Livingston County, Michigan: Portrait of an Exurb

by Kate Townley December 04, 2023

Sandwiched between metros Detroit and Lansing, Livingston County holds the in-between status of suburban-rural hybrid. It raises the question of whether the county fits into big city ideals or those of a small town.

“I kind of look at it two different ways,” said business owner Kevin Ridge. “There are people who want to see it stay rural, but at the same time, all of these subdivisions are being built.”

Ridge, the owner of Black Iron Coffee Roasters in Howell, Michigan, said while people want more growth in their community, they don’t necessarily want the houses and developments that come with it. “Everyone holds onto that idea of a small town … and however that value is set up in their heads,” he said.

The challenge then becomes how you define small town, especially in a county like Livingston, which has seen consistent growth over the past 50 years, according to the Federal Reserve Economic Data. Between 2012 and 2022, the population increased more than 7%. With continued growth, it’s clear that Livingston County is a “blend between rural and suburban,” as Howell resident Aaren Currie described.

A Classic Exurban Community

Currie referred to Livingston County as an exurb, which matches the county’s classification by the American Communities Project. Exurbs tend to be wealthy, with higher populations, which explains the growth Ridge and Currie have noticed.

Whether you’re in a rural or suburban part of Livingston County, you’ll find people who came looking for something specific. With turmoil going on in the country, Fowlerville resident and owner of Healing Hearts with Horses, Christina Beaubien said, “More people here come to be in a bubble.”

Inside the Livingston County “bubble,” the median household income is high — at nearly $89,000 — and the diversity is lacking, with the population almost 94% non-Hispanic white, according to the latest U.S. Census. Both statistics are higher than the general population of exurban communities in general. Based on data from the American Communities Project, exurban counties have a median household income just above $80,000 and a non-Hispanic white population of 78%.

Having lived in parts of Livingston County his whole life, Currie said the biggest change he’s seen in the community over time is the number of people moving to the area. Yet from Currie’s perspective, the new people coming in haven’t negatively impacted the community’s atmosphere.

“They [new residents] become more rural than we become urban,” Currie said. Despite growth, a sense of community has stayed consistent.

Both Currie and Ridge said people move from larger areas — like big cities — and come to Livingston County to change the pace of their everyday lives. In doing so, they escape the traffic and bustle that some people view as problematic. Currie said space plays into this, too, since Livingston County’s rural areas allow for a certain amount of breathing room.

Rural Towns and Dirt Roads

Beaubien can attest to this desire for space. She said that’s largely why her family made the move from the more suburban Brighton area to the rural town of Fowlerville. The difference between the two towns was stark.

“As soon as it turned into dirt [road], our stress went away,” Beaubien said. And in the rural outskirts of Livingston County, there are plenty of dirt roads to be found. Driving the backroads of Cohoctah Township, you can see cornfields, barns, horses, cows, and all sorts of wildlife roaming the sides of the road. Houses are spaced far apart, and Beaubien said it’s easy to get lost going down the winding streets.

The tranquility that Beaubien said she finds is perfect not just for raising her two daughters but also for the programs she runs through her business, Healing Hearts with Horses. Her equine life coaching programs help children — especially those in grade school — to learn and develop different social emotional skills. From group drop-ins to individual goal-oriented sessions to mini story time on Friday mornings, Beaubien offers children the opportunity to connect with horses.

Beaubien’s vast, almost 30-acre property in the rural Fowlerville area is different from the busier streets of downtown Howell, where Ridge’s coffee shop is located. Howell is alive with festivals, frequent farmers' markets, and thriving small businesses. The town’s historic markers, signs, and old buildings are well kept, and at the same time, newness and change mark the county’s growth.

Howell prides itself on its community gatherings, including festivals and the Sunday farmers’ market, which is consistent and prominent enough to warrant its own sweetly decorated sign. Photo credit: Abbie Townley

A Place of Shared Values

When people come to Livingston County, Beaubien said what they are looking for are people with shared values. Many look for the small-town feel of “everybody knows everybody” in rural areas or the “everyone looks out for everyone else” attitude found throughout the county, Beaubien adds.

In Fowlerville, Beaubien has connected with people who share commonalities with her. Beaubien's experience in the community has been positive, and she finds that people around her care about working hard, helping others, and raising their families. As someone who works with children, Beaubien finds these values trickle down. “Even the kids are down-to-Earth,” she said.

Beyond a set of specific individual values, Currie said residents have a shared mindset. To him, it was important to teach his children to be respectful, have good manners, and stand up for what they believe in. People in Livingston County look out for their own. It’s part of their way of life.

Ridge sees a certain level of rigid thinking, and at the same time, there are people and places trying to break out of that mold. His business, for example, is welcoming to all people.

“Our place is a kind of safe haven for anybody,” Ridge said. His experience reflects this sentiment, he said, pointing out that his sales increased during the pandemic, despite everything going on.

This is part of a series of posts from students at the Michigan State University Journalism School. The students will be covering four counties around Michigan during the 2024 campaign for the Detroit Free Press working with the American Communities Project typology.

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Deaths of Despair Across America

The American Communities Project is undertaking a 30-month study of Deaths of Despair in its 15 community types.

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