Infographic: Are You A City Slicker, Or A Suburbanite In Disguise?

An NPR-designed decision tree makes an educated guess about whether or not you live in a city.

We’re living in the early years of what many call the "Urban Century." Cities aren’t just growing, they’re transforming—at unprecedented speeds and scales. A new series from National Public Radio, The NPR Cities Project, aims to examine what urbanism means today, through long-form pieces and data visualizations.

Click to enlarge.

NPR’s newest infographic, Do You Live In A City? caught my eye last week. The decision-tree style image leads you through a series of mundane binary inquiries, finally spitting you out at one of six possible answers, ranging from "Definitely Yes" to "Definitely No." Obvious factors, like transportation mode and housing type, are joined by more inexplicable ones, like how long it takes you to get to Starbucks and whether or not you go to work before dawn.

Designers Nelson Hsu, Natalie Jones, Melanie Taube, and Tanya Ballard Brown open with a little disclaimer: "this chart may (or may not) show you if you’re really an urbanite." The "or maybe not" speaks volumes. To the ire of many NPR commenters, the chart is often wrong. But that may be the point: Cities are in-flux like never before, and typical markers associated with urbanism, like population density and commercial infrastructure, no longer apply.

For example, I’m a Brooklynite who lives 20 minutes away from the nearest Starbucks. Do I live in a city? "Maybe." One commenter, who reverse-commutes from downtown Boston to work in the suburbs, points out that the chart says she definitely doesn’t live in a city. Another points out that there are more types of public transportation than buses and trains. The Starbucks questions seems to cause the most trouble. If you don’t have a Starbucks, says the chart, you definitely don’t live in a city. If the nearest is a short drive away, you might. If you can walk to one, Probably Not. If you can walk to two or more, Maybe. Confused? "Double barreled questions, non-exclusive choices, ambiguous paths, suspect definitions" abound, comments ChicagoSouth.

Data like this is tricky. First of all, the graphic relies on data culled from a number of disparate resources, like the U.S. Census, the Brookings Institute, and a number of other advocacy groups—it’s not exactly evenly calibrated. Secondly, even the most intelligent urban thinkers are struggling to redefine the term "urban." The chart says far more about our flawed understanding of cities, than of cities themselves. NPR’s Cara Philbin confirms, saying that "the point of the graphic is to show that while it is very difficult to define a city, here are some things that could point you in one direction."

The big generalization we hear over and over—the world is urbanizing!—is a simplistic picture of a complex reality. In truth, the days of "town and country" disappeared decades ago. Today, we deal in dozens of shades of urbanism, ranging from the edge cities and periurbanism to urban agrarianism.

[Image courtesy of Nelson Hsu, Natalie Jones, Melanie Taube, Tanya Ballard Brown/NPR; top image: Pontus Edenberg/Shutterstock]

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  • Mira

    I think this infographic was meant to be funny and not to
    provide actual information. It's not supposed to cater to every person's
    individual place of residence.

  • Allen 652

    I live in a house in inner city Columbus, OH, about 2.5 miles from the city center. I am told that "No" I do not live in the city because I drive (required for my job, and also not super safe to walk where I live) to my office without bumper to bumper traffic and passing fewer than 10 lights. I might mention that I live less than a mile from my office and chose the location specifically because I could stick to primarily residential side streets and avoid the bumper to bumper traffic leading into downtown. If I drove to an office a few miles away in downtown, or even to one in the suburbs, I would "probably" live in the city, which seems fair given the size and current urbanization of Columbus. Or if I walked to work (it's close enough), I would definitely live in the city.

  • David

    The suburbs still have outstanding benefits than cramped, crowded city living. Dont me fooled by the hype.

  • Nikki Sylianteng

    What would be more interesting to me is "Are you a city person or suburbanite at heart?" Obviously I know whether I'm living in a city or a suburb now. I want to know if I prefer city or suburbs more.

  • Guest

    I live in Lakewood, Ohio, the most densely populated city between New York and Chicago (10,000 people/square mile).  I commute 7 miles (with more than 10 traffic lights) to downtown Cleveland.  I can walk to all types of stores, a library, a performing arts center, and parks.  The Walkscore for Lakewood is the highest in Ohio.  But it says I don't live in a city.  Who tests rubbish like this?

  • Andrew Lazorchak

    let's not abuse "infographic" terminology.  That is a, weak, decision tree at best.

  • SharedPhysics

    I alternate between biking and taking the subway to work, which means alternating between getting "definitely not" and "yes." That's a pretty extreme variance inn results for one person. I agree though that what it means to live in a city is in flux, so our metrics to "figure it out" no longer apply. But are people thinking of news ones? Perhaps the traditional metrics applies: population density:

    Question 1: How many people live around you in a quarter mile radius? 

  • RachelInCalifornia

    The coffee shops in my city are almost never Starbucks. So, I live in a city with historic coffee culture. Don't need anyone's flowchart to tell me where my home is.

  • Jay Shuffield

    The livestock question is simply incorrect.

    While I do not have any chickens yet, I am seriously considering getting a few hens for my small, very urban Bronx backyard.  Here in New York City, as in many other cities, hens are perfectly legal.

  • Michael Kulikowski

    so becuase I bike commute instead of walking the mile and a half to work I "probably don't" or "might" live in the city?

  • tlwong

    I drive to work, but have a reverse commute. So while I live in the city this decision tree thought otherwise.

  • Ed H

    For me the silly one is that the nearest *STARBUCKS* is a "quick drive", which means "Maybe". Yet I have four small local artisan coffee shops closer than that Starbucks, one at the end of the blocks.  If I choose to declare those as "Starbucks" for the purpose of the decision tree, then I have a choice: One within "A short walk", and I'm "Probably Not" in a city.  Two+ within a short walk, and I'm at a firm "Yes".

    So it all falls down to if I count local artisan (aka "hipster") coffee shops, and how long a walk I consider "short", to vary between Probably Not and Yes.

    (For the record, I'm definitively "in the city", but in the older residential area.  Firmly "city" not "suburb".)

  • Lindsay Tabas

    If they change Starbucks to any coffee shop then they'd be right on for Williamsburg, Brooklyn

  • Sushi

    What about those who work at home? Following the path Walk -> No -> No would put that person at probably not. This is the problem with having how you get to work as the first question.

  • Whea7

    This chart fails to take into account the fact that Atlanta is almost entirely trees