Nathaniel Hood

Nathaniel Hood is a transportation planner and blogger living in St. Paul. He writes for Strong Towns and Streets.MN.

Confessions of an Urbanist: Redux

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Culture wars, Society, Technology Updated: September 4, 2012 - 12:50 PM

Transitional urbanist. That’s me.

I am a hypocrite. While advocating almost all things urban, I live in a single-family house in a neighborhood of mostly single-family houses. My surroundings were built at various times between the 1880s to the 1950s and range from historic Victorian farm houses to run-of-the-mill ramblers. The intermingled housing styles look vastly different, but have one connection; their function as a single-family house.

Every generation in some way, rebels against the previous. We’re seeing that now in the preferences of where the Millennials, like myself, are choosing to live. We almost unanimously disdain the typical suburban arrangement and even those living in the grips of suburbia clearly see its diminishing returns. This goes beyond my anecdotal observations, statistical trends certainly seem to be pointing in this direction too.

Millennials have spent their entire lives entrenched in the suburban experiment and want out. Our vision of city life is not the race riots of the 1960s or the crime waves of the 1980s. These are all but history, and the seemingly irrational fears of dense living aren’t even in the Millennial lexicon. For the college-educated Millennial, at some point, most of us studied abroad and experienced the simple joy of actually being able to comfortably walk somewhere – a task nearly impossible in most American cities.

We want out, but the problem is that housing options we prefer, aren’t really available. And those that are - they’re too expensive. So much of the stuff we would have loved to have lived in was torn down a long time ago, mostly to accommodate parking, and the new infill development is still usually aimed as high-profit generating luxury rentals. This brings us to one of the primary reason that people populated suburbia in the first place – more space for your buck. I think that more Millennials genuinely want to live in a quality urban environment – they just can’t afford it. With the economy as it is today, we’re playing it safe [read: cheap]. This means finding the hybrid option: a place that combines urbanism and affordability.

The other problem is the geography of metropolitan jobs – they’re dispersed. That’s a huge problem. I have friends who choose to live in downtown and drive to work in the suburbs. This is actually pretty common for Millennials, and this helps continue the demand for parking in downtown, which in turn, hurts urbanism.

As for me – I do like that I have a space that includes a small yard, sizeable garden and off-street parking [although I'd gladly ditch my car if my job situation allowed it]. I love that nobody is living above and below me and that I no longer have to compete with 8 other apartments for water pressure. However – I’m lucky enough that my chosen a neighborhood that has access to public transit, decent biking paths, a “neighborhood center” with a grocery store within a 5 block walk. Plus, I’m less than 4 miles to downtown. But, I do genuinely miss my old, turn-of-the-century “vintage” [read: dumpy] Uptown apartment.

I chose the hybrid option: to be close to the urban village, near transit and within city limits, yet with my own private space. Some days I feel like I live in the suburbs. Other days, I feel like I live in the city. I recognize that I’m lucky I found such a place, but the attempt to systematically replicate this environment is what helped start the wave towards mass suburbia in the first place.

Unfortunately, right at this pivotal point of where we finally rediscover American urbanism, we are simultaneously faced with the Great Recession and a severe lack of capital. This will prevent us from re-urbanizing our once great urban places in the traditional sense.

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It's been almost a year since I wrote this. My feelings haven't changed much. But, I'm really intrigued by all the writing about Millenials lately, which for me, signals that people have finally started to pay attention. The reports are interesting and diverse; some claim that Millenials are cheap, others wrongly try to highlight that it is a selfish generation, and others have even gone so far as saying Millenials don't care about the environment (as if such a sweeping generalization could be made about anything).

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