The University Record, April 8, 2002

Survey finds the good life in Detroit

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

If you think that life in Southeastern Michigan must have been more satisfying a quarter century ago, a new study suggests you may be wrong. For many area residents, the good old days, it seems, are not really gone.

About 83 percent of the Wayne, Oakland and Macomb county residents surveyed in 2001 said they were satisfied with their lives as a whole, compared to slightly more than 80 percent surveyed in 1974, according to the study conducted by the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

“Objective indicators of quality-of-life such as housing conditions and population density have changed dramatically over the past few decades,” says Robert W. Marans, a professor of architecture and urban planning and a senior research scientist at the ISR, who was lead investigator of the study. “But in the midst of all the change, subjective feelings of satisfaction have been remarkably stable.”

The average weekly commute for metro area residents increased by just half an hour since 1974, Marans found. But the time crunch has hit area residents hard. In 1974, 60 percent of those surveyed expressed satisfaction with the amount of time they had to do the things they wanted to do and less than one-third said they were “completely satisfied.” In 2001, only 48 percent said they were somewhat satisfied with this aspect of their lives, and only 12 percent said they were “completely satisfied.”

The survey is the latest Detroit Area Study conducted by ISR in collaboration with the U-M Department of Sociology. Every year since 1951, U-M researchers have interviewed residents of Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties, and the city of Detroit about a wide range of topics, from racial attitudes to health and aging. Earlier studies on the quality of community life were conducted in 1974 and 1980.

For the 2001 survey, Marans expanded the scope of the survey to include residents of Livingston, Monroe, St. Clair and Washtenaw counties. In all, about 4,400 residents were interviewed by mail or in person for the 2001 survey.

“Compared to residents of Detroit 25 years ago, those living in the city today expressed a lower sense of satisfaction with their lives,” says Marans. “About 35 percent said they were ‘completely satisfied’ in 1974, compared to only 22 percent in 2001.”

Marans found that about three-quarters of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb residents surveyed were at least somewhat satisfied with their neighborhoods in both 1974 and 2001. But neighborhood satisfaction among Detroit city residents plummeted 71 percent to 48 percent during the same period.

Housing satisfaction among area residents dropped 82 percent to 75 percent, he found, with the percentage of those saying they were “completely satisfied” with their home falling from about 40 percent to 16 percent in both the three-county area and among Detroit city residents.

“In part, the decline in housing satisfaction reflects an aging housing stock, particularly in Detroit and its older suburbs,” says Marans.

Among the other survey findings:

  • Commuting time increased from an average of three hours and 43 minutes a week in 1974 to four hours and 12 minutes in 2001, with 63 percent reporting that their commutes were sometimes or always stressful. About 53 percent of those surveyed in 2001 said they would be willing to pay more taxes to relieve traffic congestion in the area.

  • About 36 percent of the residents of Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties said they know more than half their neighbors by name, down from 43 percent in 1974.

  • Nearly half (49 percent) of those in the seven Southeast Michigan counties included in the survey agreed that there was a strong sense of community in their area, with 80 percent agreeing that their neighbors were friendly people.

  • The survey also assessed public attitudes about a wide range of public services, including street maintenance, public schools and recreational facilities, and about various public policy issues, including air pollution, racial tensions, farmland preservation and urban sprawl.

  • About 59 percent of the area residents surveyed agreed that racial tensions affected the quality of life in the metro Detroit area, while only 37 percent agreed that having a vibrant and active downtown Detroit was important to their overall quality of life.

  • About 65 percent agreed that preserving farmland would improve the quality of life for future generations but when asked which of two neighborhood designs they preferred, more than three-quarters preferred the choice depicting single family houses on large versus small lots with no shared open space.