How are Millennials Driving Mass Urbanization?

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July 2018


Writer // Janelle Morrison           Photography // Submitted

Across the globe, rural populations are increasingly moving to urban centers, creating a global mass urbanization phenomenon. Big cities are growing even bigger with greater population density. Experts throughout the industries of city planning, demography and other related fields debate over the key reasons as to why this is occurring, how this growth affects cities’ infrastructure and housing markets, and the impact that it has had on suburbs and exurbs. But the City of Carmel has been preparing for new urbanism long before it was a global topic of conversation.

In a recent article written by Steve LeVine and published by “Axios,” LeVine discussed the mass urbanization trend and specifically how Millennials are the key driving force behind the population shift.

Quoted in LeVine’s article, William Frey, a demographer, said that while some cities will still attract “affluent Millennials,” he said, “For this younger generation, what I see is more clustered developments within the suburbs, and smaller metros, greater reliance on public transportation and perhaps ride-hailing and self-driving cars.”

Perhaps the reason behind the new urbanism is as simple as Millennials are now at the stage in life that they desire “big city” amenities and walkability/bikeability with access to high-performing school districts paired with a myriad of affordable housing options and shorter commutes to work.

Jeff Speck, principal, Speck & Associates LLC, offered his explanation as to the causes and effects of the new urbanism movement. Speck is a city planner and urban designer who advocates internationally for more walkable cities. As director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2007, he presided over the Mayors’ Institute on City Design and created the Governors’ Institute on Community Design. Since 2007, he has led Speck & Associates, a boutique planning firm that specializes in making American downtowns thrive. Speck authored “Walkable City,” which was the best-selling city planning book of 2013-16.

“Millennials moving away from urban centers is not the dominant trend,” Speck stated. “In fact, 77 percent of Millennials polled say they want to live in America’s ‘urban cores.’ The issue is that there is not enough safe, affordable urban housing available for them, so many of them end up in the suburbs instead. Some people have mistaken this fact as an indication of a desire to flee the city, but it is anything but. Similarly, if urban cores don’t have good schools, many Millennials will end up moving to the suburbs once they have school-age children. Many would rather not, but of course, schools power most parental decisions.”

Speck went on to explain that the actual trend is Millennials (and others) prefer suburbs or exurbs that offer urban amenities over those that do not. “Only 10 percent of people polled by the NAR (National Association of Realtors) wanted to live in a house that was surrounded by other houses. Sixty percent want to live in a place where they can walk to shops, offices, schools, parks and other activities. These two things – mixed-use planning and a walkable streetscape – are what Mayor Brainard had in mind when he began the Arts & Design District so many years ago and have served to distinguish Carmel from almost all of its surrounding towns by offering a relatively urban lifestyle to suburban residents. For many people, this combination represents the best of both worlds.”

The redevelopment of the asphalt flatlands and proverbial retail ghost towns, otherwise known as parking lots and mostly vacant strip malls, has been essential for economic revitalization in suburbs and exurbs like Carmel. City Center and the Center for the Performing Arts campus are prime examples of such redevelopment and repurposing of land. Cities and towns were not first established and developed around massive highways and expansive shopping centers. So at what point in our nation’s history did city planners and developers steer away from mixed-use and walkable town centers?

“This is a huge topic, covered in our book, ‘Suburban Nation,’” Speck shared. “The short answer is that by mid-century, all planning and redevelopment reoriented itself around the presumption that every trip would be made by automobile, and the entire landscape reshaped itself around moving cars as quickly as possible and parking them as conveniently as possible. Unfortunately, nobody did the math to discover that universal driving would not allow cities of any density to function without tremendous time wasted in traffic, pollution, obesity and an incredible downward pressure on development, thanks to the incredible inefficiency of wrapping every human in a two-ton prosthetic device.”

Speck shared that Millennials, unlike the previous generations, were raised to admire urban living rather than to fear it. He believes that culture is a contributing factor by way of television shows such as “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Sex and the City” and other urban shows that depicted a fun, active and walkable lifestyle within an urban center. “They probably, by adulthood, had spent so many hours stuck in traffic that they just didn’t want any more of that. Can you blame them?”

Speck, who is familiar with Carmel and actually worked on a project for the City at one point, shared his observations on what the City has done and is continuing to do to remain a healthy and attractive city.

“Carmel, during Mayor Brainard’s tenure, has taken several key steps to attracting those who want to enjoy urbanism in the suburbs,” Speck said. “The first was the improvement and reinforcement of the City’s Main Street in the Arts & Design District, including a large housing component, which is always central to making a great place. The second was the creation of a walkable Civic Center around City Hall and the Palladium. The key third step, which I worked on, was the connecting of those two areas, only half a mile apart, with an urban corridor surrounding the Monon Trail, so that the walk between them will be not just safe but useful, comfortable and interesting. When all three areas are continuously walkable in the fullest sense of the word, then Carmel will have an urban core that reaches critical mass and, beyond being an amenity, really begins to free its citizens from the need of owning a car and driving it all the time.”

We asked Mayor Brainard his thoughts on new urbanism. “We have to compete and make certain that Carmel is one of the most beautiful cities with the best amenities, good transportation system, good parks and trails system, wonderful schools and public library,” Brainard said. “If we continue to offer these amenities, we will be able to compete for hundreds of years as a great place to live.”

Brainard concluded, “We have found that Millennials want the same things as retirees. They want to live in a place where they can walk to dinner, take their dog for a walk, ride their bikes on the trails and pass through areas that are interesting to pass through. People want options and can choose to live in one of our beautiful subdivisions or in condos, townhomes or apartments and walk to work or to places of recreation. That is why we are building Carmel the way that we are.”