How Millennials Are Changing the Suburbs

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016
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As the largest generation worldwide, Millennials are remaking the world in the way the Baby Boomers did before them. One of their most important projects: changing the suburbs.

Millennials have a well-known, if only partially substantiated, predilection for city living. According to conventional wisdom, Millennials are a uniquely urban generation, and have been a driving force in rebuilding cities to their liking. This generation, the story goes, will not flee to the suburbs as they age, partner up, have children, and buy homes.

The data, however, suggest that Millennials are quite likely to make a home in the “dreaded” ‘burbs. An article in The Atlantic spells it out, noting that, “it’s important not to mistake a preference for an urban lifestyle with a preference for cities themselves.”

That’s a crucial distinction: it’s not a love of cities per se, but a love of the urban lifestyle, or city amenities that suburbs typically lack. In other words, Millennials “might want suburbs that are more city-like than the ones they grew up in.”

City-like amenities include walkability and walkable destinations such as grocery stores, restaurants, cafes, pubs, effective and convenient public transportation, a variety of entertainment options, parks and green spaces, and reliable internet access.

Those amenities are great compared to a long commute from the ‘burbs, but what happens during the phase of life when people start stable relationships and start contemplating a family? Housing affordability and good schools, not surprisingly, become more important in Millennials’ — and previous generations’ — migration from cities to suburbs. For many urban dwellers, those two factors trump their love of city amenities.

According to author Leigh Gallagher, “Schools are really the biggest reason sending people out to the suburbs. I talked to so many people who apologized: ‘Yeah, we know it’s boring, we had to do it for the schools.’”

Gallagher is the author of The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving, and she asserts that rather than a literal “end of the suburbs,” the suburbs will evolve into “urban ‘burbs,” where city amenities create a pleasing hybrid.

“A big part of the future will be “urban burbs,” she said, describing them as suburbs that have “a walkable downtown, a pleasant place to take a stroll and bump into people, and where it’s possible to live in closer proximity to the things you need to do everyday.”

According to Anjee Solanki of global real estate firm Colliers International, developers realise that Millennials want a new model of development.

“The traditional suburbs — with isolating development patterns, outdated shopping malls and few public-transit options — just won’t cut it anymore,” she said. “Experts believe Millennials will demand ‘urban burbs’ — suburban locations that offer the amenities and benefits of city living without the challenges.”

Suburbs that successfully adapt a new development model for retrofitting amenities will attract Millennials and other residents, Solanki said. Walnut Creek, California, has recognized the trends and is changing rapidly.

“Walnut Creek is moving quickly by implementing better bicycle and pedestrian options,” she noted, adding that the area has also made a point of “rezoning areas for retail or office-oriented mixed use — think office space over ground-floor retail — and multifamily housing next to public transportation hubs.”

Gallagher also noted that developers have noticed the growing desire for urban ‘burbs.

“People are recognizing that we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing,” she said. “It’s not satisfying people. And it’s no longer meeting the market demand. Home-builders only react when they think the market wants something. And they’re starting to react.”

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