Where we physically live and those we choose to live around determine the makeup of our communities. Thus, understanding the trends of how Americans geographically sort themselves is essential to fully comprehend American communities (and therefore maximize the positive impact of Coliving).
Luckily for us there have been many sociologists, historians, and journalists that have also been curious about where Americans live and have compiled mountains of research and statistics on the topic.
One of those journalists is Bill Bishop and in 2008 he published a book called The Big Sort that documented decades of trends in how Americans sort themselves. In this article you’ll see plenty of Bishop’s research as well as statistics from The Vanishing Neighbor, a book written in 2014 by Brown University’s Marc Dunkelman.
So where do Americans live?
First, we’ll use current US housing trends to briefly take a look into whether Americans prefer urban or rural settings. The findings here probably won’t surprise you.
Second, we’ll use Bishop and Dunkelman’s research along with US census and voting data to discover where Americans are choosing to live at the county and neighborhood level. The findings here will definitely surprise you.
Where Americans live has changed drastically since the country’s beginnings as a largely agrarian society. According to the World Bank, as of 2018 over 82% of Americans live in urban areas, up from 75% in 1990.
By land mass this area is only three percent of the country. Yes, that’s right – 82% of Americans live on 3% of the country’s land.
While urban areas include cities and suburbs, a few stats gathered from Cushman & Wakefield’s recent housing survey point to continued growth within city limits:
To sum it up, more people are moving to cities, many millennials can’t afford to buy homes and aren’t moving to the suburbs, and people want to spend their money on experiences not things.
If you can’t or won’t buy a home, guess where you will almost surely continue to live? Urban areas – and more likely within city limits rather than in the suburbs (this trend has also played a big role in the popularity of Coliving).
So we now know that Americans live in or near cities, but how about where they choose to live geographically? Which county, neighborhood, and community are Americans choosing to join?
Introducing the Big Sort.
The Big Sort consists of two trends:
At the surface these trends are easy to accept.
Advancements in transportation and communication technology have obviously increased physical mobility. In 1850 if you wanted to move out West you hopped on the Oregon Trail (for five months) and would never see any of your hometown friends again. Compare that to today where you hop on an airplane (for a few hours) and FaceTime your friend on the way there with in-flight Wi-Fi.
Equally if not more important are increased levels of racial equality and economic stability. Before the Civil Rights movement and the advent of social safety net programs, many Americans lacked the real freedom to choose where they wanted to live. While there are still limits on physical mobility, Americans are freer now to live where they please than at any point in the country’s history.
From a psychologist’s perspective, the second trend can be explained by the simple phrase “like attracts like” or in academic terms, the “Similarity-Attraction Effect.” It’s a trend that has been confirmed by studies across the globe.
For us non-psychologists, imagine you walk into a restaurant and there are two people there: one appears to be a complete stranger and the other is wearing a hat from the high school you attended and a shirt with the name of your favorite sports team. Who are you having lunch with?
Below we will explore the far-reaching effects of the Big Sort and intentionally ignore whether these changes have been positive or negative for American communities. We’ll also ignore, for now, where Coliving fits in. For those discussions, come back for parts 3 and 4 of the series.
One of the best pieces of evidence of the Big Sort can be found in presidential election data. While Bishop and Cushman discovered the “landslide trend” using data only until 2004, their prediction that the trend would continue has been proven correct.
Take a look at a graph by FiveThirtyEight that shows the share of US voters who live in non-competitive counties (where either party won by 20-50 percentage points):
In 1992 about 40% of Americans lived in counties that were homogenous in political tendencies to vote left or right – less than 25 years later that number has shot up to over 60%.
Americans are now much more likely to live near others who share the same political views as they do.
Today roughly 33% of Americans are college educated, nearly triple 1970 levels. In the 1970s, however, college grads were “remarkably evenly distributed” according to Harvard economist Edward Glaeser in his paper The Divergence of Human Capital Levels Across Cities.
As overall education levels have increased since 1970, so has the education gap between American cities. For example, “the percentage of adults with a college education increased in Austin from 17 percent in 1970 to 45 percent in 2004. In Cleveland, the change was only from 4 percent to 14 percent” (Vanishing Neighbor, 130).
The education gap between cities is a self-reinforcing feedback loop, which means this gap is likely to keep increasing. As cities gain more college graduates, average wages tend to rise. As average wages rise, the city attracts more college graduates looking for high paying jobs and then wages rise again.
Educational sorting is also having an effect on who Americans choose to marry. A study in the early 2000s concluded that, “Americans were four times more likely to marry someone with their same level of education in the early 2000s, up from three times four decades earlier” (Vanishing Neighbor, 43).
The trend of educational sorting is particularly interesting for Coliving as many of the American cities where Coliving is currently concentrated have high levels of college grads. This trend is most likely due to rising student debt and Coliving’s popularity amongst young professionals, but it’s something we’ll cover later in the series.
For now the main takeaway is this: Americans are now much more likely to live near and marry others who share the same level of education as they do.
In 1956 Wendell Smith wrote an article in the Journal of Marketing titled “Product Differentiation and Market Segmentation as Alternative Marketing Strategies.” I’m not sure Mr. Smith fully understood how extreme market segmentation would become, but it has been a massive factor in creating economically homogenous American communities.
In order to fully understand how market segmentation has sorted Americans, let’s take a look at the evolution of the grocery store.
In a long-gone version of the American community before supermarkets existed, Americans shopped at small, neighborhood food stores. Regardless of economic status, people bumped into one another at the same local stores. As Americans moved to the suburbs post WWII, each neighborhood started to have its own grocery store and then more recently, the industry has further segmented itself by consumer preference.
Nowadays, there’s a grocery store for each specific market segment: cost-conscious consumers can now shop at Aldi, healthy (and wealthy) food lovers can shop at the local Whole Foods, and the rest of us can find our way to a Kroger’s or Safeway. These brands naturally have located themselves close to their target demographic. For example Whole Foods would open stores close to wealthier consumers.
Once the new market-segmented grocery store opens, then what happens? More people from each target demographic start to move in.
The graphic below represents this phenomenon. The circles on the left represent the grocery store market segments: cost-conscious, healthy/wealthy, and the middle market. On the right is an example of how these economic market segments will geographically sort themselves around their target grocery store.
If you were developing a new luxury apartment building or opening up a high-end restaurant, would you rather build it close to the Aldi or close to the Whole Foods? Multiply this effect across other industries that have been using market segmentation strategies for decades and the effects of economic sorting are massive.
Americans are now much more likely to live near others who share the same economic status as they do.
Market segmentation is such a powerful marketing tool that even religious organizations have used it to better tailor their product to consumers with differing preferences (the analysis below only examines Christianity since ≈70% of the US is reportedly Christian, but the trend may hold true for other religions as well).
In The Big Sort, Bishop illustrates this point by comparing the two main United Methodist Churches in Austin, TX.
Tarrytown United Methodist is the perfect example of a traditional church. At Tarrytown the congregation still wears their Sunday’s best, they sing from hymnals, there’s a pipe organ, and former Texas governor Rick Perry is a member (currently serving in Trump’s cabinet).
Then there’s Trinity United Methodist that’s only a few miles away, but could not be more different. The church sermons consist of series like “medieval female mystics,” the congregation sings songs by Sting instead of from hymnals, and members include those from all sexual orientations and even a few Wiccans.
Why have American churches become more homogenous? Because homogenous churches grow faster.
In a study of over 11,000 Protestant congregations, Hartford Institute’s David Roozen found that “churches with a defined ‘niche’ grew faster than those with broader, more general missions… But the most important feature of growing churches… was an absence of conflict” (Big Sort, 194). Even at church Americans are continuing to surround themselves with people that agree with them.
Bishop again used presidential voting data to measure how extreme religious sorting has become. During the 2004 presidential election “traditional churchgoers” (think Tarrytown members) favored Bush by 34 points while “modernist churchgoers” (think Trinity members) favored Kerry by 41.6 points.
Americans are now much more likely to join a religious congregation with others who are politically/socially similar to themselves.
So where does this leave us? Hopefully the main two takeaways from our original question of Where Americans Live are now clear:
As referenced above Americans choose to live where there are people that are politically, educationally, economically, and religiously similar to themselves. Encouragingly, Bishop’s research shows that race has not been a part of the Big Sort as counties have become slightly less racially segregated and interracial marriage rates in the US are at an all time high.
It’s also important to note that the Big Sort isn’t something that Americans have done consciously.
When choosing a place to live, people don’t typically research the percentage of college graduates or presidential voting data of specific neighborhoods within a city. Americans don’t decide what church to join by asking what percentage of the congregation votes Republican or Democrat.
They make these decisions based on “what feels right.”
As it turns out, “what feels right” directly translates to “where can I find people like me.”
If you’re like me, you’re probably getting a bit defensive right now. As somebody that values forming meaningful relationships with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, I don’t like being told that I’m more likely to seek out a neighborhood of people just like myself.
But that’s missing the point. Nobody needs to feel guilty or deny this is happening. What’s more important is that we acknowledge the Big Sort, identify its impact on American communities, and make decisions based on this knowledge that will positively impact future communities.
I know what you’re thinking – we have even more unanswered questions now than when we started and you’re right. However, we have answered the question of Where We Live and with that established we can move on to other questions surrounding the future of Coliving in American communities.
In the next three articles in the series we’ll take a look at the following questions:
Part 2: How We Live
How have recent social and technological changes affected how Americans live (the way they spend their time and whom they spend it with)?
Part 3: Advantages and Disadvantages of the Network
How have the changes in where and how Americans live affected American communities? Has the Big Sort been a net positive for the country or a net negative?
Part 4: Coliving in American Communities
Given positive and negative changes to American communities, where does Coliving fit in communities of the future? Should the ultimate goal of Coliving be to create more diverse living environments, provide affordable housing for homogenous communities, or something else?
Part 1: Where We Live
Part 2: How We Live