What Drives Relocation: Origin, Destination, or Both

In our last theme, we began to examine the priorities for and the possible trade-offs that communities often have to make between economic development and quality-of-life-enhancing investments. In this installment of our series, we examine how these priorities and trade-offs are managed by community members at the individual-level, looking at how the economic and quality of life opportunities presented to them in their current community compare to the opportunities they see located in other communities, and when this causes them to relocate and engage in residential mobility or stay put. 

Residential mobility is a sub-phenomenon of migration that can be understood as when a person relocates from one residence to another domestically. Most literature on residential mobility looks at relocation either within or between communities as people pursue different life opportunities, with research in the field focusing primarily on the push and pull factors that prompt a person to relocate (Moretti, 2013; Woldoff & Litchfield, 2021), the mechanisms that structure this decision-making – employment, lifestyle, life-stage and individual psychology (Fischer, 2016), and the outcomes of relocation on the individual and community levels. The very notion of push and pull factors assumes that there is an uneven geographic distribution of life opportunities between places and that there are characteristics of place that make different opportunities possible in some places and not elsewhere. The life opportunity being pursued is measured against these characteristics of place that actualize said opportunity, either pushing people away or drawing them to specific places.

This measurement happens within a decision-making structure which sets up a binary comparison between the place a person is currently living – their origin – and the place they could potentially move – their destination, with the decision to relocate the result of a calculation taking the balance of the differences between these points. While the literature on residential mobility hinges on this assumption, of a gap between origin and destination being the mechanism that prompts relocation, most studies focus either on push or pull factors in isolation from one another or considered in the abstract, with very few studies investigating the effect that the direct binary comparison of origin and potential destination has on informing the decision to engage in residential mobility.

Furthermore, when binary comparisons between places have been considered, it has been between general types of places as opposed to specific places themselves (Foulkes et al., 2008; Lichter et al., 2021; Sowl et al. 2021). Specific places are thought to fall into differential economic, social and cultural roles in relation to one other within national economic and social structures that take on generalized characteristics and relations to one another as general types of places – the urban, rural, or suburban (Gans, 1991; Massey, 2005). These relational hierarchies of place are thought to bracket and make possible different forms of residential mobility over others, with rural to urban mobility seen as predominating (Clark, 2012; Fitchen, 2010).

While these general categories of place have proven helpful for identifying and characterizing larger macro-patterns of national domestic in-migration, the distinctions and boundaries between these general categories of place have become harder to parse, with recent studies showing that the differences between urban and rural communities are smaller than their similarities and can be attributed to other spatial and non-spatial attributes (Lichter & Brown, 2011; Weber et al., 2005). The utility of these general categories is also limited in that they act as stand-ins for specific places themselves, obscuring the individual characteristics of a given community and its relation to other communities that could provide more explanatory power. People who are choosing to engage in residential mobility also do not see place in such a generalized way but look at specific places as containers of attributes and resources they can make use of that makes them more or less habitable.

Recognizing the limitations of previous studies of residential mobility and aiming to understand the impact of one’s origin community on their relocation preferences for potential destination communities, we conducted a study that employed a conjoint choice-selection experiment as part of a larger survey of rural Texas communities investigating their community development needs and priorities. A conjoint choice-selection is an experimental research design originating in marketing research that presents respondents with two products defined by certain attributes and asks respondents to choose between them (Lenk et al., 1996; Park, 2004). Presented with multiple choice-sets, the findings of such an experiment can isolate which attributes informed the selection of one product over another while also looking at how this attribute preference differs across respondent groups (Halme & Kallio, 2011).

In our study, we employed a conjoint choice-selection experiment on respondents in this rural Texas survey that, following other studies (Alshehri et al., 2013; Leykin et al., 2013), replaced products with communities. The conjoint first asked for respondents to place their community within a 6×3 attribute space (seen in Figure 1 below) accounting for variation across 6-dimensions of place characteristics including a community’s (1) distance from an urban center, (2) quality of its broadband environment, (3) number and variety of arts & culture options, (4) number and quality of employment options, (5) cost of living and (6) presence of community development projects at 3 levels of value.

Figure 1: Community Attribute Space

Figure 1: Community Attribute Space

Respondents were then presented with 18 choice-sets where they were asked to choose whether they would relocate to one of two communities presented in this attribute space or remain in their home community. These attributes were chosen to represent the community feature space as they were seen as key inter-related and competing features of place that would prompt residential mobility on the part of respondents, with employment generally being the primary pre-condition that allows one to live in a place. The cost of living is the level at which employment can guarantee tenancy in a community measured against local housing and consumption costs. One’s distance from a major city has an impact on one’s ability to access employment and consumption options. The broadband environment of a given place allows different levels of access to virtual forms of employment, commerce and consumption which can stand in for parallel attributes lacking in a physical place. Art and culture options often make living in a place feel more worthwhile, providing entertainment and symbolic forms of consumption which add an emotional and experiential boost to one’s life and have been seen as large draws for creative and white-collar workforces (Florida, 2019; Llyod, 2010). Community development projects show the level to which a place is, or is committed to, progressing and becoming better overtime, with progress and growth kick-started by these projects potentially leading to improvements in all the other previously listed place attributes.

The results of this conjoint are meant to evaluate the levels of importance that each community attribute holds in determining when respondents chose to relocate and engage in residential mobility. Using this conjoint choice-experiment, we isolated which community attributes were desirable and motivated residential mobility, and how the attributes of one’s home community influenced this importance. The unique contributions of this study come from both the unique baseline community assignments that the conjoint-item measured, allowing binary origin and destination comparisons, and the multi-dimensional attribute space that communities were located within for comparison. While most conjoint experiments ask simply for respondents to choose between two options given in the same attribute space, we also asked respondents to place their own community within this same attribute space, making each choice set a choice between three communities with two distinct options: relocate – choosing either of the two destination communities presented – or staying where they were – their origin community. These measures allowed us to look at the role that one’s origin community – their evaluation of said community – played in determining both whether they would relocate in this experiment and, if they did, what factors were most important in driving that decision and how.


To quantify the attractiveness of each place attribute on community relocation preferences, the study utilizes the average marginal component effect (AMCE) and average component interaction effect (ACIE). For each variable, the study treats the hypothetical least favorable options as the baseline, which is a community of 2 hours distance from CBD, with only 25MB broadband, little art options, little job opportunities, high living cost and cleaning up downtown without renovation (the smallest scale community development project). The coefficient for each factor reveals the marginal effect of the alternative compared to the baseline option. Figure 2 shows the estimated ACMEs for the six destination community attributes and their effect on decisions to relocate.

Figure 2: AMCE Plot of Relocation Preferences based on Destination Community Attributes

Figure 2: AMCE Plot of Relocation Preferences based on Destination Community Attributes

The result indicates that broadband and living cost are the two most important factors when people think of relocation, where broadband of 1GB compared to a basic 25GB increases the chance people will move to the new destination community by 18% and 100MB increasing it by 11%. The destination being a low-cost community increases the chances people will choose to move by 15%, and a medium-cost community by 8%, compared to a high-cost community. Distance to urban center and work opportunities are the second most important factors when relocating, where 30 minutes and 60 minutes distance to urban center compared to 2 hours increase the chances of relocation by around 10% while having some to many options for work increases the chances of relocation by around 9% compared to a community with few employment options. The art options weigh less compared to previous variables where more art options only increasing relocation chances by 3% chance compared to communities with less art options. Community development projects have the lowest impact on shaping relocation preferences, with major downtown revitalization being less favorable than cleaning up downtown without revitalization and decreasing the chance of relocation by 2.5% and cleanup with a limited revitalization not having any impact at all.

Given that cost of living, broadband environment, employment options and distance from an urban center are concerned more with present material factors of existence, we are not suprised that they take on an increased importance when compared to arts and culture options and community development projects in prompting residential mobility. The literature shows that those engaging in residential mobility are most often prompted to move by their employer or to attain social mobility, all things that these attributes of place contribute to in their own way.

Arts and culture options, while having a value in their own right, are perhaps viewed as more superfluous forms of consumption when weighed against these more material attributes of place. When people engage in residential mobility, they most often look more inward and individually when moving, disconnecting themselves from the concerns of their origin community asking what they personally can get out of a move. This would explain why the presence of community development projects representing community progress and growth in a destination community rank low to them. However, other findings coming out of this survey do show that these respondents do care about community development projects and growth in their origin communities and would most likely come to care about it again when they settled down in a new destination community.

In order to get at the originating question of this study, how does a binary comparison between one’s community of origin and a potential destination impact residential mobility decision-making, we included the self-identified attributes of a respondent’s origin community, including the six variables of distance to CBD, broadband, options to art, options to work, living cost and downtown renovation, and looked at how these attributes interacted (ACIE) with the potential destination community’s attributes to result in the choice to move or stay put. The ACIE describes how the marginal effect differentiated between community attributes. The assumption is that residents’ current community may have an impact on their attitude of choosing new communities.

Figure 3: ACIE Plot of Community Origin Attributes Interaction on Relocation Preferences

Figure 3: ACIE Plot of Community Origin Attributes Interaction on Relocation Preferences

Figure 3 explains how the community preferences are nested with their current communities. In terms of the location, people who live 2 hours away from the downtown are less likely to move closer than those currently live within 1hour from the downtown, meaning that location to urban center is a self-motivated selection. Also, for those who live within 60 minutes to downtown, it makes no significant difference whether it is one hour or half a hour away from downtown, meaning that 1hour to downtown is a gap where the shorten the distance downtown within 1hour makes no more attraction to residents while increase the distance over 1hour will decrease the chance to move to this community. The broadband variable indicates that the better broadband service the residents’ current community have, the more chance they’ll choose a higher broadband, meaning that people do not like opt-down for choices. Similarly, people living low-cost communities are more sensitive about the cost and are more willing to select a low-cost community, while people currently living in high-cost communities being less sensitive about living cost.

In summation, it seems that when people are contemplating relocation, what they look for in a destination community follows an almost Malthusian hierarchy of importance, with material resources that make life possible in a given community ranking higher in importance than the availability of certain forms of consumption or notions of community progress. It also seems that the attributes of one’s origin community do in fact shape what they look for in a potential relocation destination resulting from how they compare their current community to locations they might move to. Further analyses should look at how these preferences are further shaped by shared group membership at the demographic and community level (using clustering analysis) and how the interaction effect of origin communities on relocation preferences compares to the impact of other factors that have been identified as inducing and directing residential mobility (employment status, employment type, age, life-cycle stage, etc.).

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