Half of all Americans prefer to live in a community where the houses are smaller and closer together, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance. The same recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that the other half of all Americans prefer houses that are larger and farther apart, with amenities driving distance away.
The headlines on the survey results emphasized a confirmation of the “Red State—Blue State” dichotomy. America is hopelessly divided! Oh, woe is me!
The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. And ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past. As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.
The full results of the survey are fascinating, if you’re the sort of person to be fascinated by surveys (as I am). The act of planning is an inherently political act, and too many planners are effectively isolated from people who don’t think like they do, who have an essentially different American dream. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that our political parties are more consistent today. I do think it’s a bad thing when we infer our own values rather than working to understand the spectrum of our constituencies.
What the Headlines Leave Unsaid
That said, I am also drawn to what the headlines left unsaid about Americans’ preferred community. Yes, 3/4 of “Consistently Liberal” respondents prefer walkable communities, and 3/4 of “Consistently Conservative” respondents prefer larger houses miles from amenities. But that also means 1 in 4 “Consistently Conservative” citizens (such as myself) feel at home in town, and 1 in 4 “Consistently Liberal” folks yearn for the sprawl. We may be a 50-50 nation, but we’re 25-75 even within our silos, hardly a study in lockstep groupthink.
Looking more closely within our 50-50, we’re 50-50. When asked where they would live, if they could live anywhere in the United States that they wanted to, 20-30% of respondents chose either a city, suburb, small town or a rural area. Yes, there are considerable ideological and demographic differences in preferences in ideal community type. Only 20% of high school-grad respondents prefer city-living, while only 15% of college-grad respondents prefer rural-living. I get it, the sky is falling and the glass is half empty.
Yet even when the glass is half empty, that same glass is still half full. We don’t, typically, build a community for just half of our population. Metropolitan areas are made up of center cities, suburbs, small towns and rural areas. A well-rounded, resilient community provides diverse neighborhoods for all sorts of people—walkable, historic neighborhoods AND newer neighborhoods with more elbowroom, commercial corridors for industry AND vibrant, walkable downtowns and new urban centers. Some folks prefer a bit of this. Some folks prefer a bit of that. Overall, people want places that work. A successful place fills the glass for them all.