The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically affected everyday life, especially for those that live in highly populated areas. No longer content to stay cooped up inside, many urban dwellers have considered moving to new homes outside the city. The resulting concern about the future of American cities has become so commonplace during the pandemic that a viral LinkedIn post in August 2020 went as far as to declare “New York City is dead forever.”

However, research by The Harris Poll and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in November 2020, surveying residents of America’s largest metropolitan areas about their perspectives on urban living and the state of their cities, shows that even though the pandemic has negatively impacted big city living, residents are still hopeful about the future of their city.

Although many Americans have fled from densely populated areas during the pandemic, those living just outside major cities — specifically those in the inner suburbs — reveal that they still care about the future of those cities.* These suburban opinions show that American’s post-pandemic recovery is still dependent on the well-being of its cities.

Suburbia, Sweet Suburbia

Given the perks that suburban living can provide — such as space, safety, and privacy — and the rise of telecommuting due to the pandemic, the suburbs have become a much more desirable place to live this year. Consequently, most suburban residents feel no need to change their current environment, especially due to the space that comes with living where they do. In fact, 65% of those living in the exurbs view high population density as a disadvantage instead of an advantage.

When asked where they would be more likely to live as a result of the pandemic, 60% of suburbanites answered they would not change where they live. Additionally, without the constraint of the pandemic, if suburban residents could choose to live anywhere, most would still prefer to live in a suburban area (57%).

However, more than a third of suburban residents (36%) desire to move to a city if they could choose to live anywhere. Such sentiments were also evident among those in the outer suburbs, albeit to a slightly lower extent (24%). This may indicate  a group that are eager to return to urban life or embrace urban living for the first time in a post-pandemic world.

Identifying Suburban Concerns

Similar to those living in other parts of metropolitan areas, suburbanites’ top concerns about their cities include COVID-19 (62%), taxes and fees (42%), and the economy (33%). More minor concerns include public safety (32%), racial equity (32%), and the environment and climate change (28%).

Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic

As far as suburbia is concerned, their local leadership could be doing more to handle the pandemic. Just a third (34%) of those living in the suburbs of America’s largest metropolitan areas say they are very or extremely confident in their mayor’s ability to effectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. When taking their perspectives into reality, about the same amount say the same about say their mayor (38%) and other county or regional officials (35%) have been very or extremely effective at addressing the pandemic so far.

In fact, nearly half of these suburban residents show greater approval of their state governors’ handling of the pandemic (47%).

Even so, the majority of those living in the inner and outer suburbs of America’s largest cities would still prefer their city elected officials take the lead on responding to COVID-19 (55%). They say so at more than twice the rate of those who would prefer state-level leadership (21%).

Perspectives on standards of living

Especially for those who live in the inner suburbs, center cities still remain a key economic lifeline and agenda-setter. It’s unsurprising, then, that roughly two in five of these residents say they are most concerned about taxes and the economy in their city.

Often a common issue in large cities and currently further exacerbated by the pandemic, economic inequality is of comparatively less concern to those living outside downtown areas. This is likely due to the distance that suburban and rural residents have from the instances of economic inequality that are ubiquitous in large cities. That said, compared to those living in the exurbs (13%) and rural areas (3%), more residents living in the inner suburbs are still concerned about economic inequality (19%).

Overall, those living in the inner suburbs are divided on whether local leadership has been effectively at addressing economic inequality. Just under half say their mayor (46%) or other county or regional officials (45%) have been effective at addressing the issue.

Housing is another area where, on average, those in the suburbs show less concern than the metropolitan area average. Just over half of those living in outer suburbs (52%) and 69% of those living in inner suburbs consider the affordability of housing in their city to be very or extremely important. Specifically for those living in the inner suburbs, this is likely influenced by the fact that 53% of residents do not think that their city has enough affordable housing options.

Consequently, of those that do not think there is enough affordable housing in their city, 85% of inner and outer suburb residents support the creation of additional affordable housing in their city. Of these supporters, another 83% support the creation of additional affordable housing options in their own neighborhoods.

This perspective on housing inventory may ultimately explain why most suburban residents are divided on how well city leadership has addressed affordable housing. Fifty-four percent of suburban residents — both in the inner suburbs and exurbs — say their mayor has been effective at addressing affordable housing. About the same (52%) say the same regarding other county and regional officials. This likely explains why the largest plurality of suburban residents, roughly one in three, would still prefer elected officials from either of these groups take the lead on affordable housing.

That said, just a quarter residents are very or extremely confident in their mayor’s ability to keep housing affordable moving forward. Given the pandemic has exacerbated stark economic inequality across American cities, investments in affordable housing, both within the city center and within its satellite towns, will go a long way toward improving equity and cost of living concerns in America’s largest metropolitan areas.

Public safety and race relations

Large metropolitan areas often are witnesses to many instances of discrimination issues related to policing. Consequently, protests regarding social justice and citizen maltreatment by police were increasingly common occurrences during the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd.

Across the metropolitan areas surveyed for this study, a quarter of all residents (24%) say racial equity is a primary concern for them. Concern is even higher among those living in the inner suburbs at 31%. Simultaneously, the same share of inner suburban residents (32%) list public safety as a primary concern.

Alongside protests and calls for public safety reform has come a concern about local social unrest. That said, likely given their distance from city centers where most protests occur, the majority of suburban residents are not concerned about this. Fifty-five percent of inner suburban residents say they are not concerned about social unrest in their city. This sentiment jumps to 62% among those living in the outer suburbs. This contrasts significantly with the 70% of downtown residents who say they are concerned about such unrest.

Additionally, most suburban residents — both inner and outer suburbs — express support for the Black Lives Matter Movement (60%). This increases slightly among those who specifically live in the inner suburbs (66%).

Living closer to the city center than exurbanites, just over a quarter of those in the inner suburbs are very or extremely confident in their mayor’s ability to respond to the protests about racism and policing (28%). However, more than twice that number say that, so far, their mayor has been effective at addressing protests over racism and policing (62%). Most also feel the same about their city’s police department (60%) and other county and regional officials (57%). General approval of local leadership on this issue helps explain suburbia’s lack of concern over unrest in their cities.

Such satisfaction may also explain why the largest plurality of inner suburb residents would prefer city elected officials handle protests over racism and policing (42%). In fact, their preference is even higher than those living in the city center (28%) and the exurbs (33%) who feel the same way.


Involvement in immigration policy

In the U.S., issues with race and discrimination also include the topic of immigration. Although immigrations policies are still dictated by the federal government, some large American cities have worked to develop their own approaches to immigration that are separate from the national government.

For example, some large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles have also become known as sanctuary cities for their more forgiving approach to certain immigrants compared to the federal government. Additionally, Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance aims to make Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the country by ensuring the Chicago Police Department cannot cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Although Philadelphia does not consider itself a “sanctuary city,” it does officially define itself as a “Welcoming City.” This means that city does not allow its employees, including police officers, to ask about the documentation status of people they encounter. However, the city will still support and collaborate with federal law enforcement and follow judicial orders and warrants.

Suburban residents see their cities going beyond setting their own policies and are open to their cities collaborating with other international cities to handle immigration. Eighty-four percent of all suburbanites say it is at least somewhat important that their city engage internationally with other cities and governments on immigration. Half say it is very or extremely important for their city to do so; this strong sense of importance jumps to 59% among those living in the inner suburbs.

Suburban successes and struggles with going green

Perspectives on international collaboration extend to other global issues such as climate change. With large cities around the world pushing for and implementing strategies to mitigate human-influenced climate change, large American cities have the opportunity to collaborate internationally on such goals. In fact, most suburban residents support such action, with 50% saying it is very of extremely important that their city engage internationally with other cities and governments to address climate change.

Although suburbanites show support for international collaboration, influencing them to engage with increasingly popular domestic solutions has been harder to do. Some of this hesitance, especially regarding transportation, is understandable. The focus for this section will be on inner suburb residents given their proximity to city centers and therefore greater access to eco-friendly options.

Read more on exurban perspectives toward climate change here.

The well-being of the environment and human-influenced climate change are important issues for those living near large cities. Three in five inner suburb residents (61%) say cities should be doing more to combat climate change — even more than those living downtown where pollution is often higher (58%). In fact, over a quarter of inner suburban residents (28%) say they are most concerned about the environment and climate change in their own city.

Similar to those living farther from city centers, inner suburb residents are somewhat divided on assessing how government has addressed climate change. Just 45% think their mayor has been effective at addressing climate change. In fact, only 26% of inner suburb residents are very or extremely confident in their mayor’s ability to address climate change.

Only local parks and recreation departments (54%) are viewed as being effective by a majority of these residents.

Given this middling sense of local effectiveness, most inner suburb residents (59%) want nationally elected officials to take the lead on climate change.

Advocates working to reduce and reverse human-influenced climate change in cities often propose transportation alternatives as a viable solution. Areas where many residents drive private vehicles are perfect for experimenting with alternative transportation solutions. Employees are often the most frequent users of private transportation. Encouraging this group to consider alternative transportation more often would help reduce pollution across cities.

Unfortunately, most employed suburban residents are not yet open to such alternatives. When these residents were asked which types of transportation alternatives they would be willing to consider for work commutes, residents were against considering public transit (56%), bikes (56%), or electric scooters (60%).

Reasons for suburban hesitance are understandable. Aside from the fact that the presence of such infrastructure varies by suburb, for those unwilling to consider public transit, COVID-19 safety concerns (56%), too much time in transit (36%), and personal safety concerns (36%) are the most common reasons mentioned. Nearly a quarter (23%) go as far as to say they would never use this type of transportation.

For those unwilling to use bikes, both manual and electric, a long distance between work and home (49%), traffic concerns (34%), and too much time in transit (32%) are the most mentioned deterrents. Similar to public transit, 23% say they would never use this type of transportation.

Electric scooters, often experimented with in large, coastal cities, are especially unpopular to suburban employees. More than a third (36%) say they would never use this form of transportation, and a hesitant remained mention traffic (37%) and personal safety (31%) concerns as their top reasons for refusing to consider the option.

Despite their low interest in transportation alternatives for commutes, inner suburbs residents still want to make sure infrastructure is in place for these alternatives. Eighty-one percent support additional infrastructure for bicycles and other very small vehicles. Given their current preference for private vehicles, though, many also support more infrastructure for private transport, including the construction of additional highways (64%) and widened roads (75%).

Looking Ahead

Cities remain America’s economic, technological, and cultural hubs. An ongoing pandemic coupled with new, incoming political leadership across the country means the fate of urban areas is now a key concern for lawmakers and residents. Suburban residents often face the same challenges as city dwellers. The pandemic remains a primary concern, keeping most suburbanites content with where they live. However, with a third of suburbanites still eager to move to a city one day, it’s clear urban and high populated areas are still alluring. In addition, with such a noteworthy share willing to move into cities, a pandemic-motivated preference for suburbia may be temporary.

That said, suburban residents still want longstanding problems of urban life addressed and are willing to support some policy and personal behavior changes to help fix those problems. The pandemic has not derailed the long-term importance of cities. Even for those outside the city center, the future of the American city remains bright.


*Note, self-defined urban level for metropolitan area residents in this study is as follows: 31% central city or downtown, 29% inner suburb, 35% outer suburb or exurb, and 9% rural.


This survey was conducted online within the United States between November 5, 2020, and November 16, 2020, among 1,200 adults (aged 18 and over) by The Harris Poll on behalf of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The respondents surveyed were evenly divided among six U.S. metropolitan regions: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Phoenix. Respondents self-identified the community type (i.e., central city/downtown, inner suburb, outer suburb/exurb, and rural) in which they lived. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region, and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, the words “margin of error” are avoided as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in our surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population of each metropolitan area. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the online panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

Responses in this survey were tested for statistical significance using a Z-test with a confidence level of 95% and a Z-test with a confidence level of 90%. For more information on methodology, please contact Dami Rosanwo.

To explore more insights from our Future of Cities research, click here.

Download the Data

Get the full data tabs for this survey conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Chicago Council on Global Affairs between November 5-16, 2020, among 1,200 U.S. adults ages 18 and older.


Dami Rosanwo

Director of Research

Download the Data

Get the full data tabs for this survey conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Chicago Council on Global Affairs between November 5-16, 2020, among 1,200 U.S. adults ages 18 and older.


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