on foot, when city residents spend time in a city it can raise their opinion of the area beyond what would happen if they spent time in rural places, and beyond what would happen if a rural resident spent time in the city.

These findings can potentially shed some light on why urban populations continue to grow. There are essentially two ways the relative size of the urban population can increase. A large number of people could move back and forth between urban and rural areas, with a slightly larger number moving from rural to urban. Or a small number of people could move from rural areas to urban areas, with almost nobody else moving. The way that city dwellers evaluate their environments suggests that the reality may be closer to the latter scenario.

IF VERY FEW PEOPLE are leaving cities, one consequence could be increasing polarization in the realm of transportation policy. Until relatively recently a grand coalition habitually threw its weight behind the “more driving for everybody” agenda. But ever since we started to realize that walkability and environmental sustainability had their benefits, there has been a growing preference for a different approach. Today, residents of dense urban cores often prefer to see federal and state money spent on public transportation, while car owners who live beyond the suburbs are more likely to support highway spending and mandatory parking minimums.

While such disagreements have yet to explode on a national level, they ought to get more heated as they increasingly map onto standard liberal-conservative divisions. One thing that could engender compromise is if people are able to envision themselves as potential inhabitants of either urban or rural communities. Even if you currently live in the heart of a vibrant downtown, you might avoid a one-sided policy platform if you think there’s a future possibility of packing up for the country.

But these studies, which go a small way toward suggesting an ever-growing appreciation for cities among city-dwellers, show that may be unlikely to happen. Over time, urban residents will be less likely to envision a drastic change in where they live. In turn, this ought to further increase dedication to a set of policies designed to benefit those in their current situation. None of this is to say that every gubernatorial race will soon hinge on candidate plans for parking minimums. Just don’t discount how our perceptions of living environments can help create more polarizing views on transportation policy.

Eric Horowitz
Eric Horowitz is a social science writer and education researcher. He blogs at Psychology Today and is regular contributor to EdSurge. Follow him on Twitter @EricHorow.

More From Eric Horowitz

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.