Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Millennials And Walking

Jeff Speck, author of The Walkable City, has pointed out that “64% of Millennials are now choosing where they want to live before finding a job, and 77% plan to live in urban areas.” He backs this statement up by reasoning that generally one in four teenagers are opting out of obtaining drivers licenses. I have heard many explanations as to why the decline in teenage driving, but I don’t feel that the reason is purely economic. The boomers moved to the suburbs because that is where their parents did not live. Could the Millennials be moving downtown for the same reasons?

Of course, for some, those planning to live in “urban areas” could mean simply living in the city proper and not remaining “down on the farm” but here in Lexington I believe that it is more about getting out of the suburban sprawl of our last 4 decades of development. Spending hours per day on school buses or being ferried about by parents seems to be growing old for a lot of young folks. Having a multitude of destinations within walking distance of their college campus’s and especially if there is a downtown nearby, is suddenly very appealing to them.

Millennials now want to be close to work, they don’t mind that entertainment is nearby their homes, along with other amenities and they don’t mind using public transit to get to those amenities beyond walking distance. Some of the things that they were introduced to in college are now desirable in their working life, just like the things that they were used to in their parent’s home are now necessary in the college dorm.

So, just what kind of a downtown will Lexington provide for our Millennials? In many parts of the country our inner cities are beginning to resemble the suburbs, and vice versa. Except for the downtown business district, our parking requirements and building setbacks look very much like the suburbs from which the Millennials are escaping. Some of our downtown streets are as wide and uninviting as the “boulevards” of their youth (you know, the ones that they were not supposed to cross). If it is so similar to what they left, then why would they want to stay?

In my opinion, so far they are seeking out the more interesting streets, those which are vastly different from the sometimes broad, treeless landscapes of the typical subdivision where they played as kids. I think that they are discovering the wonders of the neighborhoods like the one that I grew up in. Streets with older trees, which lead to interesting destinations just a few short blocks away and not more of the same as far as the child's eye can see.

Sadly, even these areas succumb to the ravages of the neglect of those who really should know better. Those which are caught in time may be salvaged, but too often they too will endure the expedient redevelopment tactic of rebuilding in the suburban style. Maintaining an older neighborhood, like those which we are considering, tend to be a bit more on the pricey side initially. Never mind that the eventual property value increase can add to the charm and desirability.

I know that we, as a society, cannot prevent the redevelopment of the areas around the downtown core, not if we want to continue to grow our city. Just like we cannot perpetuate the expansion of low density sprawl into the remaining fertile fields, we also cannot wipe out the still viable parts of our community while replacing it with suburban “blah”. I don't believe that it occurred that way in the historical cities of our Eastern seaboard or the European cities which attract numerous visitors yearly. (Hint: they don't go there for the horses either).

So, just what kind of a downtown will Lexington provide for our Millennials? Will it be a large scale, coordinated (government directed) effort of “top down” which many equate to the cold war style of the past. In the words of Rocket J. Squirrel, when asked by Bullwinkle about a rabbit and a hat, “That trick never works”. Will we see some sort of grass roots “real” urbanism, be it new or otherwise, played out a la the W. Short St. renaissance of late? The Rupp Arena Arts district is a perfect place to start, but we may need to look at uses other than our “dining and bars” or “destination venue” methods which we have already tried. Enabling and allowing an organic development to flourish may be the better solution.

It is not just our downtown which needs to be made over. It is not just the Millennials which need to have comfortable urban surroundings in which they can thrive. Our other residents may also desire the urban like look and feel of city living. Currently, that does not seem to be the case, but when the alternative is just a denser flavor of the stale suburban development model it is no wonder that neighborhoods rebel against the proposals put forward. For years I have heard the retorts that people won't buy it, but I have also seen the angry rejections of the mediocre solutions which the developers offer.

We have long known of the health befits to be gained from living in walkable neighborhoods and it is becoming clear that the health problems of our youth may stem from our overuse of the automobile, possibly exacerbated by our choice of dwelling location and lifestyle/diet. Studies have shown that asthma rates drop when people live in areas with fewer vehicle miles traveled, driving is now the primary cause of air pollution and fewer people die from auto crashes when they drive fewer miles.

For the Millennials which do end up living outside of downtown, what kind of city will we create for them? It may be clear that they do not want to live in the cul-de-sac maze of their youth, but can the subdivisions be re-purposed to suit the new lifestyles. Only time will tell.

Speck does point out that there are four primary steps to making your city a “walkable” city:
  • Create a reason to walk.
  • Create that walk to be a safe walk (real and perceived).
  • Make walks comfortable (space and orientation).
  • Design interesting walks.
The methods to implement these four steps are different for the suburban area versus the downtown but the end goal should be the same, to create an environment in which folks desire to walk. For so long now, I think that we have tried harder to eliminate the need to walk than we have to build a desirable environment, be it walkable or not.

As Speck tells us, and other sites confirm, the Millennials are looking for a city before they will begin looking for a job. The small steps taken (and proposed) in our downtown development, good though they be, will not be enough to win the battle by themselves. It is now time to plan for who we wish to live in Lexington and not just the folks who already do.

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