The COVID-19 pandemic has had widespread effect on Americans’ everyday lives, especially those that live in urban areas. With many urban dwellers no longer content to stay cooped indoors, the pandemic has encouraged migration out of highly populated areas, leading some thought leaders to proclaim that American cities are on the decline.

Recent research by The Harris Poll and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in November 2020, surveying residents of the Phoenix 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.

City Living Rivals Suburban Flight

Because of the pandemic, many urban dwellers have considered moving to new homes outside the city, and some Phoenix residents appear willing to jump on this trend. Asked if they would be willing to move to a different area due to their pandemic experience, a quarter of residents (25%) answered they would be more likely to move to a suburban or rural area. That said, 65% of residents answered that even with the pandemic, they would not change where they live.*

Still, one in 10 residents say they are actually more likely to live in a city given their pandemic experience. Ignoring the pandemic situation, though, city living appears to rival the appeal of suburbia, indicating that increasing movement to sparsely populated areas ultimately will only last as long as the pandemic does. When asked hypothetically where they would choose to live if they could live anywhere, slightly more Phoenix residents answered they would prefer to live in a city (45%) than those who answered they would prefer to live in a suburb (43%).

Keeping Government Accountable

Similar to those living in other metropolitan areas across the country, Phoenix residents’ top concerns about their city include COVID-19 (62%), the economy (48%), and taxes and fees (42%). Education is also an issue many residents say they are most concerned about at 34%, higher than any other metropolitan area surveyed for this research.

Evaluating Phoenix leadership

Overall, Phoenix residents believe in their local leadership’s capability to govern better than higher levels of government. Most residents agree that their city’s elected leaders are more capable of governing than Congress (64%), state elected officials (61%), and the President (60%).**

Additionally, when it comes to fundamental needs, the overwhelming majority of Phoenix residents (87%) agree that standard services in their city, such as sanitation, fire protection, and public transit, are sufficiently provided. In fact, such approval is the highest of any other metropolitan area surveyed for this research.

Despite their confidence in leadership’s ability to govern, residents are more divided on how much they see their local leaders playing politics compared to those in higher levels of government. Although most residents do not see their local elected officials playing politics more than Congress (58%), just over half say that Phoenix’s elected leaders play politics more than the President and state-elected officials (51%). This perception may make it harder for city leaders to maintain the faith of their constituents when addressing the issues that matter most to residents.

Such wavering faith may already be apparent when assessing current confidence in local leadership. Few Phoenix residents said they were very or extremely confident in their mayor’s ability to respond effectively to recent protests about racism and policing (29%), keep housing affordable (29%), address the COVID-19 pandemic (28%), and address climate change (19%).***  In fact, resident confidence in the mayor to handle the pandemic and climate change were the lowest of all metropolitan areas surveyed.

When assessing actual leadership performance, though, resident perspectives are more divided.

Taking on the COVID-19 crisis

Overall, most Phoenix residents do not think government has been effective at handling the pandemic. This is especially true when evaluating local and state leadership. Just a quarter of all area residents say that their mayor (25%) and other county or regional officials (19%) have been very or extremely effective at addressing the pandemic. They maintain the same sentiment towards their governor, too (25%).**** Again, these effectiveness rating are the lowest across compared to other metropolitan areas surveyed.

Perhaps surprisingly, when gauging competence with the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is perceived as being very or extremely effective more often than federal, state, or city government among Phoenix residents (35%).

This may explain why, when given the option between national, state, and city elected officials and the private sector, just 13% of all residents would prefer that city-elected officials take the lead on responding to COVID-19 while 55% would prefer nationally elected leaders lead.

Keeping Phoenix equitable and affordable

With nearly half of all Phoenix residents saying they are concerned about the local economy, they also express concern about the area’s economic inequality, cost of living, and affordable housing. The city still has a long way to go in resolving these concerns, perhaps explaining why  many residents are not satisfied with how government leadership has been addressing these issues.

This division in local approval starts with economic inequality, an issue approximately one in five residents (17%) say is a primary concern for them. Less than half of all residents agree that their mayor (44%) and other county or regional officials (46%) have been effective at addressing the issue. They feel similarly about the governor’s efforts, too (44%).

Affordable housing is also a key concern for Phoenix residents. Fifty-six percent consider the affordability of housing in their city to be very or extremely important. However, residents are currently divided on how effective local leadership has been. Half view their mayor (53%) and other county or regional officials (48%) as having been effective at addressing affordable housing.

Part of this may be due to the fact that most Phoenix residents (59%) think their city has enough affordable housing options. Still, a notable plurality support the creation of additional affordable housing in their city (39%). Of these supporters, another 83% support the creation of additional affordable housing options in their own neighborhoods.

Even with the approval of half the city and overall satisfaction with the current affordable housing levels, perhaps surprisingly, the largest share of Phoenix residents would prefer state elected officials take the lead on affordable housing (40%). This is twice as high as those who would like city elected officials to lead on the issue (21%).

Again, given less than a third of all residents (29%) are very or extremely confident in their mayor’s ability to keep housing affordable, and given the pandemic has exacerbated stark economic inequality across American cities, building upon current affordable housing efforts will go a long way in improving equity concerns in the area and boosting faith in local leadership’s ability to handle this issue.

Addressing education

Overall, compared to other current issues, the topic of education ranked lower as a key issue of concern among those living in America’s largest cities. However, this research found that among those with children under 18 in the household (29%) and people of color (Hispanics 29%, Asians 26%, and African Americans 23%), education is of particular concern.

Similar trends exist specifically for residents in the Phoenix metro area. Groups that cited education as especially concerning include those with children under 18 in the household (40%) and residents of color — namely, Hispanics (49%) and Asians (37%). Residents with a high school education or less (53%) and those living in households with an annual income under $50,000 (44%) — groups for whom strong education services are often most useful — also rank local education as a top concern.

Although the primary focus of this research is on sustainable and equitable development in the face of COVID-19, this research shows that in addition to common facets of urban living like public transportation, public safety, and standards of living, education should remain a priority for large cities. With such important demographics as concerned about education as other top issues, Phoenix leadership will need to invest in education as much as other urban living priorities.

Tackling Racial Discrimination, Public Safety, and Immigration

Race and public safety relations

Large metropolitan areas have seen their share of discrimination issues related to policing. This has made protests regarding police maltreatment and social justice commonplace for such areas, especially during the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd.

With many of these protests has also come a concern about local social unrest. However, most Phoenix residents are not concerned about this: 65% say they are not concerned about social unrest in their city — the highest lack of concern of all metropolitan areas surveyed for this research.

Location within the Phoenix area may have something to do with this as those who do indicate concern about social unrest are mainly concerned about unrest in their own neighborhoods. Lower concern may also be linked to the fact that Phoenix residents say they are the least concerned about public safety compared to all other metropolitan areas surveyed (27%).

Most Phoenix area residents also support the Black Lives Matter movement (57%). Additionally, although less than a third of residents are very or extremely confident in their mayor’s ability to respond to protests about racism and policing, more than twice that number say that, so far, their mayor (62%) as well as their city’s police department (66%) and other county and regional officials (52%) have been effective at addressing protests over racism and policing.

Even with this general approval of local leadership efforts, similar to other major metros surveyed, most Phoenix residents would actually prefer higher levels of government take the lead on handling protests over racism and policing (69%) — with a slight preference for state leadership — instead of their own city elected officials (23%). In fact, Phoenix area residents had the lowest desire to see city officials lead on racial justice protests of all metropolitan areas surveyed.

This is further supported by the fact that 62% of residents see their state governor as having been effective at addressing the protests over racism and policing. On the other hand, despite their desire to see more leadership from national leaders, only 36% of residents feel the federal government has been effective at handling this issue. Consequently, a partnership between state and local leadership appears the best way to promote positive police-resident relations in Phoenix.

Looking to the border

In the U.S., issues with race and discrimination extend to the conversation of immigration. For a city like Phoenix that is close to the southern U.S. border, immigration is an especially important topic. Although immigration policies are still dictated by the federal government, some large American cities have worked to create their own approach to immigration separate from the dictates of the national government.

Phoenix residents appear to agree that their city should be allowed to dictate at least some of its own immigration policies and that collaboration with cities outside the U.S. is also necessary. Similar to residents of other large, southern cities like Houston, 80% of Phoenix residents say it is at least somewhat important that their city engage internationally with other cities and governments on immigration. Three in five (60%) say it is very or extremely important for Phoenix to do so.

Pursuing Sustainable Urban Living

Evaluating local government efforts

The well-being of the environment and human-influenced climate change are important issues for those living in and around highly-populated areas. The same is true for those living in Phoenix with most residents (53%) saying cities should be doing more to combat climate change. In fact, a quarter of area residents (26%) say they are most concerned about the environment and climate change in their own city.

Most Phoenix residents do not see most government leadership as having been effective at handling climate change concerns. In fact, only Phoenix’s parks and recreation department was viewed as being effective at addressing climate change when compared to different levels of government and other county or region officials (52%).

That said, Phoenix residents see climate change as a national issue. Most residents (56%) would prefer that nationally elected officials take the lead on climate change. Moreover, showing their lack of faith in city leadership, another quarter (22%) would actually prefer to see the private sector take the lead on climate change compared to city elected officials (8%).

Alternative transportation: a desirable solution?

Advocates working to reduce and reverse human-influenced climate change have often proposed local transportation alternatives as a viable solution. Large cities like Phoenix, where many residents are likely to drive in private vehicles, are perfect areas for experimenting with transportation solutions. In such large cities, employees are often the most frequent users of private and public transportation. Encouraging this group to embrace alternative or public transportation more often would help reduce local pollution.

Unfortunately, most employed Phoenix 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 overwhelmingly against considering public transit (70%), bikes (68%), or electric scooters (66%).

Reasons for their hesitance are understandable. For those unwilling to consider public transit, COVID-19 safety concerns (45%), too much time in transit (37%), and the current level of public transit service (e.g., timeliness, availability, cleanliness) (31%) are the most common reasons mentioned. About a third 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 (43%) and traffic safety concerns (39%) are mentioned most often. Similar to public transit, about a third also say they would never use this type of transportation.

Electric scooters, often popular in large, coastal cities, are especially unpopular to Phoenix employees. Half (49%) say they would never use this form of transportation, and the remainder that are still hesitant to consider it mention personal safety concerns (27%) and a long distance between work and home (20%) as their top reasons for holding back.

Despite their low interest in transportation alternatives, Phoenix residents still want to make sure infrastructure is in place for these alternatives alongside continued investments in infrastructure for private vehicles. Across the board, Phoenix residents are more enthusiastic about transportation investments than any of the other metropolitan areas surveyed for this study. Eighty-three percent support additional infrastructure for bicycles and other very small vehicles. They also support more infrastructure geared towards private transport, including the construction of widened roads (81%) and additional highways (77%).

International collaboration

In addition, with large cities around the world pushing for and implementing strategies to mitigate human-influenced climate change, cities like Phoenix have the opportunity to collaborate with them on such goals.

However, Phoenix residents are less enthusiastic about such opportunities compared to other metropolitan areas. Most show some support such action with 80% saying its at least somewhat important that their city engage internationally with other cities and governments to address climate change. Less than half (49%) say it’s very or extremely important that their city do so. Phoenix is the only metropolitan area in this study where less than half of all residents do not believe international collaboration on climate change is not very or extremely important.

Looking Beyond the Pandemic

Although less affected by the pandemic than other American flagship cities like New York and Los Angeles, Phoenix has still dealt with several setbacks related to COVID-19. Even so, research among Phoenix residents shows that the pandemic has not completely ruined the value of big city living the way some thought leaders have claimed. Even though the pandemic has made sparsely populated areas more alluring, Phoenix residents still prefer city living. They realize that there is still work to do to recover from the pandemic and maintain urban development. With divided opinion on city leadership’s effectiveness and low faith in their mayor’s ability to respond to key issues, Phoenix residents will need to continue holding their leadership accountable in order to ensure the future of their city remains bright.

*Note, self-defined urban level for Phoenix metropolitan area residents in this study is as follows: 27% central city or downtown, 28% inner suburb, 43% outer suburb or exurb, and 3% rural.
**The U.S. president at the time of this study was Donald Trump.
***The Phoenix mayor at the time of this study was Kate Gallego.
****The Arizona governor at the time of this study was Doug Ducey.

Methodology

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, 2020, and November 16, 2020, among 1,200 adults (aged 18 and over).

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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, 2020, and November 16, 2020, among 1,200 adults (aged 18 and over).

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