Over the last several months, I have noticed a discrepancy emerging among commentators regarding whether or not Millennials prefer suburban or urban living.  Examining such a conflict is important given the size and growing political influence of the Millennial generation in today’s society.

In their most recent piece, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais use the Brookings Institution’s “State of Metropolitan America” report and some polling conducted for thinktank NDN to argue that as the Millennial generation comes of age, America will move to an exclusively suburban society.

While suburban living was once seen as the almost exclusive preserve of the white upper-middle class, a majority of all major American racial and ethnic groups now live in suburbia, according to the newest report on the state of metropolitan America from the Brookings Institute. Slightly more than half of African-Americans now live in large metropolitan suburbs, as do 59% of Hispanics, almost 62% of Asian-Americans, and 78% of whites. As a result the country is closer than ever to achieving a goal that many thought would never be achieved—city/suburban racial/ethnic integration. This is particularly so in the faster growing metropolitan areas of the South and West.

The trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. A majority of Millennials live in the suburbs and 43% of them, a portion higher than for any other generation, describe suburbs as their “ideal place to live.”

Winograd and Hais use this to further argue that policymakers and developers should not resist this movement to the suburbs, but instead embrace it by passing legislation that safeguards our children, strengthens schools, and brings jobs to the suburbs.  In their mind, this would play to the heart of the 21st Century electorate.

A recent piece in the Atlantic by Christopher Leinberger contradicts Winograd and Hais’s claim, arguing for better urban transit systems and walkable neighborhoods.  Leinberger explains that with housing’s ability to lead us out of recessions, one should note the gradual increase in lost values as one moves away from urban centers.

But housing hasn’t cratered everywhere. According to Stan Humphries, the chief economist of Zillow, an online housing-research firm, if you plot changes in home values within a typical metro region on a satellite map, the result “looks like an archery target, with the outlying areas having experienced substantially higher total declines in home values” than areas closer to the central city.

Zillow data for metropolitan Washington, D.C., for instance, shows that housing prices on average have declined 33 percent since the peak. But this average masks big differences. In densely built inner suburbs, like Arlington, Virginia, and in the walkable, urban neighborhoods of the District of Columbia, prices typically dropped about 20 percent. Housing on the suburban fringe, on the other hand, lost about half its value. Many exurban homeowners who had purchased or refinanced in the mid-2000s are now well underwater.

Leinberger uses this data to make the claim that policymakers and developers should instead focus on using transit and biking infrastructure to re-develop urban neighborhoods into walkable, navigable areas.

Urban-style housing in walkable neighborhoods—including those in the inner suburbs—is what’s in demand today. And for a variety of reasons, that demand will intensify in the coming years. Only by serving it can the country kick-start growth in an enormous and essential part of the economy.

Yet the creation of new, attractive urban spaces is slow and difficult, and becomes all but impossible without substantial new infrastructure. Most of all, it relies on good transit options—especially rail links—around which walkable neighborhoods can develop. Rail, biking, and walking infrastructure is the backbone of urban development, and as a country we’ve for the most part neglected to build it in recent decades, in favor of new roads for new suburbs farther and farther away from metropolitan hubs. To support growth in the next decade, we need to change that dynamic—and nourish our walkable urban spaces and neighborhoods. Complicating matters, in these cash-strapped times we need to find a way to do so on the cheap.

I’ve argued for something similar to Leinberger’s vision in the past.  Part of the appeal of Leinberger’s contention is that it aligns with Millennial values.  Urban living leads to leaving less of a carbon footprint and a more sustainable lifestyle.  Not only this, but real estate surveys yield data disputing the numbers cited by Winograd and Hais above.  75 percent of Millennials actually prefer to live in an urban core, emphasizing the importance of convenience, connectivity, and “environment” when selecting a place to live.  Though Winograd and Hais argue that organizers and politicians should go to the suburbs to find Millennial values, Leinberger’s piece and the accompanying data supports a continued investment in re-developing urban areas.  Such a focus is not mutually exclusive from good schools and the other quality of life issues Winograd and Hais discuss.

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