More Evidence That Young Americans Are Not Attracted to Dense Cities


As COVID-19 restrictions lift and cities attempt to stem the population and commercial losses they have sustained over the past two years, many urbanists are still banking that the historic, well-documented trend of young adults flocking to big cities—for careers, social lives, and cultural amenities—will continue and be instrumental in renewing and reviving urban centers. While city leaders, pundits, and various urban stakeholders alike want younger cohorts of Americans to return to cities, survey research has repeatedly documented that these critically important younger Americans actually show greater interest in suburban life than dense city living, though this fact is not being treated as seriously as it should.

Thanks to YouGov, we have more data on attitudes about cities from younger cohorts and now know that despite oft-cited virtues of public transit and lower congestion rates, positive environmental impacts, and purportedly lower crime levels, younger Americans are not sold on high-density city living. Specifically, YouGov asked a national sample of adults whether they believe it is better for the environment if houses are built closer together or farther apart. Three-quarters (75 percent) of all Americans agreed with the statement that building homes farther apart is better for the environment. While the rationales for this conclusion were not asked, they could be everything from seeing the importance of more trees and green spaces to perceptions of high energy costs for big city buildings.

Going deeper, the data reveal that majorities of Americans of various age cohorts all agree that space between homes is important: Roughly six in 10 (58 percent) Americans between ages 18 and 29 feel this way, and an even higher 83 percent of their parents’ cohort (Americans ages 45 to 64) agree. Although older Americans are more likely to believe that extra space is better for the environment, significant numbers of younger Americans also feel the same way. In this new, post-pandemic era, it should not be assumed that younger Americans are excited by or are willing to live in cramped apartments just to be in urban cores today, as the majority of adult Americans under 30 believe that having space is of value.

As for the question of density and traffic—a known source of pollution and stress—majorities of all age groups agree with the statement that higher-density development creates more traffic since people are living closer together. Only a handful of points separate the surveyed age groups, with roughly six in 10 Americans ages 65 and older (63 percent), ages 30 to 44 (56 percent), and ages 18 to 29 (57 percent) all agreeing that high-density development leads to congestion. Before the pandemic, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that drivers in the 15 most congested cities spent an average of 83 hours a year stuck in traffic. In Los Angeles, the most congested metro area, stalled traffic costs commuters a whopping 119 hours a year on average. It is no wonder so many want lower-density areas, and younger Americans are no different than anyone else here.

Read the rest of this piece at AEI.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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