As much as I love hiking through the mountains and swimming at the beach (both of which I’ve done in the past week), city structure fascinates me. Maybe it’s because I was informally introduced to the sights, sounds, and smells of Cleveland as a youngster – shopping for fresh meats and produce with my mom at the West Side Market, cheering on the Tribe at Jacobs Field with my dad, getting dressed up and going to work at Grammy’s downtown office building. Or maybe it’s because I was more formally introduce through a high school leadership program and undergraduate coursework. Whatever the reason(s), I love the big city so much that I am graduating this week with my Master’s in Urban and Environmental Planning.
And I’m not the only young person who shows the cities some love.
Since the 1940s, American cities have been expanding outwards from their urban centers. Federal legislation promoted the building of suburban houses for veterans and funded an expansive highway system connecting the ‘burbs to the central city. Population boomed and so did America’s housing stock. Over time, however, tiny bungalows transformed into mega McMansions, and postage stamp-sized front yards transformed into acres of mowed grass. Soon families were not moving the surburbs, but moving even further out to the “exurbs.”
But that is changing.
For the first time in the last twenty years, the annual rate of growth in U.S. cities and surrounding urban areas has now surpassed that of exurbs. The announcement by the Census Bureau in April is undoubtedly a result of the 2008 housing collapse, but is also a result of shifting demographics. Young singles are putting off marriage and home ownership; young families are looking for dynamic, vibrant places to raise children; and senior citizens are finding it easier to maintain their independence in walkable urban areas. While I love and admire those senior citizens moving to cities, Generation Y’s move to the city marks an even more sustainable trend for the 21st century. Young professionals are flocking to cities in which they can live, work, and play.
But why? One author cites Generation Y’s sheltered childhood – growing up with scheduled play dates in the safety of the suburban cul-de-sac. Today, they want to break that norm by living in dense, vibrant neighborhoods that offer diverse, dynamic activities. Additionally, Generation Y wants to be connected. While social media allows people to connect in ways unknown to previous generations, cities offer multiple, enticing venues for young professionals to gather. They are the epitome of what Richard Florida calls the “creative class.” Finally, cities are convenient. The author, Nathan Norris, says Generation Y doesn’t want to spend time mowing acres of land or money on long commutes to work, rather “they want the convenience of living close to the things they need, the things they do, and the people they do them with. They prefer the walk downstairs and around the corner to the neighborhood coffee shop or brew pub to the 20 minute car trip required in the ‘burbs.”
Despite the mockery Cleveland gets (not one, but two hastily-made tourism videos), the city is currently experiencing an urban revival made possible by Generation Y. People between the ages of 21 and 34 make up the largest share of downtown residents. These young professionals are flocking to fill downtown apartments and unique neighborhoods on the west and east side. They are the force behind the emerging Ohio City brewery district and the reason more businesses are shifting their main offices from the ‘burbs downtown.
I’m not sure if I’ll be heading back to Cleveland directly after graduation; like many recent graduates, I will be heading wherever I can find a job. One of my top criteria on the great job hunt is to live, work, and play in a dynamic, vibrant city. Given the urban revitalization trend, driven by peers, I’m glad I won’t be the only one.