The Wall Street Journal article (sub. required) sets the scene: a thirty-something couple gives up their life in a hip Seattle-area community and heads for North Carolina for the promise of work, good schools for their kids, and a five-bedroom home on the fringes of a sprawling metropolitan area. Isn’t this what every American wants—a house in the burbs, a commute in a car, a little slice of the American Dream?
Citing some recent studies by the Brookings Institute, the article argues that millennials have cooled on urban life. Despite a decade of trend articles arguing that the next generation of Americans want to drive less, live in walkable places, and value community and experience over stuff, the Wall Street Journal finds that millennials are ultimately making the same choice their parents made and moving to the burbs in bulk. Frisco is cited as a case study in the booming success of the suburban fringe.
But is it true? Well, sure, sort of. But simply pointing out that places like Frisco; Apex, N.C.; and Nolensville, TN are growing doesn’t really tell the whole story.
The article cites two key statistics to back up its claim that millennials are no longer as interested in urban living. The first says that growth rates of cities with populations greater than 250,000 outpaced suburbs after the 2008 financial collapse. Now, however, city growth has slowed by 40 percent while some suburbs—particularly in the Sun Belt—are booming. Another statistic shows that 79 percent of the population in the largest 50 metropolitan areas live in the suburbs of those areas.
Let’s unpack the second statistic first. You could conclude from the fact that most people live in the suburbs that suburbs are more popular. But the reality is people don’t really have much of a choice. Only a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times published a report about the dominance of single-family housing in America. With an eye on cities that are trying to loosen zoning regulations to allow for more multi-family homes in city neighborhoods, the Times demonstrated how single-family became the way the United States builds communities.
What does this mean for millennials? The reason why 79 percent of the population of metro areas liven in the burbs is because that’s where we build housing. It’s a reflection of the “Growth Ponzi Scheme”—the idea that, in the second half of the 20th century, the U.S. doubled down on a singular form of low-density growth that produces short-term rewards for deferring long-term costs. The new suburban growth doesn’t produce enough tax base to pay for the infrastructure needed to sustain it.
Simply put, the legal and financial systems that govern growth—from zoning to tax incentives to the way financial institutions finance development—is rigged in favor of single-family, suburban developments. When there is new growth during periods of economic expansion, that new growth will be directed toward creating more single-family, suburban developments. For multiple generations, American metropolitan areas have been designed—implicitly and explicitly—to expand outward with each new cycle of growth.
Does this mean that millennials like the burbs more than cities? No, it means that when millennials get to an age when they value things in their life like good schools for their kids and affordable, spacious homes without killer commutes, often the only place they can find it is in the newly built burbs. In fact, a new peer-reviewed study shows that when young people do have a choice, they choose cities. Yongsung Lee of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Bumsoo Lee and Md Tanvir Hossain Shubho of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked at three decades of movement in the top 20 urban areas in the United States, and the researchers found that an urban migration predates millennials and actually began in the 1990s:
Over the three decades, each passing cohort of young adults became progressively more urban. Young adults aged 25-34 have indeed been key movers in the urban revival. But the shift precedes Millennials; it actually began with Gen Xers back in the 1990s. And the youngest cohort, aged 20-24, is the most urban of all. American adults aged 20 to 34 are much more urban, and much less suburban, than the Baby Boomers.
Boomers and early Gen Xers showed a much stronger preference for the suburbs. Back in the 1980s, young adults at the time—mainly Boomers—were already heading for the suburbs, echoing the pattern of the Greatest Generation, which moved en masse from the city to the suburbs in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. But young adults in the 1990s were much less likely to move to the suburbs, setting in motion a pattern that grew even more pronounced for young adults in the 2000s.
So how do we reconcile these two visions of contemporary urban migration? Well, let’s go back to what attracts people to the suburbs in the first place: schools, convenience, and affordability. The urban resurgence of the last few decades has eroded some of the conveniences of urban life. Schools haven’t rebounded in many urban cities. Increased demand has resulted in sky-high prices for urban housing. As anyone who has looked for–and failed to find–three-bedroom units in downtown Dallas knows, adapting cities for new residents in their 20s means that developers haven’t created the kind of housing stock that works for those residents when they get married and have kids.
The larger problem is that the competitive advantages of this brand of suburban growth have a shelf life. What happens when the burbs boom? The WSJ article talks about how overcrowding in some of the country’s most successful outer ring suburbs is causing familiar growing pains: not enough desks in school classrooms, congestion on roads that weren’t designed to carry so much traffic. I think the most telling quote in the article is from the Long Islander who moved to North Carolina to escape the problems of America’s earliest suburban experiment only to find herself staying at work an extra hour to beat traffic: “It’s like being back in NY.” In other words, this latest cycle of suburban growth is causing the same old problems as booming new towns push to expand to meet new demands.
Which is precisely why urban advocates argue that we need to find a way to move away from this cyclical model of growth. In fact, that’s what jumps out at me in that first statistic cited in the WSJ article. During times of economic recession, growth in the burbs slows to a halt, but urban growth outpaced suburban growth during the economic downturn. Urban areas are not only popular, they are more resilient. And yet, we’re still fueling an addiction to the burbs.