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Why Do We Care if Millennials Move to the Suburbs?

  1.      The recent release of Census county-level population data rekindles the ongoing debate about migration patterns and lifestyle choices among urban Millennials – specifically, the question of when and in what numbers they will “move to the suburbs.”
  2.     Much of the coverage frames the question as a lifestyle story or a morality play: Will the Millennials sell out their youthful love of craft beer, ostentatious beards and fixies for a two-car garage the moment they have kids? (If you think this sort of thing is new, go back and check out the movies and TV shows that were being made about the Baby Boomers during the 1980s.)
  3.        As someone interested in energy, climate and transportation policy, that discussion is good fun and all, but what I really care about is whether the combination of economic, cultural and policy factors that manifest themselves in Millennials’ location decisions are leading us toward or away from a more environmentally and fiscally sustainable world.
  4.       In short, I want to know if the Millennials’ emergence into their peak earning and child-rearing years is going to fuel a resurgence of resource- and energy-intensive sprawl.
  5.       Once upon a time, it was axiomatic that a move to the suburbs meant new greenfield sprawl. The nation’s population was rising, cities were emptying out, and no new places that could be considered truly urban were being built anywhere in the country. The suburbs were where growth happened.
  6.       Today, that story is probably still true in parts of the Sun Belt – which is concerning – but the reality of what a “move to the suburbs” means in the rest of the country is less immediately clear.
  7.       Let’s say there are three types of urban-to-suburban moves:
    • a.       A move to new, greenfield sprawl on the urban periphery.
    • b.      A move to an older, existing suburban neighborhood.
    • c.       A move to a new (often relatively dense) suburban infill development.
  8.    Note that Millennials’ location decisions are playing out against the backdrop of the aging of the Baby Boomers. There are millions of Baby Boomers living in the suburbs who won’t be there in 10 to 20 years, either because they will move (in some cases, competing with young adults for urban space as they downsize) or pass on. This “Great Senior Sell-off” will soon put an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million homes on the market each year, most of them in the ‘burbs.
  9.       So, an (a)-type move is clearly problematic, representing a market choice for new, greenfield construction over reinvestment in existing communities and housing stock. Growing up in a Rust Belt town hollowed out, in part, by suburbanization, I know what this looks like. It ain’t pretty.
  10.   A (b)-type move , which merely replaces aging Boomers with rising Millennials is more or less neutralA (c)-type move, on the other hand, can actually contribute to making existing suburbs more connected and liveable.
  11.    What kinds of urban-to-suburban moves are Millennials making? County-level data sure can’t tell us. Analyses such as this one in the Wall Street Journal label counties urban or suburban based on their characteristics at a fixed date without emphasizing that (a) many counties have both suburban and urban elements, and (b) that suburban counties can (and often do) become more urban over time.
  12.   The important thing to remember, in any event, is that “moving to the suburbs” can mean something quite different than it did 20 or 30 years ago. If you moved from Washington, D.C., to Fairfax County, Virginia, in 1985, you might have been escaping a troubled and rapidly shrinking city and moving to a single-family home or townhouse on the car-dependent suburban fringe. The same move today might represent an escape from rising housing costs to a less-expensive condo in a new mixed-use development along the Metro Silver Line. Very different things.
  13.   It is also worth remembering that public policy plays an important – and in some cases, decisive – role in how these moves play out. Policies that subsidize new-build sprawl make it more likely that Millennials will move there, regardless of what their true preferences might be.
  14.    It is entirely possible that large numbers of Millennials – though still, perhaps, a smaller share than previous generations – will opt to move to the suburbs as they age. But those decisions will not have the same effects as similar moves by previous generations, given changing demographics and development patterns in both cities and suburbs.
  15.   Finally, even the data that suggest suburbs are growing faster than cities miss the larger context, which is that, prior to the turn of the century, many cities were barely growing at all. While the rate of urban growth has slowed a bit, cities continue to grow much faster than they did in the second half of the 20th century, and in a select set of cities – the Bostons, Denvers, Seattles, Brooklyns and the like – the pace of urban growth could fairly be described as torrid relative to recent history.
  16.    The point of all this is that people – and especially policy-makers – need to watch out for narratives that oversimplify what’s actually happening out there in the real world. We are not “going back to” the development patterns of the early 2000s and we certainly haven’t “reverted” to pre-recession patterns. We are going somewhere new. Whether that new place is more or less sustainable than what we left behind is unclear, but unless we take the time to peer beneath the headlines, we’re likely to be unprepared for it.