I’ve recently become interested in urban planning and the impact of the Millennial Generation on its future.  I’m originally from an area smack dab in the middle of the rust belt.  I’ve read about and observed the many mid-size industrial cities around my hometown, especially Youngstown, Ohio, struggle with keeping crime under control, working around massive population loss, and selling people on the notion that it is important to rebuild these cities’ urban cores.

Luckily, many of these cities are already getting back on track.  Youngstown, for example, is being guided by the Youngstown 2010 project, a community-drafted plan established in 2002.  Cleveland’s downtown got an overhaul in the early 1990s.  But there is still more work to be done.  In doing this work, we need to make sure we understand what resources these communities need in order to solidify plans like these and put them into action.

Many people might ask why this has any connection with Millennials — why is it important to rebuild these cities when its citizens have been moving to suburbs for years?  Why is it important to invest in these urban areas when those young people fortunate enough to go to school will just move away after school?  An article in the Washington Business Journal about the connection between the future of urban planning and its connection with Generation X and Millennials gave me an answer.

Millennials are actually pre-disposed to living in urban areas.  Their focus on community and convenience demands a short commute to whatever resource they need in their community.  Ask any Millennial who uses the Internet to do research for a school project, chats on AIM with two friends, listens to music, and checks on the score of his favorite team’s baseball game all at once — they like to multi-task; they like productivity.

The most important factor in figuring out where we’ll be living in the future is to look at how we’ll be living. Just as the automobile in the 1940s and ’50s and racial turbulence in the 1960s and ’70s drove their parents and grandparents to the suburbs, look for today’s younger generations to affect what tomorrow’s communities will look like.

Just consider developer Jim Abdo’s successful bet in the late 1990s that Gen X-ers (born from 1965 to 1980) would line up for new places in the city if he helped remake Logan Circle.

“Generation X and Generation Y are putting much more emphasis on life-work balance,” says Adam Ducker, managing director at Richard Charles Lesser & Co., a real estate firm based in Bethesda.

One of the main ways to achieve a better life-work balance, Ducker says, is foregoing a large home in the suburbs and the long commute it carries for a smaller home closer to work. Commuting in exchange for a bigger house was a deal baby boomers were willing to make for their family. For younger generations, that’s not a reasonable trade-off.

As you read, a community re-formed on the basis of convenience is a necessary ingredient in rebuilding our urban areas.  In addition, their dedication to the environment is another reason why Millennials might be interested in living in an urban community.  An overhaul of the mass transit system would appeal to younger people in this time of high gas prices and environmental concerns.

So where does infrastructure come into play?

Well, the problem with urban redevelopment is that, many times, the projects that are a part of the process get stalled in Congress or other legislatures because they are labeled as “pork.”  For example, John McCain is on record saying that he will pay for many of his own plans — like reinstating Bush’s tax cuts — by eliminating the pork from Congress.  And while you can already see the problem developing there, McCain adds to it by advocating for a gas tax holiday; this will eliminate the funding for many of the projects involving our nation’s infrastructure, further paralyzing development (while not getting any economic benefit).

Bob Herbert wrote a terrific piece for his column in the New York Times about the importance of infrastructure and its tendency to fly under the rader due to its… unsexy… nature.

I sat in on a meeting Thursday as Mr. Diaz and several other mayors, including Michael Bloomberg of New York, met in Manhattan to discuss ways of getting the federal government involved in large-scale infrastructure and transportation initiatives. The mayors are trying to spread the message that investing in a sound infrastructure is essential for continued economic development.

This may seem obvious, but infrastructure proponents are having a terrible time getting traction on this issue. Infrastructure initiatives are expensive, and not sexy. But there are powerful returns on these investments. They tend to pay for themselves many times over (can you imagine New York City without the subways?) and the projects are job creators.

With President Bush on the way out, the burden of leading an effort to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure would fall on either Barack Obama or John McCain. Representatives of each candidate attended Thursday’s meeting but did not participate.

The mayors talked about clogged highways, the high price of gasoline and an air transportation system that seems to get more pitiful by the day. Mayor John Robert Smith of Meridian, Miss., called on the presidential candidates to take a bold, creative approach to the nation’s transportation needs, including substantial investments in railroad infrastructure.

Mr. Smith believes the nation should devote the same level of commitment to developing a first-rate passenger rail system as was marshaled for the interstate highway system in the Eisenhower era.

My whole point in writing about this issue today is to articulate the link between progress for the future (and we have to look at what Millennials will want, since, according to the Washington Business Journal article, they’ll be 30% of the population and transitioning to homeowner status by 2012) with the need for infrastructure.  Bob Herbert is write — it’s not an attractive issue to talk about, just like it’s not fun to sit in construction delays on a highway, but placed in context, it’s crucial for our future.

We could have vibrant communities, with small grocery stores, coffeehouses, laundry facilities, movie theaters, drug stores, and apartments all included.  We could have a state-of-the-art mass transit system linking these communities in many of our urban areas. We could have a light rail highway set up in the mold of the Eisenhower highway system.  But without a focus on infrastructure, none of this will get off the ground.