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Will the 2016 election change our thinking on cities?

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Acting locally in the wake of national upheaval

2016 presidential election results by county, weighted by population distribution
All maps by Mark Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan

In the past week, one of the most astute post-election explainers was an essay on Cracked using examples from three movies—The Hunger Games, Star Wars, Braveheart—to help explain why the 2016 election was not about Republicans vs. Democrats, but really about The Country vs. The City.

That’s the narrative that many are clinging to this year: People who live in rural communities felt exceptionally angry towards a federal government that failed them, and voted for a new direction.

Maps of new jobs and new businesses over the last few years were rolled out that showed little economic growth outside of cities, which helped to feed growing resentment towards city-dwellers.

“We country folk are programmed to hate the prissy elites,” writes David Wong in his Cracked piece. “So yes, they vote for the guy promising to put things back the way they were, the guy who'd be a wake-up call to the blue islands. They voted for the brick through the window. It was a vote of desperation.”

2016 presidential election results by county

The “blue islands in a sea of red” phenomenon is nothing new, of course. The country’s largest urban metropolises have voted Democratic for decades. These urban-liberal “bubbles” created by bigger cities are being blamed for not exposing these Americans to political opinions different from their own, magnified by the death of local news outlets, a lack of diversity in the newsroom, and the tendency to mediate an information diet through Facebook.

We’ve heard a lot this week about how Americans need to pay more attention to places like the Rust Belt or Flyover Country or the Heartland—these are all mildly to blatantly offensive terms according to people who live there, by the way—to understand why they felt left behind.

While plenty of people are getting left behind in the blue islands, too—neighborhoods ravaged by income inequality have forced tens of thousands of Americans onto the streets—it highlights an important issue that this election brought into laser focus: Much of the country feels so disconnected from government that voting was an act of “desperation.”

And that’s just the Americans who decided to take action in this election. Almost half of the country’s population—about 42 percent, which is really not any different from the 2012 election—decided that the future wasn’t worth voting for at all.

Unfortunately, that has a lot to do with where we live, too.

Urban populations and the Electoral College

About 80 percent of the U.S. lives in what the Census would designate “urban” area; one in three Americans live in the metropolitan areas of the country’s 10 largest cities. That’s almost the exact opposite of the demographic makeup of the country when it—and the Electoral College—was first founded.

The fact that a majority of Americans live in cities is being cited as one reason Hillary Clinton lost the election, even though she had more popular votes. Over the last few decades, more liberal voters have ghettoized themselves by moving to larger cities (or, city-dwelling voters became more liberal after living there), which are concentrated in a handful of states—New York, California—already guaranteed to go blue.

2016 presidential election results by state

This “votes in all the wrong places” argument is one criticism of the electoral process. It may also contribute to lower turnout in certain places: Some people don’t vote in those states because their votes “don’t count” in the Electoral College, and due to this process, some states are all but ignored by campaigns.

That’s a good argument to reform the voting process to reflect the way Americans live today, if not the outright abolishment of the Electoral College. Supposedly Obama’s post-presidency task will be working on redistricting, something that’s desperately needed in many gerrymandered communities. And there’s still a lot of work to be done to expand voter rights, especially when it comes to providing fair access to democracy tools for certain groups which have been historically disenfranchised.

But in my quest to try to find out how we fix a disillusioned democracy, I discovered that I have a lot to learn from two places that weren’t really talked about this election: America’s suburbs and mid-sized cities.

A shiny new opportunity for suburbs

Where Americans can afford to own their homes, the incentive to protect their investment motivates people to devote time to their communities. When you have a high percentage of home ownership, you have a high rate of citizen engagement.

It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that the suburbs are the types of communities that also have the highest voter turnout.

Suburbs have been pegged as homogenized enclaves for the affluent, but even that is changing. The most recent Census data shows that the rate of urbanization is slowing, largely due to affordability issues in those big cities. People priced out of cities are turning suburbs into denser, transit-connected, more diverse places to live. And they can afford to put down roots there.

2016 presidential election results using purple to show which counties were more evenly split

Smaller American cities also offer this opportunity. There were some calls for Americans to recalibrate the ideological imbalance after the election—“Don’t move to Canada, move to a swing state”—recommending that people discouraged by the election results should leave the big cities on the coasts for a mid-sized, inland, more affordable city (you know, in the Rust Belt or Flyover Country or the Heartland) where their vote could make a difference.

In fact, both of these things—remaking suburbs and moving to smaller American cities—are precisely what millennials are doing. And hopefully, bringing their energy and idealism with them.

What we talk about when we talk about “urbanism”

Being called the “urbanism editor” of a publication means I get asked a lot of questions about what, exactly, I cover. Before, during, and after the election, I’ve thought a lot about what that means. There’s been plenty written about how cities will continue to lead the national conversations around climate change, immigration, and human rights. And while many of my stories (as well as Curbed’s focus more broadly) are about “cities,” much of what I actually write about is how Americans are working to make change in their communities. No matter where they live.

A month-and-a-half before the election, we published a story called “101 small ways you can improve your city.” We watched, astounded, as it was shared across a wide-ranging audience, even (especially!) ones that were diametrically opposed in principle. Groups that identified as liberal, conservative, Libertarian, religious, non-denominational, suburban, rural, institutional, educational, environmental, governmental—they all shared it, and in countries and languages all over the world.

In the days after the election, we watched this story recirculate again, bolstering our thesis that small, local actions often transcend political affiliations. The desire to make your community a better place is universal.

What all Americans need is a better way to know what’s happening locally, to have their voices heard, and to unite around tangible goals. Maybe it’s building accessible technology to bridge people to their elected representatives. Maybe it’s designing better public places that encourage more physical interaction. What if the key is simply making it easier for more Americans to own their homes, connecting them to their neighborhoods like never before?

These are all the types of stories we write every day at Curbed. And these are the stories that I plan to write more of in the next four years.