Twentysomething in the City

Millennials are aging out of their 20s. How will cities and suburbs respond to be livable for everyone?

By Matt Carmichael on April 8, 2015 at 8:58 am CDT
Twentysomethings in a coffee shop

Every day 12,000 Americans cease being 20-somethings. The Millennials, as this generation has come to be called, have been given a lot of credit/blame for the renewed urbanism and the remaking of our downtowns as places to walk, bike, live and work. Educated 20-somethings are a valued commodity talent-wise, and corporate America has responded by moving headquarters into urban centers or setting up downtown offices in addition to suburban complexes in order to have a footprint in the city.

It’s not just the technology firms but traditional brick-and-mortar companies like Marriot in Washington D.C. In Chicago alone, Archer Daniels Midland and Mead Johnson are among more than 30 companies that have moved their headquarters into downtown in recent years.

In the process of attracting this prized demographic, we’ve created a lot of so-called “Creative Class” enclaves with easy access to transit, coffee and Wi-Fi. In a recent New York Times Op-ed, Brittany Bronson feared that we are turning our cities into luxury goods. “When we define livability as luxury, or point to a millionaire’s playground as a worthwhile model, then our conversations of how to improve our communities will always come at the expense of the poor,” she wrote.

She has a point. It’s not just a danger; it’s a reality in many places. The former site of Cabrini Green, one of Chicago’s “worst” housing projects is now populated with high-end condos and townhomes. Its previous tenants have been displaced, often to lower cost-of-living cites like Madison, Minneapolis and even Atlanta.

Two things need to happen.

First, we need to recognize that Millennials are changing. It is true they are getting married later, having kids later, and buying homes and cars later. This has been called “delayed life stages.” The reasons behind this are a complex array of social, demographic, cultural, technological and, especially, economic factors. It’s not a sudden process, but the Millennials have accelerated or tipped a number of long-simmering trends. A larger portion of this generation than before might not follow this typical path of “school-marriage-house-kids” at all but the majority will.

They haven’t remade adulthood entirely, but they’ve remade what it means to be in your 20s. There’s plenty of reason to believe that the following generation will carry this on.

There is now a decade of adulthood ideally suited to urban living, and cities have taken advantage. For 10 or so years, a cohort of people exist with few “anchor responsibilities” (kids, houses) competing for their time and money. They don’t have/don’t want cars. They live alone (now nearly 30 percent of households have just one person) or with roommates. They want and even need easy access to transit, social opportunities and entertainment. Living in smaller spaces means they need places to gather outside the home, over a craft beer or a $5 latte. They’re thriving in this environment, and cities are thriving by having them. Functions like bars, shopping, restaurants, offices and housing used to be separated in districts, and many of these districts were historically high-end. The difference is now they can coexist downtown. Work life, after-work life and home life collide causing a major shift in how we view our urban spaces. That’s all OK, really. Places you can take transit to and stroll around within are assets that all community members should be able to take part in and benefit from.

But then, we also have to realize that day-to-day that isn’t for everyone. It isn’t even necessarily for the Millennials themselves now. The data show that Millennials are starting to get married, have kids and turn their gaze outward toward the, gasp, suburbs looking for more space and better schools. Real estate investors and developers are flocking to meet their new demands.

So how do we take what we’ve learned and apply it to our neighborhoods and even to our suburbs. One lesson we can learn is that we can create more “urban-like” spaces with walkability and transit and mixed-use –places we can live and work – in places other than the city center. As urban theorists like Christopher Leinberger, Ellen Dunham-Jones and others have suggested this will help to fulfill the overwhelming demand, making it less and less of a luxury good and more of a norm.

More importantly, we should look at the work of Fred Kent and those in the placemaking movement. Their focus on improving public places in neighborhoods of all social and economic demographics means that people can gather, congregate, and build communities even without the entry fee of an expensive cup of coffee. Having safe places to be active and engaged in a community can help all of our neighborhoods, not just the most well-off, thrive.

Then, and only then, will our cities truly be livable places for everyone.

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