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Why cities are hot and suburbs are not

Cosmopolitan tastes of younger Americans and the lingering trauma of recession are changing attitudes about what makes a great place to live.

By Marilyn Lewis May 31, 2013 10:33AM

Atlanta © Travel Ink/Digital Vision/Getty ImagesAmerica without suburbs? Hard to imagine, isn't it? But we may be slouching slowly in that direction. If the tastes of the millennials, the next big generation, hold, American life could become distinctly more urban.


Not that suburbs are going totally away. They're just starting to look more like cities, says Lynn Ross at the Urban Land Institute's Terwilliger Center for Housing. This isn't a retread of the old city-versus-suburb argument, she says. It's more interesting. The cosmopolitan tastes of younger Americans, together with the lingering trauma of recession, are changing our attitudes about what makes a great place to live.


About love and money

In its new survey, "Where Americans want to live," the institute recently found that Americans' taste is becoming somewhat more urban. Our love for big homes in relatively isolated suburbs and surrounded by similar homes is yielding a bit to the need, if not the desire, for smaller homes and shorter commutes. The rising costs of gas and heating fuel are part of the equation as well.


Pollsters talked with 1,202 homeowners and renters by phone about what they want in communities, housing, and transportation.


The 77-year-old international nonprofit encourages public and private planners, developers and others to think about land-use policy and practice. Many members like "compact" developments, where homes, jobs, shops and schools are grouped around easy access to public transportation. But do Americans share this interest?


To the surprise of the land-use professionals, the survey found that many do.


"The pull of rural areas and small towns remains strong, but a desire for medium- or big-city living is expressed by some of the fastest-growing segments of the American population, including Latinos, Generation Y, and African Americans. Renters also show preference for cities," the report says.


Who's 'average?'
Pollsters asked participants to rate things like the importance of living close to work, shopping or transportation, or of having family nearby. Nearly everyone ranked neighborhood safety and high-quality public schools high. Next came adequate space between neighbors, living near work, school and doctors and hospitals, and streets with sidewalks and crosswalks so it's easy to walk places.


But those average responses obscure differences. Having plenty of space between homes, for example, matters most to homeowners. Living near work and school matters more to African-Americans and Gen Y.


When pollsters talked with everyone, only 5% said convenient public transit was important. But it's a priority for 58% of African-Americans, 48% of urban residents, 46% of Latinos, 35% of renters and 35% of people who earn less than $25,000 a year.


Most everybody (61%) wants a shorter commute and a smaller home, the survey found (although 52% of African-Americans would take the longer commute in exchange for a bigger home). Most everyone (53%) wants to live near shops, restaurants and offices, and 52% like a community with a mix of incomes.


The upshot: "The American public is divided when it comes to the mix of housing and community types they prefer," the report says.


Millennial cool

The future, however, is largely in the hands of the 80 million millennials. They're now aged 18 to 34, and they're getting a slow start. They are having the hardest time economically of any generation since the Great Depression, says demographer Cheryl Russell.


They're more urban, multicultural and transient; 40% are Latino or African-American and 54% are renters. They're likely to have as big an effect on their world as the baby boom generation has had. Millennials, also called Gen Y, have a 10.6% unemployment rate, and they account for 47% of jobless Americans, Russell says.

The group is more urban and poorer, she adds.


They're attending college in record proportions and are drowning in student debt. They're marrying later, having fewer children and having them later, creating a new baby "bust."


Because they don't have much money, they're eschewing car and home purchases. Their youth, their numbers and their optimism make them trendsetters, so avoiding cars and renting homes suddenly seem cool. With Millennials moving en masse to cities, urban life is looking cooler, too, although the move is practical. "They're going where the jobs are," Russell says.


This migration already is changing the nation, growing the cores of cities large and small and leaving small towns and remoter areas to their parents and grandparents.


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May 31, 2013 2:03PM
I read the same article in the 90's only with Gen X instead of Y. Then Gen X folks made some money, had kids and got out of the cities. It is just taking Gen Y longer to make money and have kids but they will eventually...
Jun 2, 2013 7:19AM
Living in a city....higher crime, overcrowding, higher prices for everything, no privacy, and more of everything I wouldn't want. I'll stay "out in the country".
Jun 2, 2013 1:31AM

Yeah, when you're begged on by two new junkies or drunks during the short walk from your apartment to the coffee shop, every day and every evening, you'll know just how "cool" it is to live in the city. And if you're thinking about a family, you can think about how "cool" this will be for your 6-year-old.


And Gen-X and Gen-Y are marketing terms, not generations. "Millennial" is a generation. Try reading some real books.

Jun 1, 2013 2:17AM
Why would you want to live in a city where minority crime is rampant & surrounded by welfarers?
Jun 1, 2013 7:54PM
when 53% is most everyone either the author id not aware of basic math or they have an agenda for the article.
Jun 1, 2013 3:16PM
City has only two pro for me (NYC) -- easy access (due to concentration/public transits) and availability, but not that affordable or enjoyable.  A good place for people watching that's about it.

City = Stress = long line for every things. 
Unless you are rich enough to enjoy fancy restaurant, you get crappy services even at McDonald (you get only 3/4 of your french fries after long line). City has public place/nice parks you can't enjoy.  bums and beggars come by every 5 minutes.  People become offensive/defensive and you have to be careful when you face/eye some body.  Has many pretty girls for eye candy, but you can't tell the different from biotches or lesbians. Noisy in some neighborhoods. And many more.
Jun 2, 2013 2:51PM
I'm 25 and I love living in the city.  I live in New Orleans.  It's not for everyone but it's way more exciting than the suburb where I went to high school.  I have a choice of restaurants within walking distance, I can walk to the grocery store if I want to, and there's always something fun to do if I have a day off from work.
The other thing is also just out of necessity.. After I graduated from college I moved back in with my mom in the suburb an hour away, for about a year, and I wanted to stay there longer and my mom wanted me there too, but I couldn't find a job over there.  I ended up getting a job here in the city and moved back over here after a couple months of working because I couldn't deal with the commute.  Now I actually have two jobs here, at two hospitals that are both within 5 miles of where I live.  I wouldn't be able to pull that off in the town where my mom lives.
And yes, New Orleans has a pretty big homeless population, and a crime problem, and 40 something percent of our adult population is functionally illiterate... There's going to be pros and cons to living anywhere.  I just think the lack of opportunity in the suburbs is probably leading a lot of people back to the city.  Commuting is a drain on time and money.

Jun 3, 2013 10:35AM
That is the trend now because that is their reality. When you are struggling month-to-month to pay the house and gas bill, it is easy to say I would rather a smaller, urban home. And I am sorry but I have no desire to send my kids to inner city schools. It isn't a race issue as I my wife and I are an interracial couple but a matter of gangs and test scores. No thanks. You can bet just about anything that as things turn around financially and they start having kids (assuming it is kids they can actually afford), their mood will change accordingly. When that happens, you can bet the demand for bigger homes and new (and likely big) cars will explode.
Jun 1, 2013 2:35PM
Cities are always looking for a handout, while the suburbs are not.
Jun 3, 2013 9:44AM
Huh, must be tons of them loving Detroit....
Aug 1, 2013 11:57AM

The #s reflect youthful idealism & lack of life experience.


Young people are broke but social. They may not be able to afford a car, but want to go to bars, sporting events, etc.


52% want to live in a mixed income area? I bought my home in 2002, at age 35. I had enough life experience to immediately eliminate any community/developer that touted that feature. Life is not a re-running of "It's a Wonderful Life". Poor nowadays doesn't mean living next to a wonderful neighbor like George Bailey. It means revving motorcycles at 2 AM, toys or empty booze bottles permanently strewn on lawns, drug dealers on the corners, etc.


Yes, suburban living isn't the greenest option. But safety and preservation of body & property has to come first. Diversity means value systems & outlooks on life that are all over the page. That would be OK if we had not shifted from tolerance (I'm not required to like you, just put up w/ your presence) to acceptance (I am obligated to like you, no matter how offensive your behavior - or how it infringes on & limits my life).

Jun 3, 2013 1:26PM
The perpetual ebb and flow of over-population continues. At some point, the masses will move to this commune or that, driven by economics, war (which is economics), environment (which is economics), crime (which is economics), filth (which is economics), energy (need I say it?)..... and "cool" has absolutely nothing to do with it. Population growth, idiot political players, climate change, the whole RAT-RACE thing has everything to do with who goes (and can go) where and why. Make the wrong choice and end up waving a "HELP US" flag on top of a submerged rooftop in a moldy place occupied by a bunch of "cool" looter-dependents earning minimum wage.
Aug 5, 2013 7:33PM
Part of the difficulty is that, as large metropolitan areas get larger, they begin to swallow cities that stood on their own for years. Many "suburbs" started their lives well before their metro core got large.
Aug 1, 2013 4:38PM
I live in the city here in Colorado and it has all the positives in this article, and I can be in the mountains within 10 minutes where i take my dog for walks along a cool mountain stream. It all depends what you consider city living.
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