Thursday, April 7, 2016

Millennials: Cities and Suburbs

By Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

It’s 5:39 pm on a Saturday in late March. The sky is overcast and broody which pairs well with the mocha I just ordered from Dancing Goats Coffee, a shop located at the corner of Glen Iris and North Avenue or as everyone now calls the area: Ponce City Market. Given the area, a stone’s throw away from the Atlanta Beltline and directly in one of the Beltline’s biggest coups (sure there is an argument to be made that Ponce City Market would have been redeveloped without the Beltline; it is one to which I don’t particularly subscribe), that I sit down to read Ryan Gravel’s new book “Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure For a New Generation of Cities.” After all, it was Gravel’s thesis and strong support from local Atlanta councilwoman, Cathy Woolard, that would spur the massive 22 mile redevelopment project along Atlanta’s old railway corridors that, as of the time of this writing, has already transformed a two mile stretch of Atlanta from Monroe Drive to Irwin Street. And by transformed, I mean truly transformed almost to the point of being unrecognizable to this long time Atlanta resident who has vivid memories of driving past old City Hall East and going to concerts at the Masquerade, wondering if the car I just parked in a then open lot would be there upon my return.

Today, the Masquerade no longer sits next that lot where I parked my car years and years ago or across from a foreboding City Hall East. In the parking lot’s place is Atlanta’s most ecologically innovative park, the Historic Fourth Ward Park, whose Clear Creek Basin serves as a storm water runoff reservoir alleviating flooding that plagued the district for some time. If you look carefully around the basin, the 50 and 100 year flood plains are marked with white stone on the walls that enclose the walking path and reservoir. City Hall East is now, the far less menacing, Ponce City Market. 

But I digress. As an Atlanta resident, the first chapters of Gravel’s novel are refreshing. For once an urban planner is not hammering on all the “fatal” flaws of Atlanta and showcasing why the city is doomed to failure, usually with emphasis placed on the untenable situation of Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure and, most notably, its lack of public transit. Instead, Where We Want to Live is almost a celebration of Atlanta, both its central city as well as its suburbs. In all my years of studying urban planning, including a master’s degree in city and regional planning, I’ve never (and I stress the never) read the following words “there’s nothing wrong with sprawl,” at least not sequentially.

But there they were, “there’s nothing wrong with sprawl” – a whole chapter is dedicated to the historic value and virtue of suburban development in a book about one of the nation’s most ambitious, city-centric planning projects. There is, however, an important caveat that soon splashed cold water on the refreshing chapter on sprawl and suburbs, to quote Gravel:

“Ensuring that conclusion [the end of the suburban era], of course, is the destructive nature and obsolescence of sprawl. Its advantages, like cheap land and cheap houses, were also built on a less robust and less efficient network of infrastructure, leaving them now at a clear disadvantage. As the true costs of sprawl are being realized, characteristics like geographic isolation, demographic homogeneity, and visual uniformity that previously were considered advantages are now threatening the economic value of real estate stuck in sprawl. This territory is going to have a hard time adapting to new market conditions. The negative economic, health, and environmental consequences of sprawl are well documented elsewhere, as are the ways in which we subsidize it. Similarly demographic and generational shifts that suggest sprawl is not likely to be a competitive structure for our future economy are duly noted.”

Ah, well, it is an urban planning novel after all. Perhaps “there was nothing wrong with sprawl” is a more fitting title to the chapter. Gravel goes on to point at the inflexibility of suburban development, the sheer economics of redevelopment in suburban locations, and the more generous economics of locating new development farther and farther along the suburban fringe as impediments to their capacity to adapt. As I read the last line of the quote, however, I couldn’t help but think how deeply that insight impacts my professional life and its implications for the communities in which we work. That the demographic and generational shifts suggest that sprawl, and by association suburbs, are no longer competitive for our future economy.

Market Street unquestionably prides itself on the diversity of communities in which we work. Over the course of our introduction of who we are, we almost invariably say we’ve worked in 160 communities across 34 states. They are not all central cities: they are suburbs and rural areas – from towns of 21,000 people to diverse suburban communities nearing 900,000 in population to metropolitan regions with 2 million or more residents. To declare that demographic and generational shifts suggest that suburban development is no longer competitive for our future economy, directly writes off a large swath of the nation as well as many of our client communities, communities we have a vested interest in seeing succeed. It does, however, point to the central question in community and economic development at present: where will millennials want to live? Where will the generation after that want to live? Or more appropriately: where will both groups decide to settle?

As with any projection into the future, I can only go with my gut. And it is this: For decades, suburbs were the soup de jour, America’s population had an almost unquenchable taste for suburban living. Pulled by its safety, quality school systems, and spacious housing, America flocked farther and farther out on the fringes of the central city – suburban growth, at least in the American context, seemed as though it was a natural law. Betting against it, would be akin to betting against gravity. Consequently, central cities tended not to be able to compete with their suburban counterparts in attracting and retaining residents, thus, the vast majority became job centers with stagnant or dwindling residential populations. Today, growth between the two has evened out. The “suburban development can’t compete rhetoric” is, in my humble view, an overreaction to the re-emergence of central cities as a destination for people to live. Not necessarily the wholesale decline of suburban areas.