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Can Millennials Revive the American City?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Minch Lewis
July 8, 2016

The American city has been on the receiving end of devastating trends: disinvestment, disintegration of infrastructure, depopulation, deterioration of law and order and destruction of public education. Now, emerging trends might provide a counterbalance. The millennial generation and the New Urbanism movement, which both grew from the same roots in the 1980s, are providing the American city with powerful policy opportunities. Millennials, attracted to New Urbanism neighborhoods created by community development, might power the revival of the American city.

Emerging trends and merging opportunities:

  • The millennial generation has an interest in urban living and the resources to support it.
  • New Urbanism creates a change in traditional community redevelopment goals.
  • Urban resource disinvestment has created opportunities for turning liabilities into assets.

Who are the millennials that could help revive the American city?

“Millennial” is the generational tag that classifies everyone born from about 1980 to 2000 as “Gen Y.” Born into the Internet age, they have unlimited access to information. They seem to be reversing the preferences of their parents. One of those break-away choices brings them back to urban living preferences—sidewalks, front porches and neighbors they can talk to. In fact, according to a RCLCO report, “millennials want urban, walkable and high-amenity places.”

What is a New Urbanism neighborhood?

The RCLCO report describes the features of a New Urbanism neighborhood. New Urbanism neighborhoods have characteristics based on standards codified by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU): 

  • Walkable access: mixed use neighborhoods with pedestrian connections within a five-minute walk.
  • Higher density development: smaller lot size and multistory mixed-use structures.
  • Urban scale: buildings and roads facilitating connections between people.
  • Local parks: enhanced for accessible recreational activities and community meetings.
  • Traffic-calming transit designs: traffic circles for arterial intersections and dedicated bike paths.
  • Auto-free zones: public spaces offering relief from carbon-monoxide pollution.
  • People-oriented public spaces: open areas, sidewalks, cafes and front porches to host public life. 

How does a community create a New Urbanism neighborhood?


Photo courtesy of the Rose Companies.

As Adesanya ADEKOYA pointed out in an earlier PA Times Online article, “Millennials have changed the face of community development.” Municipal governments can build on those changes. Instead of conventional activities, community development agencies can promote positive New Urbanism characteristics with public tools recommended by CNU:

  • Planning: establishing geographical units that relate to demographic characteristics.
  • Zoning: modifying traditional regulations to incorporate “New Urbanism” standards.
  • Building codes: revising limitations and establishing requirements for urban features.
  • Public investment: relocating governmental offices to neighborhood sites.
  • Infrastructure improvements: enhancing neighborhood amenities like parks and transit ways.
  • Neighborhood organizations: providing professional staff for volunteer groups.
  • Social service support: moving services to the neighborhood from central offices.
  • Social media: developing content to create neighborhood identity and cohesion. 

What financial resources are available?

Resources can be redirected to finance a New Urbanism strategy:

  • Existing expenditures can be refocused. Community policing offices can be opened in vacant store fronts. Fire stations can be opened up to the neighborhood.
  • Capital improvement districts can be created to finance public improvements.
  • Federal CDBG funding can be allocated based on New Urbanism impacts.
  • Philanthropic investment can be promoted, including funding for neighborhood community development organizations.
  • Property tax policy can be changed to provide incentives for commercial development and for residential “curb appeal.”
  • Resources that millennials have, or will have as baby boomers pass on $30 trillion in the intergenerational transfer of wealth, can be tapped.
  • School systems can adopt neighborhood schools to coincide with New Urbanism boundaries. 

Implementing new urban neighborhoods

Creating New Urbanism neighborhoods requires a community commitment. Robert Steuteville, senior communications advisor for the CNU, lays out the process. “A community has to show millennials that it is committed to creating places where people want to live.” Political, social and economic institutions must come together to adopt New Urbanism as a strategy for sustaining the urban core.

The good news: it’s been done before.

The success stories are supported with formal research and with anecdotal testimony. According to a report from Smart Growth America, “Walkable urban places are now gaining market share over drivable locations for the first time in at least half a century in hotel, office and rental apartment development.”

The CNU provides resources to assist with public policy, community decision-making, marketing and financing based on the growing demand.

Steuteville recommends that the process should begin with a planning exercise called a “charrette.”

A charrette is an intensive planning session where citizens, designers and others collaborate on a vision for development. It provides a forum for ideas and offers the unique advantage of giving immediate feedback to the designers. More importantly, it allows everyone who participates to be a mutual author of the plan.

CNU will provide a welcome reception and support for communities that adopt a “New Urbanism” strategy for attracting millennials. The opportunity is real. Millennials, working in partnership with community development, can play a powerful role in reviving the American city, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Author: Minch Lewis is an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. He served as the elected city auditor in Syracuse, New York for nine years and has developed financial management systems for the affordable housing industry. He earned his master’s degree in public administration at the Maxwell School. He is a certified government financial manager. Email: [email protected].

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2 Responses to Can Millennials Revive the American City?

  1. Wendy-Ann Reply

    July 8, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    I found Professor Lewis article to informative and optimistic. This article inspired me to get a better understanding of the Congress for New Urbanism core values to obtain ideas that can be used in post-industrial cities in New Jersey.

    • Minch Lewis Reply

      July 23, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      Apologies for not replying sooner. I am particularly interested in any ways that you can implement New Urbanism strategies. I hope you will share your experiences.

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