Another day, another article about millennials supposedly flocking to cities, leaving their native suburbs bereft. Last week, the New York Times informed us that there has been a precipitous decline in the number of 25- to 44-year-olds moving into some of the Big Apple’s affluent suburbs in Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk counties. In classic journalistic trend-story fashion, the Times notes that some wealthy suburbs of Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., are facing similar problems.
The article considers several possible explanations, including the extravagantly high cost of housing in towns where there are no apartments and houses fetch over $1 million. But the focus is on the younger generation’s desire for cultural amenities. And, the Times reports, some suburbs are trying to give them what they want:
Some suburbs are working diligently to find ways to hold onto their young. In the past decade, Westbury, N.Y., has built a total of 850 apartments — condos, co-ops and rentals — near the train station, a hefty amount for a village of 15,000 people. Late last year it unveiled a new concert venue, the Space at Westbury, that books performers like Steve Earle, Tracy Morgan and Patti Smith.
Long Beach, N.Y., with a year-round population of 33,000, has also been refreshing its downtown near the train station over the last couple of decades. The city has provided incentives to spruce up signage and facades, remodeled pavements and crosswalks, and provided more parking. A smorgasbord of ethnic restaurants flowered on Park Avenue, the main street.
Surely the appeal of arts and ethnic cuisine are one reason young people want to live in cities. And a variety of demographic factors, some of which the Times mentions — like people waiting longer to have kids — are also at play. (The high property taxes in New York’s fancy suburbs might be another consideration, which the article neglects.)
But fundamentally, there are two problems with the Times story: It overstates the suburbs’ problems, and it misses one of the main causes of the shift toward cities.
First of all, it’s important to put this urbanization in context. Between the 1950s and the late 20th century, all the cities mentioned in the Times article lost population. White flight and suburban sprawl were rampant in those decades. Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia lost over one-quarter of their populations; Baltimore more than one-third.
New York, one of the first cities to experience gentrification on a mass scale, started to see its population decline reverse in the 1980s. But that’s not because more people were actually moving to New York than leaving it, just that the net out-migration was low enough to be outweighed by natural population growth from births. New York has only actually started to gain more migrants than it loses in the last three years, and most of New York’s in-migration is from outside the U.S.
Even where gentrifiers are moving in at a pace sufficient to reverse outmigration, they’re barely making in a dent in reversing the tide. D.C., for example, has become wealthier in the last decade, but its population has increased only slightly and it remains far below its mid-century peak. When you adjust for the fact that the U.S. population has more than doubled since 1950, cities account for a much lower share.
For all the hype about gentrification, most rich people remain in suburbia, and cities such as D.C. and New York remain poorer than any of their surrounding suburban counties. (You can look up income and population data from the last three decennial censuses on the Census Bureau’s interactive map.)
All that said, there is a grain of truth to the Times’s observation. A handful of coastal and upper Midwestern cities are attracting more young professionals than before and are retaining them for longer. Some suburban-style Sun Belt cities such as Phoenix, which grew dramatically between 1960 and 2005, have seen their population level off.
Still, the Times ignores one of the most important reasons: transportation. The article makes no mention of cars, gasoline, or driving. But the aversion to being car-dependent, and the cost of owning, maintaining and gassing up a car, is one of the main factors in millennials’ affection for cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, or New York. And so, when Long Beach tries to revitalize its downtown, adding parking is probably the wrong way to do it. Young people (along with retirees) are more likely than previous generations to want to live in walkable, transit-accessible environments.
Ironically, the Times itself ran an op-ed the same day the kids-flocking-to-the-city story noting some of the realities their reported article missed. The author, architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, writes:
The economic challenges of starting a life in the suburbs have grown. Mortgages and car loans are harder to get for millennials, especially as they deal with onerous college debt. Though rents are increasing, it’s easier to rent an apartment in the city and take a bus or subway to work (millennials are also delaying the decision to have kids, which makes compact urban living easier).
Environmentally, the traumas of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon spill, the geopolitics of imported energy and the perils of domestic energy extraction all argue for a lifestyle that is more resource-efficient, particularly for parents focused on teaching their children to be aware of the world around them.
Chakrabarti argues that the U.S. should stop subsidizing suburban sprawl through the home mortgage interest deduction. He also points out that the gasoline tax does not collect anywhere near enough to compensate society for the pollution and degradation of the urban landscape wrought by cars and highways. That’s why we need to raise the gas tax and spend more of its proceeds on mass transit.
The Times tells us that, in suburbia, “Demographers and politicians are scratching their heads over the change.” Instead of scratching their heads, they should be putting in sidewalks and improving bus service. They should also change zoning codes to remove minimum parking requirements, compel buildings to engage the street instead of hiding behind a surface parking lot, allow greater density and a mix of uses.
Many of the urban neighborhoods that are so appealing to young people were developed as suburbs. But if they were built in the late 19th century, they were designed to accommodate bipedal human beings rather than cars. There is no reason that, just because a town is outside a major city’s limits, it cannot be built, or rebuilt, that way today. Maybe then the ‘burbs will be more appealing to young people who don’t want, or just can’t afford, a life tethered to an automobile.
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