LISTEN LIVE: Loading...



Why Americans are leaving big cities behind

The lot at 7 Half Moon Street in Roxbury will be the site of two new dwellings in the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative's plan. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The lot at 7 Half Moon Street in Roxbury will be the site of new dwellings in the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative's plan. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Sign up for the On Point newsletter here

Americans are moving out of big cities.

This is a reversal of fortunes for America's cities, which were experiencing a couple of decades of population growth.

But recently, cost, quality of life and the pandemic are making more Americans than ever reconsider city life.

Today, On Point: Where do you want to live, now?


Peter Nelson, professor of geography at Middlebury College.

Ben Winchester, rural sociologist with the University of Minnesota Extension Department of Community Development.

Heady Coleman, host of the “GuthrieAmerica” podcast.

Interview Highlights

On Americans are rethinking city life

Peter Nelson: "We will see some rebound of people that initially left during the pandemic and then now have decided to move back. But I think more fundamentally, the reorganization of the relationship between home and work is going to enable more people to reconsider the degree to which they want to stay in a city. And I think that has big implications for particularly medium and small sized cities and more remote rural regions. The data suggest that there has been a significant shift out of the biggest cities down the urban hierarchy to those small metro and what we call micro-politan areas."

On America's retirees rethinking city life

Peter Nelson: "In the 2000's and 2010's, the impact of the aging baby boomers on urban to rural migration trends, and it's very clear that this large demographic bulge of the boomers ... the propensity to make an urban to rural move increases considerably when populations age into their fifties and sixties. So undoubtedly some of this population shift from cities to more rural areas is driven by overall demographic changing demographic composition of the U.S. population."

On a housing crisis point

Peter Nelson: "We think about processes of gentrification as being the domain of urban environments. You know, it happens in Brooklyn. The same kind of transformations are playing out in rural areas. And Vermont is a classic example where people arrive with accumulated wealth, they bid up property and there is an ensuing shift in the class composition of these rural environments. That's not dissimilar to what's gone on in Park Slope.

"So we can think of some of these transformations, using a vocabulary in a language of gentrification, just applying that phenomena in a small town and rural environment. And, you know, the busiest sector in Vermont is homebuilding and home remodeling. Like if you need to hire a contractor to do work on your home, it's really hard because they're so busy doing these big remodel jobs, these custom home builds."

On the move from big cities to rural communities

Ben Winchester: "I like to call this the brain gain. It counters the negative narrative around the brain drain, and we have found that there's been a consistent pattern of people in their thirties, forties and fifties move into just about every rural county in this country. This has been happening again since the 70's. It really took off in the 90's.

"So we've done a number of studies now that are asking newcomers, you know, Hey, when did you move here, what kind of job you have? And really what were the factors for this move? So we look at kind of push and pull factors. What we found was the top three reasons that people give as to why they made the move into rural America, where, number one, was a slower pace of life. We've heard this very consistently. Access to recreation, getting away from a commute, a number of factors related to that. Second top reason is safety and security. And that's especially high with people, children. And then the third top reason is the low cost of housing. That's relative, again to maybe urban markets, but nowhere really surprised us in the top ten in Minnesota anyway was a job.

"And of course, people need to find a job. But we're finding, as Professor Nelson mentioned early on, that we've really had a decoupling for us between work and an employer and where people choose to put their home. So when these become separated spatially, we become a bigger playground, especially in rural America. We live in a kind of a large area and you have to have transportation to get to and from, not dissimilar to living in suburbs. So this trend has been very consistent and people enjoy living there. They may not have seen themselves living in a rural community in their twenties, but this is part of that life cycle that people go through.

"Where our core urban areas are attractive to people and they're, you know, between the age of 18 to 29. But outside of that, people start moving out. And so in many ways, I would argue that our urban areas across this country have not grown taller, they've grown wider and they've grown wider to the extent that since 1970, all of the urban growth has happened at the expense of taking over these rural counties. So our rural places in America become so popular they become urbanized, which again, from a data point of view, it looks like our populations go down. When essentially, we just shifted people of the rural category to the urban category. So there's a very interesting kind of in and out flow that we've had for decades. This is not new, but it's very interesting to look at the life cycle of these households."

On where Americans want to live now

Ben Winchester: "I would argue made the trends, especially over the past 20, 30 years, have really been durable, are small towns are still here, our rural places are still here. None of those closures caused the death of our towns. Our homes are still filled. We are actually more diverse socially, economically, demographically than ever before. And we're desirable. I mean, the Pew Research Institute did a study in 2009, as early as 2009, that asked Americans like, we know 80% of you live in the city and 20% of you live in the country.

"But if you could live wherever you wanted, where would you live? And 51% of Americans said they preferred to live in small towns and rural places. So I think there might be a narrative of death and decline in rural that actually inhibits the ability for us to consider these rural places as viable places to succeed for our families and for our households.

"So this does the negative narrative persists. It's very apparent. And the inclination for people to believe that our towns are dying. But then again, if you rather believe our small towns are stable, not stagnant, even that you have a whole different set of strategies to help towns. I mean, if you believe your town is dying, you're going to have one set of strategies. If you believe your town is stable and has potential for the future, then you end up with another set of strategies.

"So it really for us is working on the ground with local leaders to understand some of these dynamics of why your homes are filled with older people right now and what might happen over the next 20 years when, you know, 70% of your homes become substituted out. One and two person households are literally dying and you're bringing in 3 to 5 person households. This is a new path forward for rural that we haven't had an opportunity to see before."

This program aired on May 3, 2023.


Claire Donnelly Producer, On Point
Claire Donnelly is a producer at On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



Listen Live