Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems Americans living in densely populated, urban areas have threatened to change the demographic set up of the country. No longer content with waiting out the pandemic indoors, many city dwellers have chosen to move to new homes in more sparsely populated areas. Such rapid suburban and rural flight has sparked conversation on whether American cities will have a diminished standing after the pandemic. However, urban dwellers are not as pessimistic about the future of cities.

Research by The Harris Poll and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs during November 2020 examines how residents of major metropolitan areas feel about the future of cities in the U.S. Our survey of residents in the Chicago metropolitan area on their attitudes about urban and suburban life reveals that although the pandemic has negatively impacted big city living, residents are still hopeful about the future of their city.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Although most Chicago residents would prefer to live in a city, either large or small, suburban living is also appealing for many area residents. Asked hypothetically where they would choose to live if they could live anywhere, 52% of residents say they would prefer to live in a city (large or small), another 40% would choose the suburbs, and only 8% would choose a rural area.* Big city living appears particularly appealing to many residents as one in three residents (35%) would prefer to live in a big city if they could live anywhere.

Despite the moderate appeal of suburban flight among residents due to the pandemic, most Chicagoans plan to stay put. Although 28% of all residents say their current experiences with the pandemic would make them more likely to move to a suburban or rural area, most residents (62%) would not change where they currently live.

Assessing Government Leadership

At a high level, Chicago residents believe that their local leadership is more capable of governing than elected leadership outside the city. Most residents agree that their city’s elected leaders are more capable of governing than Congress (67%), the President (64%)**, and state-elected officials (56%).

Moreover, residents are generally more approving of the way their elected leaders work to accomplish tasks, viewing their leadership as less political than leadership outside the city.. Most Chicago residents disagree that their city’s elected officials play politics more often than the Congress (60%), their state-elected officials (60%), and the President (57%).

Despite this relatively positive performance, residents still expect to see leadership deal with the issues they find most concerning: the COVID-19 pandemic (56%), taxes and the economy (46%), public safety (30%), racial equity (20%), and the environment and climate change (20%).

Curbing COVID-19

Like other large metropolitan areas, Chicago was significantly affected by COVID-19, but residents were critical of local leadership’s ability to handle the pandemic. Overall, Chicago residents found state leadership and federal agencies to be more effective than their own city at dealing with the pandemic. Nearly half say Illinois’s governor (47%)*** and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (48%) have been very or extremely effective at addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 40% say the same about L.A.’s mayor, and only 35% say the same about other county and regional officials.****

Looking in greater depth at perspectives towards Chicago’s mayor, a noteworthy share are very dissatisfied with the mayor’s pandemic performance. Fifteen percent of all residents say their mayor has not been not been effective at all in addressing the pandemic. Perhaps this explains why only 37% of all residents saying they are very or extremely confident in their mayor’s ability to respond to the ongoing pandemic. It may also explain why more residents prefer national and state elected officials — and even the private sector — take the lead on COVID-19 compared to city elected officials (50%, 20%, 17% vs. 13%, respectively).

A More Affordable Place to Live

While nearly half of all Chicago area residents say they are concerned about their city’s economy, many residents also express concern about economic inequality and housing affordability. Though the city has a long way to in resolving such issues, most residents approve of the steps local leadership has taken so far.

One in five residents (18%) say economic inequality in their city is a primary concern for them. Even so, most residents agree that local and state leadership — namely the mayor (58%) and the governor (52%) — has been effective at addressing the issue.

Chicago residents also show great concern about their standard of living. Nearly two-thirds of all residents (64%) consider the affordability of housing in their neighborhood to be very or extremely important. Residents are fairly divided on who they would like to take the lead on addressing the issue though: 29% would prefer state elected officials, 28% city elected officials, and 27% national elected officials. Another 15% would prefer to sideline the government altogether and have the private sector take the lead.

Despite this difference in preferences, most Chicagoans say their city’s mayor (60%) and other county and regional officials (53%) have been at least somewhat effective at addressing affordable housing. (Less than half found the federal government or their state governor to be as effective.)

This may explain why a majority of residents are satisfied with the current inventory of affordable housing. In fact, most residents (59%) think their city has enough affordable housing or too much affordable housing.

However, for the two in five that do not, 84% support the construction of more affordable housing in their city, and of that group, 87% support additional affordable housing in their own neighborhoods.

Looking forward, the overwhelming majority of residents (75%) are at least somewhat confident in their mayor’s ability to keep housing affordable; 30% are very or extremely confident in her ability to do so. With the pandemic exposing consequences of stark economic inequality in Chicago, building upon current affordable housing efforts will go a long way in improving equity concerns in the area.

Explore more on economic inequality in Chicago here.

Reimagining Public Safety and Reducing Racial Inequity

Chicagoans especially have witnessed frequent stories of discrimination related to policing. One in five say that racial inequality in their city is a primary concern for them. Such issues combined with the death of George Floyd last May made Chicago a breeding ground for several protests related to police maltreatment and social justice during the summer of 2020.

With protests has also come a concern about local social unrest. Three in five (61%) Chicago area residents are concerned about social unrest in their city. Of that group, 59% are also concerned about unrest in their own neighborhoods.

Despite these concerns, most Chicago residents (63%) say they support the Black Lives Matter movement. Moreover, 78% of all area residents are somewhat confident in their mayor’s ability to respond to protests about racism and policing, and nearly half (36%) are very or extremely confident of this.

Such confidence is supported by residents’ high approval of local leadership’s current efforts. The majority of Chicagoans say their mayor (62%) and their city’s police department (61%) have been at least somewhat effective at addressing protests over racism and policing.

Even with general approval of local leadership efforts, though, Chicago residents prefer national elected officials take the lead on handling protests about racism and policing (42%). This was nearly twice as many as those who prefer city (25%) or state (22%) elected officials to do the same. However, currently, just 38% of all city residents say the U.S. federal government has been at least somewhat effective at addressing the protests over racism and policing. It seems, then, that reliance on local leadership remains the best course of action to improve police-resident relations in Chicago.

Explore more on public safety and police-resident relations in Chicago here.

A More Eco-Friendly Chicago

One in five Chicagoans say the environment and climate change in their city is a primary concern, and more generally, most residents (56%) say that cities should be doing more to combat climate change.

However, local leadership may have a long way to go in proving its competency here. Just half of all Chicago residents think that their city’s parks and recreation department (51%) and their mayor (48%) have been at least somewhat effective at addressing climate change. Despite a moderate perception of success, though, only 29% of all Chicago area residents say they are very or extremely confident in their mayor’s ability to address climate change.

This may explain why most Chicago residents (54%) would actually prefer to see national elected officials take the lead on climate change compared to city elected officials (7%). However, only 37% of residents think the federal government has been somewhat effective at addressing climate change, which again means that for now, reliance on local leadership may remain the best course of action for improving Chicago’s natural environment.

Advocates working to curb the effects of human-influenced climate change have often proposed local transportation alternatives as one solution to climate change. Large metropolitan areas like Chicago, where residents regularly use various modes of transportation, are perfect areas for testing and implementing such solutions.

Employees are often the most frequent users of private and public transportation. Getting this group to embrace alternative or public transportation more often would be effective at reducing pollution. When employed Chicago residents were asked which types of transportation alternatives they would be willing to consider for commutes, most residents said they would not use alternatives such as public transit (51%), bicycles (both electric and non-electric) (67%), or electric scooters (76%).

Understandably, those reluctant to use public transit cite COVID-19 concerns most often (59%). They also cite too much time spent in transit (46%) and concerns about personal safety (31%) as other top reasons for their disinterest. Those reluctant to use bicycles or electric scooters for work point most often to traffic safety concerns, personal safety concerns, and that the distance would be too far from work.

Despite their low enthusiasm for trendy transportation alternatives, most Chicago residents still want to make sure infrastructure is in place for such vehicles alongside investments in infrastructure for private vehicles. Three quarters (76%) of residents support additional infrastructure for bicycles and other very small vehicles while about two-thirds support the construction of widened roads (68%) and additional highways (60%).

International Collaboration 

A Global Green Deal

With large cities around the world pushing for and implementing strategies to mitigate human-influenced climate change, cities like Chicago have the opportunity to collaborate with other cities on such goals. In fact, most Chicago residents support such action with 91% saying it’s at least somewhat important that their city engage internationally with other cities and governments to address climate change. Three in five (61%) say it’s very or extremely important that their city do so.


Perspectives on international collaboration extend to other global issues such as immigration. For large cities like Chicago, immigration is a very important issue. Immigration policies are still dictated by the federal government. However, some large American cities have become known as sanctuary cities for their more forgiving approach to immigrants compared to the federal government. For example, 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).

Whether Chicago residents agree with the city’s rules, most Chicagoans do think that the city should be setting up its own initiatives outside the federal government. Eighty-five percent say it is at least somewhat important that their city engage internationally and with other cities and governments on immigration. Just over half (51%) say it is very or extremely important for Chicago to do so.

The Post-Pandemic Future

COVID-19 has introduced several setbacks to Chicagoland. Even so, our research among Chicago residents shows that the pandemic has not ruined the value of big city living. Outbreaks may have encouraged many residents to move to or remain in sparsely populated areas, but area residents are still invested in the overall well-being of their city and are determined to keep holding leadership accountable. Like those living in other large metropolitan areas, Chicagoans know that their city is taking the right steps to ensure that the future of their city remains bright.

*Note, self-defined urban level for Chicago metropolitan area residents in this study is as follows: 31% central city or downtown, 26% inner suburb, 35% outer suburb or exurb, and 8% rural.
**The U.S. president at the time of this study was Donald Trump.
***The Illinois governor at the time of this study was J.B. Pritzker.
****The Chicago mayor at the time of this study was Lori Lightfoot.


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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