Thursday, June 23, 2016

The City vs. The Suburbs

Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant

Earlier this month, Planetizen ran an article entitled “What Millennials Want, and Why it Doesn’t Matter.” The title was intriguing. We’re so focused on what millennials want—there are multitudes of articles every month detailing new research on what millennials say they want, on what they buy, on where they move, where they travel, their psychology, etc. And, obviously, we think it does matter what millennials want or we wouldn’t be doing so much research or writing and reading so many articles. We think it matters because millennials are the up and comers. They’re the young talent everyone wants to attract. They’re the future of our cities and towns and country. And, there are a lot of them (70 or 80 million depending on who’s counting). Of course we should care what they want. Right? 

I had to read the article. 

Spoiler alert: it turns out that it does matter what millennials want, surprise. However, and this really was surprising, at least when it comes to housing and transportation preferences, millennials want the same thing their parents and grandparents want these days: not to have to drive so much. 

Millennials, like their parents and grandparents, on the whole prefer to live in single-family homes in mixed-use areas where they rarely need a car. 

For a while we were told that millennials loved living in the city. In the past year, however, we’re seen a flurry of articles about millennials’ preferences for suburban living (e.g. “Generation Y Prefers Suburban Home Over City Condo” from The Wall Street Journal last year, “Think Millennials Prefer The City? Think Again” on, and “What if City-Loving Millennials Are Just a Myth?” on the urbanedge blog, just to name a few). One theory is that as millennals get older, make more money, want to settle down and perhaps raise children, they are following the lead of previous generations and moving to the ‘burbs. According to some who hold this theory, the reason so many older millennials still live in cities isn’t because they love city living, but rather that they came of settling-down age in a down economy and couldn’t afford to move to the suburbs. Instead, they stayed in their downtown apartments or turned to more affordable, low-income, in-town neighborhoods and began gentrifying them. Since they couldn’t afford suburbia, they bought the next best thing. 

Whatever your theory, the research indicates that millennials want to live in single-family homes outside of city centers. But, new research suggests that they don’t want to live in the sleepy, bedroom communities that attracted previous generations. They want compact mixed-use and they don’t want to have to rely on a car. 

Perhaps during all those extra years in the city in their 20s (compared to previous generations) they got used to the amenities of the city and the ease of walking, biking, and using public transit. According to Ben Cummins, author of the aforementioned “What Millennials Want, and Why it Doesn’t Matter,” it’s not just millennials who want compact mixed-use though. Preference surveys suggest that people of all ages prefer mixed-use neighborhoods to purely residential ones.

The thrust of Cummins’ article is that the majority of people across age groups prefer single-family homes in mixed-use neighborhoods, but most of those people don’t get what they want. Our housing stock is mostly split into apartments and condos in densely populated, mixed-use, urban areas and single-family homes in residential, suburban areas. In the city vs. the suburbs debate, there’s no clear winner. Both have things we want and living in either requires we sacrifice other things we want.

Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why gentrified in-town neighborhoods are so popular. They typically include single-family homes but are mixed-use. They are often served by public transit and are both walkable and bikeable.

If we could somehow rework suburban areas to be more mixed-use and less car-centric, we might be able to please a lot of people. For the last couple of years we’ve heard all sorts of talk about the death of the suburbs. Maybe it is time for the car-centric, residential suburb to die and be reborn as a more walkable, more condensed, mixed-use suburb. Clearly Americans are still in love with the suburban idea, but the suburbs must change to accommodate changing ideals.

That is, unless the driverless car disrupts this whole desire for walkability and ease of transit and makes the car-centric, residential suburb once again supremely desirable. For more on that, check out Christopher Mims’ “Driverless Cars Fuel Suburban Sprawl” from The Wall Street Journal this week.