Residents of Greater Boston identify deeply with the capital city, and see it as a resurgent urban center that suburbanites visit more frequently than a decade ago, according to a new University of Massachusetts Amherst/Boston Globe poll.
Almost 90 percent of residents polled in Eastern Massachusetts believe the city has improved over the past two decades, according to the poll, which surveyed a region that is home to 3.3 million living inside Interstate 495. People said they feel safe in Boston, that race relations have improved, and that the city is better because Boston Harbor is cleaner; the Big Dig buried the Central Artery; and the development of the Seaport injected vibrancy into a once-forlorn stretch of waterfront.
In this sports-crazed city, shopping lures more people downtown than sporting events. Perhaps more telling of an urban renaissance: 55 percent of those surveyed cited dining as the city’s main draw, underscoring that restaurants have come a long way from baked beans and breaded scrod.
This fall, Boston’s momentum will face a significant test as the city elects its first new mayor in a generation. The race will kick into high gear after Labor Day as 12 candidates vie for support in the sprint to a preliminary election Sept. 24. The two top vote-getters will advance to the final in November.
The poll illustrates how crucial Boston is to the region as an engine for jobs, culture, and entertainment. And so the mayoral election will reverberate far beyond the city’s 48 square miles.
“Boston is a place where people want to be — that resounds through the metro area,” said Raymond La Raja, associate director of the UMass Poll. “It’s the cultural and intellectual center of the region. It’s the heart of the place. . . . It makes a difference who is leading it as mayor.”
People living outside Boston said they would be more likely to move to the city if there was more affordable housing, better parking, and less crime. The poll found that suburban residents have such a strong connection to the city that 67 percent tell people they are from Boston rather than the town in which they live. Nearly half of adults living within 25 miles of the city found themselves in Boston at least once a week.
When asked for one word to encapsulate the city, people described Boston as “historic” and “strong.” A similar question seeking a one-word description of city residents captured another essence of life in the Hub — Bostonians were labeled as both “friendly” and “rude.”
“I don’t think Bostonians are as angry as they were 20 years ago. The city is much friendlier,” said Stuart Peskin, 69, of Framingham, who was one of the poll respondents.
Peskin, executive director of an education nonprofit, recalled that when he first moved to Massachusetts from New York in the 1980s he would often be purposely given wrong directions by Bostonians as he attempted to navigate the city.
“It used to be, ‘Woe is the person who needs directions,’ ” Peskin said. “That’s gotten much better.”
The poll differed from many political surveys because it focused on regional issues instead of a candidate-to-candidate horse race. It was conducted for the Globe through UMass Poll by YouGov America, which interviewed 677 people from Aug. 15-19.
Respondents identified by YouGov lived in Boston and within 25 miles of the city, and they took the survey through a Web-based computer application. YouGov weighted the results using demographics for Greater Boston from the 2010 US Census.
The poll, which had a margin of error of 6.2 percent, did not include enough registered voters in Boston to provide an accurate snapshot of the mayor’s race. In the coming weeks, the Globe will publish a poll focused on Boston voters and their preferences for mayor.
The survey did give a sense of how the region feels about Mayor Thomas M. Menino and his legacy as he prepares to leave office after 20 years. Since Menino came to power, 86 percent of respondents said, Boston has become a better place.
Race relations appear to have improved remarkably over the past few decades, according to the poll. Two out of three people said race relations are more harmonious in Boston, a finding that was the same for both blacks and whites.
“We’ve done reasonably well in recent years of shucking off the ball and chains of racism that we as a city were held under in the past,” said poll respondent Rob Hurst of Southborough, a 59-year-old hotelier.
Respondents said they believed that Menino, a tireless advocate for Boston, has attracted more tourists and other visitors to the city.
Three out of four Boston-area adults surveyed said that the city has been well-run and they deemed Menino’s administration a success. Inside Boston, Menino’s approval rating jumped even higher, to a staggering 82 percent.
“When an office holder voluntarily retires you get an extra glow,” said Brian F. Schaffner, director of the UMass Poll. “Menino is going to love this poll. People seem pretty enthusiastic about him and very enthusiastic about the city.”
In the next mayor, Eastern Massachusetts residents said they want a chief executive who embodies Boston and promotes the city forcefully, the poll found. They want a mayor who encourages business but has a common touch that resonates with the working class.
The poll found that people have paid little attention to the race to replace Menino, a dynamic the pollsters said could be attributed to the success of the current administration and because there have been few divisive issues to arouse passion and mobilize the electorate.
Among the candidates, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley and City Councilor John R. Connolly each scored 10 percent in the poll. State Representative Martin J. Walsh finished in third place, with 7 percent selecting him as their top choice. Three other candidates — John F. Barros, Charles L. Clemons Jr., and Charlotte Golar Richie — each scored 4 percent.
Almost 60 percent of respondents in Boston and the suburbs said they had little to no interest in the race. Only 7 percent said they had been paying “a lot” of attention to the mayoral campaign.
“I’ve never seen such a small percentage,” said Schaffner, director of the UMass Poll. “I don’t think people have really tuned in to this race yet.”Wesley Lowery of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.