Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Will Generation Y Change the Face of Suburbia?

Julia from Color Me Green wonders about the future of suburbia.

Recently, the idea has been making the rounds that Generation Y wants suburbs to have more of the types of amenities and walkability typically found in cities. As the New York Times noted in their provacatively titled "Creating Hipsturbia":

"The young and highly educated, even though they overwhelmingly grew up in the suburbs, want to be able walk to an independent coffee bar, passing other people with tattoos, order a soy-milk chai latte and vegan pastry, and crack open their Macbook to enjoy some free public wi-fi. As they outgrow the city, like generations before them, they go looking for the same amenities in a more suburban setting. Some areas will attract these people naturally; others are going to have to work for it."

Interestingly, Grist's response  - "Where will all the hipsters go?" - asks why it's necessary to leave the city in the first place. The writer is hopelessly uninformed about NYC, though:

"There are areas of cheaper, ungentrified Brooklyn where they could afford a brownstone for the price of a similar-sized detached home in Tarrytown. Why do they choose a town on the Hudson over Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, or Sunset Park? Is it because crime is still a concern? Are those fears statistically justified? Are New York City public schools still perceived as vastly inferior to their suburban counterparts, and is that accurate? Or is it just because, at some very basic level, many young people still want the comforts they grew up with, like garages and lawns and large, separate houses?"

First of all, even in what he calls a "cheaper" ungentrified neighborhoods he talks about (one of which is where I live), it's still hard to find a whole brownstone for much less than a $1 million, much less a 2 bedroom apartment for the price of what my parents' rural-suburban house is worth. And second of all, most New York City public schools actually ARE inferior. Both of those are very big stumbling blocks to being able to raise a family in the city.

Then there's the American dream of owning a home with a lawn and breathing space. Even I succumb to this desire to a certain extent, with my recent move into an apartment with a backyard, so I can pretend I live in the country. I'm very happy living in the city, but having grown up in the country,  I sometimes feel the pull to live again surrounded by trees and grass and fields.

But like my cohorts mentioned in the NYT article above, I don't just want nature -- I also want to live in a place with independent businesses and walkable neighborhoods and public transit. I don't want to spend my life in a car, guzzling gas. I don't want a house with more space than I need. While there are some towns like that (often college towns), options are currently limited.

Back in 2011, Grist reported that Generation Y isn't looking for McMansions, but instead for smaller and less auto-dependent homes. At that time, they asked:

"But is it for real? And will Gen Y be any different than previous generations, which used dense, walkable neighborhoods for youthful partying and then motored out to the suburbs for their own kids — who were in their turn driven back into the cities by boredom, only to start the cycle once again?"

This is something I've wondered myself. However, the fact that the media is still finding these trends two years later suggests that it's more than me just and my friends -- that it's a whole generation of people who hope to seek out and are willing to create suburbs that have more urban-like amenities, less sprawl and less energy-intensive neighborhoods and homes.


Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

What we people want is sometimes irrelevant when it comes to zoning and school quality. Did I want to live in a walkable safe neighborhood? Yes. Could I find an affordable home that fit that description anywhere near my husband's work and a bilingual elementary that would hold its value (read: not a sketchy neighborhood). No. I lament every darn day that I have to drive my son to school and can't even walk to a dang park really. But walkability, while VERY important to me, was not my top priority when buying a house.

I wish the whole darn world were zoned differently. The fact is we inherited 50s suburbia. We bought an older home (1961), not a new McMansion.

I also think everyone wants a bigger house now b/c we're all so darn isolated (I know, chicken and egg). It's easy to have a small house and yard with kids if everyone plays outside and there is more collective parenting. That ain't happening where I live. But that's how I grew up. In suburbia.

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

Just realized I used darn and dang 3 times in that last comment. I do feel very frustrated that my own housing situation is in many ways at complete odds with my own green values.

On the other hand, my son attends a school with a lot of diversity and mixed incomes (mostly low income, really, which we are not), and he's learning Spanish. And I'm very happy about that.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Grist is hopelessly pro-city, anti-suburbia; I've blogged about it before.

Oddly, there actually ARE suburbs like they are talking about--ever been to Oak Park, IL? I used to live two blocks south of it (in another burb I could actually afford), and I loved the walkability of the area and the fact that I could get almost anything I needed on foot (though a larger grocery required a car). And the parks! They were constantly full. Yards were fairly small, but no one cared, because the local parks were always chock-full of kids, and you didn't even need to worry about playdates because you just knew all the kids would be at the same park after school. It was awesome. But that's a near suburb, and the further out you go the harder it is to find anything like that; the roads just don't lend themselves to bike and pedestrian traffic.

My current burb? Not so good. But I save money and resources by making my own coffee, and my hips don't need the pastry anyway. I can bike to Whole Foods and/or other shopping if I choose (though honestly I rarely do), but even on days its nice enough to walk my kids to school it's hard because of the lack of sidewalks. And the parks are usually deserted.

It's a no-win, I guess. But that Grist attitude annoys me. Thanks for the post!

EcoGrrl said...

I grew up in a small house in the suburbs that had sidewalks, parks, nature, and access to the city bus. The problem is, a lot of suburbs do not have this, especially the latter, which is why I detest them. Owning a car shouldn't be a prerequisite for those who live outside of the city. But I choose the city for different reasons - I want to be around diversity, which is nonexistent in the suburbs. I want to see more than just middle class folks in SUVs and soccer moms. I want to be around people of all ages and backgrounds. Crime happens in the suburbs, just in different ways. Kids are abused, women are sexually assaulted, and gays are beaten up in the suburbs, just as much as they are in the city.

I'm always interested in folks who talk about "bad" or "sketchy" neighborhoods, because it's our responsibility as people to make sure all neighborhoods are safe, and to get out of our comfort zones and visit them.

Some folks say I live in the "hood" because there are gangs around. But if I think about my suburban upbringing where I was bullied by rich bitches and judged because I wasn't wearing the latest styles, where the only difference between the city and the 'burbs were that the kids in the burbs could afford coke while they were smoking weed in the city.

When I bought my home, it was in an "up and coming" neighborhood (as one commenter might say, "sketchy"). But because people like me have moved in and cleaned up our properties, and created community where once people didn't know their own neighbors, and we are insistent about supporting local businesses, this is now a neighborhood where people come FROM the suburbs because they like what we've created.

Do I go out to visit the suburbs? Nope. Out there, no one insists on having lives where you can work/live/play/eat in the same set of blocks. Out there, they expect you to have a car because they refuse to insist on good public transportation like we do in the city. So many streets in the burbs don't even have sidewalks, much less local cafes you can walk to (sorry, Starbucks doesn't count). It's ironic.

Driving kids to school? I don't even comprehend that. It baffles me that my friends won't empower their kids to take the bus and their kids all get chauffeured in SUVs. One commenter mentions that although he could bike to Whole Foods, he chooses to drive. Again, it's about choices and I don't think it's "hopeless" that Grist supports cities where their carbon footprint is so much less than that of the suburbs - it is, after all, an environmental website.

To me, walkability is community. It is why I bought my house where I could grab 3 different busses, grab a cup of coffee and breakfast at a local cafe, and do my grocery shopping all within a few blocks. I don't want or need a big house - most people don't - they just fill it with stuff. So many folks identify a good life with how much they spend on Christmas gifts and spring break, rather than simplifying and creating and becoming more self-sufficient.

We make our opinions known with our wallets. If you don't like your neighborhood, then don't buy a house that doesn't align with your values. Make life choices that align with those values. I won't take a job that forces me to have a car, and I'll make less if that's what it takes.

I came from the burbs (in a small house that worked just fine), but I am home in the city. I would love to see the burbs become more accessible and walkable - but it takes those in the burbs to get out of their cars and insist upon it with their local governments.

(Living in 800 s.f. and a backyard in the city, no car, no cable TV, and happy as can be).

thanks for letting me ramble :)

Alli said...

This is good news! We bought a duplex within a 10 minute walk from downtown Halifax (Nova Scotia Canada) so that we can be close to work and all the fun. We have a yard and just enough space for our family to grow. Plus we get the bonus of the income of another flat to help with the higher cost (mortgage, property taxes, etc.) that are associated with living in the city and our neighbourhood in particular. I hope this trend spills into Canada and we start moving away from the industrial park model.

Eco Yogini said...

actually... i never want to live in a suburb. it's either urban living or village, no sidewalks off the highway type living for me. but then- it's how i grew up (village that is).

I do think it's interesting and hopeful that perhaps a new generation of people will be shaping how we live in and outside of the city.

working in the health care industry, i completely understand to a greater degree the concerns of neighbourhoods (in Halifax, there are 'sketchy' neighbourhoods, and honestly if I visited them regularly I would be putting my life in danger- worth it as 'my responsibility'? I don't think so), schools and even daycares and parks. These are serious choices when choosing a home where you will be bringing children into the picture.

i do think it's kinda funny when I hear that parents drive their kids to school- I used to take the bus and it took 30-45min from grade primary onward. It was no big deal... but then- it's what you're used to.

a very interesting article Julia- thank you!

Jenn the Greenmom said...

to EcoGrrl--

I maintain that Grist's insistence that suburban life is inherently unsustainable is maybe less than helpful, and I would respect it more if there was a single post by someone who freely admits to loving suburban life but choosing otherwise solely to reduce their footprint. Most of their writers prefer urban life anyway and thus find it easy to sneer at the burbs. I totally respect city-dwellers' preference for their way of life, and I also suspect that there are plenty of urbanites whose footprint is bigger than mine. As I said before, it's all about choices, and I choose, in the suburbs, to keep my footprint as small as I can, and I do not too badly. And the suburbs won't change unless or until people move to them and DO demand change, which is why I love this post.

And by the way, the choice to not bike to Whole Foods as often as I could (and I'm a she, not a he) is because the WF is pretty much on the way to or from 80% of the places we ever have to go. My husband picks the kids up from daycare, picks me up at the train station, and then we drive right by the store--usually it makes more sense to just stop in on the way somewhere else than to make a separate trip. I didn't think I needed to clarify all of that, since this is usually a place where we give one another the benefit of the doubt and try to avoid getting all judgy of one another. But since you mentioned it...


Amber Strocel said...

I'm fortunate to live in a suburban neighbourhood that is actually very walkable. I still spend more time in my car than I would like, but much less than I would if I lived in a different neighbourhood even here in the same city. Plus, I love having a garden. Of course, I could have a community garden plot in a more urban area, but being able to just pop outside is really lovely.

There are upsides and downsides to everything, but I'm seeing more mixed-use development even here in the suburbs, and it's definitely my preferred model.


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