The United States is “one of the most mobile countries in the world,” according to a 2013 Gallup survey in which nearly 1 in 4 adults reported that they had moved within a five-year window. Some motivating factors for movers include the pursuit of higher education, proximity to cultural institutions and job opportunities. But relocating doesn’t always lead to the hoped-for happiness upon arrival. There can be a sense of unease in a new place that’s hard to put into words: a gut feeling that the city isn’t a good fit.
Martina Löw, an urban sociologist and a professor at Technische Universität Berlin, would argue that the problem that many people overlook is the Eigenlogik, the inherent logic or personality — a system of rules, habits, behavioral norms, architecture, history and culture, everything including the breadth of the streets, height of the buildings — of a city.
So how can you tell if a city is a good fit for you?
Consider the tempo
Dr. Löw advises you to consider whether you’re in step with a city’s rhythm or not. “You know when you’re somewhere else and suddenly you notice that you’re in everyone’s way because you’re too slow,” she said. “Or you can’t get past because you walk quickly and everyone else is too slow?”
One way to measure the speed of the city is by watching people on public transportation. While researching for her book, “Soziologie der Städte,” Dr. Löw observed in Berlin that although the underground comes approximately every three minutes, she saw people running after the train. In contrast, in Munich, she observed that although the subway runs approximately every 10 minutes, she rarely saw people running for the train.
Date a place
Charles Landry and Chris Murray, the co-authors of the book “Psychology & the City: The Hidden Dimension,” designed a personality test for cities based on seven scales of personality traits like “introvert vs. extrovert.”Although the practice of personality testing is contested in some fields of psychology, Mr. Murray said, the assessments suggest that just like in the early stages of a relationship, “you have to trial and test” your feelings toward a place. Mr. Landry recommends visiting the city before moving, if you have the money and time to do so.
Maybe you don’t. In that case, Colin Ellard, a professor of cognitive neuroscience and the director of Urban Realities Laboratory at the University of Waterloo, suggests watching a 360-degree immersive video of the city you’re thinking about moving to on YouTube. While immersive videos can be a helpful (though not perfect) alternative to visiting in person, it’s worth approaching other online sources of information with a degree of skepticism. That said, he advises prospective movers to take online opinions with a grain of salt, since reviews also tend to represent extremes: the people who loved or hated a place.
John F. Helliwell, an editor of the World Happiness Report, which ranks more than 150 countries by how highly their citizens rate the quality of their own lives, said that the biggest factor in finding happiness in a neighborhood or a community has to do with the quality of social interactions and the sense of belonging you have.
Traffic is one place where you might gain insight into the quality of the social interactions in a city. Do drivers in this city generally use the traffic wave instead of the middle finger? How do cars treat bikes? How do cyclists treat pedestrians? How do pedestrians treat each other? Dr. Helliwell said that in a more socially welcoming place, you can see this warmth in how people treat others in the public space with them.
In his words, do locals treat “strangers as friends they’re waiting to meet rather than as somebody who’s littering up the sidewalk?”
Ask yourself: What do I need?
Dr. Löw says you should start by asking yourself one question: Do you want the city to reflect your own character traits, or complement them? An extroverted, hyper-energetic person may not be best served by a city that replicates those qualities, like New York or Tokyo, for example. That individual might be better suited to a smaller, less hectic city, like Lisbon, which could act as a counterbalance.
Dr. Ellard said what you want or need from a city may also change with age. What you crave from a place at the age of 25 is probably different from what you want from a city when you’re in your 50s and expecting just one city to fulfill a person for their entire life might not be realistic. Dr. Helliwell agreed with this, observing that the older a person was, the more important deriving a sense of belonging from a place was (he pointed out that younger people might well derive much of their sense of belonging from their place of work, university or the communities surrounding their children’s school). He has observed that in places with lower population densities, inhabitants tend to be longer rooted in their communities, thus increasing the chances of those in the community growing more attached to each other.
Don’t overlook local “sexual identity cultures”
Japonica Brown-Saracino, a professor of sociology at Boston University, interviewed 170 lesbian, bisexual and queer women who had moved to coastal, progressive cities — Ithaca, N.Y., San Luis Obispo, Calif., Portland, Me., and Greenfield, Mass. — for her book, “How Places Make Us.” Although her findings can’t be applied uniformly across genders and locations, Dr. Brown-Saracino observed radically different sexual identities in each city. The four small cities all have growing lesbian populations, according to census data, but different identities. In Ithaca most people seemed post-identity politics, preferring to define themselves in terms of their job or their hobbies or their children rather than via sexuality. This was in contrast to Portland, where hyphenated sexual and gender identities took center stage.
However, she observed interviewees subconsciously adjusting their sense of self to the environment they had moved to. Back in Brooklyn, the same interviewee had primarily identified as a lesbian and had only socialized with other lesbians, but in Ithaca she found herself spending much of her time hanging out with straight men in a bar downtown. Only after moving did her interviewees realize how significant these differences were, which occasionally led to feelings of disappointment or loneliness.
To get a well-rounded view of the city, she recommends checking out local publications online and trying to meet as many groups of people when visiting, rather than sticking to specific scenes, neighborhoods or friend groups.
Put safety first
Jan Miles, who documents incidents of racism across the country from 2013 to 2016 in “The Post-Racial Negro Green Book,” said to do research before relocating. She recommends checking out mappingpoliceviolence.org — a website that filters incidents of violence across the United States according to race, gender and year, among other factors — and looking at political representation, both on a national and a state level, to see how diverse the politicians representing you are. She also suggests you look into whether the state the city is in has passed legislation about voting rights that aims to limit or dilute the political influence of voters of color.
If you’re part of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, Ian Palmquist, the senior director of programs for Equality Federation, an organization focused on L.G.B.T.Q. rights, said to look at “what the city’s policies protecting L.G.B.T.Q. people look like.” Mr. Palmquist recommends Human Rights Campaign and Equality Federation’s Municipal Equality Index, which rates different cities for their inclusivity in terms of municipal laws, policies and services. He also suggests checking out Movement Advancement Project’s list of cities with local nondiscrimination protections for a sense of how a city’s elected representatives view the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
Vishaan Chakrabarti, a professor at Columbia University and the author of “A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America,” recommends visiting public spaces — parks, airports, train stations — and getting a sense of how representative the crowds are.
By Sophie Atkinson