Why Generation Y is Causing the Great Migration of the 21st Century

Just after the close of World War II, the last Great Migration in the United States — the move from the city to the new suburbs — began to emerge, fueled by new roads, low congestion, and modest energy costs. It was a new beginning, a chance to shake off the past, and it came complete with the promise of more privacy, more safety, greater proximity to nature, and easier financing.

Not surprisingly, Americans bought in.

After that, it didn’t take long for the preferred retailers to do likewise, abandoning the city and following their customers to the suburbs. The suburban single family home on a large lot became synonymous with the American Dream.

After 60 years, many commentators have announced that the American Dream is poised to make its next great shift — this time from the suburbs to the urban core of our cities. Indeed, at the recent New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in San Diego, Chris Nelson, Joe Molinaro and Shyam Kannan made it clear that a radical shift in preferences is on the horizon.


They’re not alone in that position.

Just last week, Robert Shiller of the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller Home Price Index made the dramatic statement that, with our growing shift to renting and city living, suburban home prices may never rebound in our lifetime.

Why such pronounced findings? According to researchers, it lies in the preferences of our largest generation since the Boomers, the under 30 Generation Y (who like to refer to themselves as the Millennials).

But, why?

While the answer is complex, it comes into focus when you contrast the childhood lifestyle of Generation Y with the childhood lifestyle of previous generations. Like those before them, Generation Y currently finds themselves attracted to things they did not have growing up. Four that stand out are:

1. Safety to Adventure. Generation Y has grown up in the safest environment in human history. The suburban cul-de-sac offered a safe place to play, with lower crime rates than cities. But despite this safe environment, the need to fill a 24 hour news cycle in the emerging world of cable and online communications brought every localized “stranger danger” news story to a national audience, giving rise to the overprotective Helicopter Mom who oversees every minute of her child’s life. Whereas previous generations simply needed to come home before dark, Generation Y grew up with scheduled play dates and activities.

It should come as no surprise that this over-protected generation is more prone to celebrate dangerous and exciting activities like skydiving, rock climbing and bungee jumping.

At the same time, television shifted from glorifying the surburban lifestyle in the 1960’s and 1970’s (e.g., Leave it to Beaver and the Brady Bunch) to glorifying the urban lifestyle in the 1990’s (e.g., Seinfeld and Friends).

These cultural changes have pushed Generation Y to look for more adventure than previous generations, and they are less fearful of cities than previous generations.

2. Isolated to Connected. While the suburban cul-de-sac lifestyle offered the safest environment the planet has ever seen, it also produced the most isolated and disconnected environment. Today’s children rarely have the freedom to roam beyond the cul-de-sac, ensuring their social lives are determined by the quality of friends on the same street, together with the nature of their scheduled social interactions beyond their neighborhood. Indeed, the endangered species of the 21st century is the free range kid.

The net result? Generation Y wants to be more connected and less isolated than previous generations. They manifest this desire in their full-on embrace of social media and their desire to live in places where they can be around others; i.e., the densest, most active, areas of cities.

3. Inconvenient to Convenient. Convenience is another word for time, and Generation Y has a low tolerance for spending time on things associated with the suburban lifestyle — Saturdays filled with yard work or long commutes in the car.

Instead, they want the convenience of living close to the things they need, the things they do, and the people they do them with. They prefer the walk downstairs and around the corner to the neighborhood coffee shop or brew pub to the 20 minute car trip required in the ‘burbs. Also note that this is the first generation to grow up with the ubiquitous anti-drunk driving messaging of MADD and the harsher penalties for driving drunk. As such, all other factors being equal, they naturally prefer a place that allows them to walk, not drive home after a few drinks.

Developers of mixed-use communities understand this shift, and have been marketing their communities as places where you can live, shop, work and play — the places that are walk-able, bike-able, transit-able and drive-able as opposed to the drive-only conventional suburban development. This is simply another way of saying that convenience matters more than ever.

4. Car Dependent to Car Independent. Last week the New York Times reported that General Motors has hired MTV’s marketing arm to help combat Generation Y’s lack of interest in cars. Talk about a shift. Only a few decades ago the car symbolized freedom. Indeed, you were not socially viable without one. Now, Generation Y views freedom as being car-independent. How did this happen?

As stated above, the car is no longer a great convenience if it takes a 20 minute trip to buy a quart of milk (or a 6-pack of Belgian IPA). And if the trip is characterized by stop lights and traffic as opposed to the free-flowing suburban streets of the 1960’s, it is no longer going to be considered cool — especially if the trip is in a minivan.

In fact, Generation Y would rather be on a bus or train where they can work or be connected to the internet and social media, which is why Google provides its employees a bus to work.


Generation Y wants freedom, not obstacles or anchors. So when it comes to where and how they live, they also exhibit a greater desire to rent rather than own.

Not the Only Factor: The Perfect Storm

As Generation Y ramps up the buying power they’ll need to fuel a Great Migration back to the cities — and the adventure, convenience, freedom and connectedness they offer — note that a few other factors will also play large roles. These include:

1. Aging Population.  When you turn 80 in the suburbs, you begin to realize that your lifestyle is contingent upon your ability to drive. As the Baby Boomers continue to age in the next few decades they will increasingly choose cities where they can walk or take transit over the alternative: independent and assisted living facilities.

2. Higher Energy Costs. Most analysts believe that energy will only become more expensive over time. This will increase the cost of living far from cities, and therefore contribute toward the revitalization of cities and the inner-ring suburbs.

3. Rediscovery of Urban Design Principles. 30 years ago it was difficult to find cities that were making life livable through excellent design. Today, knowledge of these principles is widespread, making it easier for cities to provide a better, even great, place to live.

4. Public School Reform.  The recent advent of charter schools, magnet schools and other alternatives have provided an opportunity for parents to enjoy excellent schools in many downtown areas for the first time in decades.

5. ROI Analysis. As government budgets become more austere, more municipalities will analyze their infrastructure investments based upon a Return-on-Investment analysis, something advocated by Joe Minicozzi. This naturally favors urban locations over suburban locations.

6. Lower Crime. Technological advancements over the past decade in surveillance and crime investigation have given us tools that make combating crime (as well as the perception of crime) easier.

7. Better Downtowns. While experts are already signaling the popularity of downtown living, these preferences are only likely to increase as our downtowns become better than they are today.

It’s Never Just One or the Other, But…

Just as cities were not completely abandoned in the 20th century, suburbs will not be abandoned in the 21st century. But the shift in preferences is clearly underway, and this radical change will manifest itself in the nature of real estate development over the next 20 years.

–Nathan Norris

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Filed under Development, Experience, Financing, Planning and Design, Public Policy, Sales and Marketing

61 responses to “Why Generation Y is Causing the Great Migration of the 21st Century

  1. Good article, but one thing you get wrong is the notion that suburbia is so safe.

    There’s a growing pile of research that suggests cities are actually safer than suburbs when you factor in elements beyond only crime. Basically, the incidence of car crashes is so much higher in the suburbs that suburbanites are more likely to be killed by unnatural causes than urbanites. Here’s an article on the subject: http://grist.org/cities/2010-12-27-want-a-safe-place-to-raise-kids-look-to-the-cities/

    And then, of course, there are the health benefits of cities. Less sedentary lifestyle with less drive-thru fast food mixed into the diet. If we accept that health benefits equate to long term safety benefits (which I admit is a bit of a stretch), then cities win there as well.

    Suburbs have failed to deliver on the promises they were sold to our parents and grandparents under, including the idea that they’re so safe. Everybody knows someone who has died in a car crash.

  2. An intriguing analysis. As someone interested in children, risk and public space I found the section on Gen Y’s attitudes to safety particularly seductive. However, I’d like to see some numbers (other than birth rates) to back up the arguments.

  3. Thanks, BeyondDC. Note that our points on safety were largely referencing cul-de-sacs, as opposed to the suburbs in general. As mentioned in the intro, the suburbs dangled the promise of safety but, as you very correctly point out, once all the externalities are tallied, they’re no safer than the city. And they may, in fact, be worse.

  4. Interesting; I’m in a discussion on just this topic right now on LinkedIn: http://linkd.in/Hteu2o

    These factors all make sense to me, and clearly they all play a role. But I think you’re downplaying one of the biggest factors: the increased safety and economic opportunity of key old urban cores (NYC, SF, Chicago) starting in the 1990s.

    For example, when I graduated college right at the cusp of this, in the mid-90s when sizeable parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn had become relatively safe and vibrant enough to attract someone like me who had some choice of where to go. 10 years prior, in the depths of urban decline, the stultifying safety, cleanliness, and car dependence of the suburbs would have been much more attractive in comparison.

    So in that sense, it may be more accurate to say that it was the economic growth, improved policing strategies (esp. in NYC), and gradually smarter land use & transportation planning of the 90s created the conditions that have led to more and more Millennials preferring cities over suburbs today.

  5. Josh Bromine

    Suburbia was the biggest scam in the universe. Gen Y knows this. Cars suck.

  6. gfb

    Sorry… another out of touch suburban gen x-er who is ten years behind the curve, has just figured out the way things have been going and pontificates on it like he’s discovered something new. And its not all gen Y doing it, by the way. He’s not even in touch with his own generation. Get a life.

  7. Teri

    Yes, let’s have more numbers and charts from excellent studies – like the one above. Our community leaders need simple illustrations/graphs from reputable sources. What we are looking for is solid support for our intuitive knowledge that urbanizing codes will impact the bottom line positively. The story is all about the economy theses days and how to PLAN for best resistance to recession.

  8. doober

    the bit about charter schools is complete nonsense. urban public schools are getting better because there is a critical mass of parents who have the education, resources, and connections to hold school administrations accountable. Charter schools are just one “solution.”

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  11. Vincent

    Charter schools have produced mixed results; some are successful, while others not so. This article, while interesting and making some good points, neglects to mention how low-income people, primarily minorities, have largely been, and continue to be, unfairly displaced via gentrification because of generation Y’s preferences. This is especially the case in NYC where real estate interests heavily influence politics. While the great migration of generation Y to the urban core should be welcomed, we should not be pushing out people who have built communities in these neighborhoods that were once deemed “uninhabitable,” “dangerous” (yes, many of them certainly were – but deindustrialization, racism, financial redlining, and inapt government policies are mainly to blame for this; and just because there was crime, doesn’t mean there wasn’t strong community), and “undesirable.”

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  13. steventhomas

    A lot of your argument makes sense to me, though I think this trend started in the late 1990s among the 30-something generation (my generation) and just has a lot more momentum now. I could be wrong about that. However, one thing you leave out of your analysis is racism. Suburban sprawl in the 1950s and 60s was a response to two almost simultaneous events: Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that forced integration and the highway act (1956). In other words, white flight supported by federal infrastructure. The 20-something generation today doesn’t quite understand why their parents and grandparents went so far out of their way to avoid black people. To put it another way, the suburbs never made much sense. So, back to the cities.

  14. I can definitely see the shift you point out but I see the causes, I think, much differently. I see the changes coming more from necessity that any generation’s predilection for sustainability, etc. Rising prices and greater understanding of environmental effects make the car unrealistic for many of this generation. The advent of the internet has spurred interconnectedness, the Xers were no doubt into the connecting technology of the time: television. And I have a hard time viewing Generation Y as any more risk-taking than previous generations. They simply have to take more risks than X, perhaps, but I can’t see them as any more adventurous than those who willingly went to war throughout the 20th century or those who fought for rights or peace at the same time.

    All that said, the shift toward urban sustainability is badly needed, and I support creative approaches to design.

  15. Seeker

    Interesting, and thanks for the food for thought. I don’t necessarily agree that the use of social media means greater connectivity. Sharing comments or photos with someone isn’t the same as actually meeting and interacting with that person face to face. The current edition of The Atlantic has an article about the increase in loneliness in the face of increased use of social media. Too, look at the ad campaign for one of the smart phones, the one that uses the “that’s so 27 seconds ago” theme. Those people are chained to their phones, reacting to textual potshots rather than experiencing life with its face-to-face exchanges and real connections.

  16. jon

    Interesting premise, that is finding much support right now. However, I’m not sure the narrative and anecdotes coalesce into fact. Much of this may be related to very recent changes in the economy, job market, availability of financing, and the cost of gasoline and fuels. We have previously seen auto sales and home size/locations be rather responsive to economic and fuel cost factors. An additional explanation might also lie in the long term effects of things like highway construction, GI Bill and FHA loan terms, redlining, blockbusting, white flight, crime, and other factors that previously encouraged and accentuated suburban development at the expense of cities. As those initiatives have expended their force, we may now simply be seeing a regression to the mean – which might well favor cities with superior locations, quality of life and economic prospects.

  17. Keith

    This is overall an excellent article, and I agree with nearly all your points except this one:

    “4. Public School Reform. The recent advent of charter schools, magnet schools and other alternatives have provided an opportunity for parents to enjoy excellent schools in downtown areas for the first time in decades.”

    I find this assumption maddening. First, you have to ask yourself, why were these schools in downtown areas bad in the first place? It was precisely because of the white flight you described–the transfer of an affluent tax base to its own suburban or exurban enclaves, so that their taxes flow into their own school district, which obviously creates extreme disparity in public school quality. An extreme example of this would be the highly affluent Piedmont, California, a donut hole in the middle of Oakland, and a city whose only function is to provide a separate public school district from the surrounding Oakland districts with its separate tax base.

    One can assume that as more affluent populations move into cities that public schools will naturally improve due to their increased property value. One wonders though, if the reverse will happen to hollowed-out exurbs and suburbs.

    Second, it is important to note that many studies have confirmed that there is virtually no difference between charters and publics in quality. That’s right: on a national, overall scale, charters have utterly failed to provide a viable alternative to public schools. Sure, there are standout charters that get press, but there are just as many failures–and just as many standout public schools, usually the ones in places like Piedmont. The charter school movement has, however, fulfilled the neoliberal dream of privatizing a public institution so that a few people can get wealthy at the public’s expense.

  18. Urbaniste

    The US Census indicates that people are NOT moving into the city cores. In fact, they seem to be spreading into rural areas and not just suburbs. It should also be noted that every generation moves to the central city during its 20’s, and into the suburbs when they have children. Gen Y is certainly different from preceding generations, but many of these differences are superficial and image-related rather than deep changes. The author may need to research and think more widely before reaching conclusions.

  19. Nathan

    Good comments, but let me make a few clarifications (whether you agree with them is a different issue).

    First, the changes described were intended to describe a coming trend, not a current condition. That is to say, the migration is coming—- it hasn’t manifested itself except in surveys and anecdotal observations. It isn’t here yet due to age issues and financial issues (more than any others). Nonetheless, the perceptions and surveyed interests have already been documented—- the reasons are varied, but the least talked about one is the radically different environment that many Gen Y’ers grew up in.

    Second, as regards schools, it should have been stated more clearly that like crime— the perception, not the reality, is what matters, and there is no question that young parents view downtowns as having more options than existed 10 or 15 years ago (when the choice was viewed as public v. private). Many, not all, cities now have options in the downtown that give more parents— at a minimum— the perception that the public schools are an option. That is what matters whether you believe charter, magnet or other alternative schools are better than regular public schools.

  20. Are you serious?!

    This article is ridiculous. First of all, you are imagining the gen y experience through the eyes of a typical gen xer. gen x is responsible for the commoditization of gentrification of every last inch of urban centers (and extending that project into intellectual space, See: your article). Gen y has no money, they will never be able to afford homes in the suburbs, or cars to get them there, so of course they have stayed in the cities that facilitate a less over-extended cost of living (not that they can afford to live in most cities either (see: gen y still living at home). there are so many problems with your article, but the key one is your assumption that gen y has, or has ever had, a choice in these matters. on the contrary, gen y is doomed to wait for the baby boomer to die in order to find employment so they can afford to live in the neighborhoods gen x gentrified to the point of becoming financially inaccessible.

  21. Urbaniste

    Fair comment, Nathan, however… Gen Y’s intent is moot. The changing global economic situation, America’s lousy schools, and not quite stellar economic prospects, are seeing a maked decline in the middle class boom-period aspirations that drive the coffee-set trendy inner-city dwellers. Now that Gen Y’s growing up period is no longer relevant during the GFC’s economic downturn, I suspect that GEN Y’s aspirations will change to being survival preppers, rather than cool dudes around uptown.

  22. theakinet

    The latest Census data shows more population growth outside cities: “Still Moving to the Suburbs and Exurbs: The 2011 Census Estimates” newgeography.com/content/002766-still-moving-suburbs-and-exurbs-the-2011-census-estimates

  23. Car Dependent to Car Independent

    I actually wrote about this in “Cars and generational shift,” because my Dad and I typify the difference between generations: to him, cars stand for freedom, opportunity, and the open road. To me, they stand for traffic and tedium; we’ve basically reached peak commute times in much of the country, so we’re seeing people want to shift back to urban centers that don’t require one to fume in traffic for long periods of time.

  24. Arquitecto Instruccional

    This sounds like an urban realtor’s infomercial with data from Robert Charles Lesser & Company, who’s interest is vested with real estate. Realtors make their living on the ebb and flow of population because anytime someone moves, realtors make money from 2 transactions.

    It is no secret that most 20-something of EVERY generation (not just the Gen-Y) migrate to denser populated areas (to work, or to find a mate, or even to “seek adventure”). When the same population gets to be in their 30- or 40-something, they migrate to safer environments to raise their families. This has been a natural repeating cycle for generations, and it did not start with the baby-boomers.

    The part about public school reform providing excellent schools is laughable. Parents have been pulling out their kids from public school at a record rate. Homeschooling is growing faster than the public schools are declining.

    In fact, the new edu-tech startups are targeting more to the homeschools than the public schools because they all know how corrupt the purchasing process is with the public schools.

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  26. There is a lot of exaggeration going on here and a lot of holes in the story. A lot of people will always recognize that owning land is secure and rewarding. Generation Y may be attracted to a urban lifestyle today but give them a few years and the idea of a garden, garage, studio, guest rooms, privacy, and a multitude of other factors that spread people out in previous generations will come into play. Racism may have been a factor but there are many, many more.

  27. Michael

    The nitpicky and grudging responses here miss the fact that you are spot on regarding the broad trend. Simply looking at the successful entrepreneurs of gen Y shows exactly the preferences you mention. Once they hit their economic stride, assuming they do, the trend will be clear. Nice article.

  28. “The suburbs are much more dangerous because in the city someone might come up and take your money, but in the suburbs they’ll take your soul”
    — William Gibson

  29. Survivorman

    I’ll keep my horses and rural land thank you very much. I’ve had it with the BS of city living. Maybe time some of you Y’ers learn how to survive and rough it before you get into a pinch you can’t get out of. My sympathies to you for having to deal with heli-moms…

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  32. Another addition to your “other factors” list:

    This is the MADD generation. With MADD founded in 1980, Generation Y is the first generation to be raised in a time when anti-drunk driving campaigns were ubiquitous and drunk driving laws tightened quite a bit. Living in the suburbs and driving 20 minutes to the nearest bar is a far less attractive option.

    This is not to imply that a generation’s choice of watering holes will reshape the urban-suburban divide, but keeping in mind that Generation Y is still quite young, it’s relevant. Bars and taverns represent a locus for the kind of connection and conviviality that is so key to Gen Y– they always have. The combination of this with tougher drunk driving laws and less cultural acceptance of driving after even a couple drinks makes urban centers with public transit and walkable neighborhoods a far more attractive option for young people who are highly in need of connection and socialization.

  33. JVD

    It’s taken you 15 years to come up with the idea that people are moving downtown? Where have you been? Prestige, near free Credit and a completely underwhelming sensibility towards debt combined with simple laziness is the main driver here. Those buying their condos in the core simply don’t want to do the work (transit is available in the ‘burbs btw).

    The key observation about the ‘social network’ argument is that people in condos choose to be even more isolated than people in suburbs. The density is the issue, that and you don’t need to rely on your neighbours since everything else, including your actual friends, are within walking distance.

    I rural settings, even for rural commuters, there is far more dependance on neighbours and a far greater necessity for knowing them. When the power goes out the neighbour with a generator is favoured. When your well is contaminated, your neighbour with clean water is favoured. When someone is snowed in, your twin tine snow blower is favoured. Half a cow or half a pig come cheap, one garden’s excess potato crop is exchanged for another garden’s excess tomato crop.

    You become far less dependant on society and far more dependant on being social when you live in a rural area.

  34. fmakanda

    Reblogged this on This is MY Soapbox and commented:
    This is an interesting trend in real estate. Forget about the suburbs, let’s move back to the city. As a Gen Y-er, I too feel that the “American Dream” is shifting into another direction. This is a great read!

  35. I’m all about this, but I think you’re over-stating #4. In lots of urban cores, it’s not as simple as all of that.

  36. Ace

    Another thing to note in your portrayal of suburbia in film/television would be starting around the 90’s and into the 2000s would be shows/movies that protrayed suburbia in a negative light. Or as I like to call it “Dark Side of the Cul De Sac genre.” Films like Alan Ball’s “American Beauty” ,Todd Solondz’s “Happiness”, and Todd Field’s “Little Children” for example Showed suburbia as a place full of typical upper middle class white families that were perverted, tempermental, judgemental monsters behind closed doors!

    Also to a lesser extent I remembershows that seemed to show suburba as a place full of materialistc, sallow, and even stupid people. The Animated shows “Daria” and “The Boondocks” , primetime shows like “Desperate Houeswives” and the current “Suburgatory”, also alot of those reality shows such as alot of the real housewives shows! I remember I was hanging out with a couple friends at an apartment and “The Real Houeswives of Orange County.” came on and I remember one of them pointing to a lady on the show who appeared to have a few to many faces lifts going on about her purse collection and she said to me flat out “IF I EVER TURN INTO SOMEONE LIKE THAT WHEN IM IN MY 40s and 50s PLEASE SHOOT ME!!”

  37. Ace

    I agree the idea of owning a home does come into place as soon as a gen Y’er starts to have kids Urbaniste. However I think this generation is more likely to prefer a Restored Bungalow or Victorian or Townhouse in one of the nicer neighboors in the city with a good school or maybe inner ring suburb thats only about a 10 or 15 minute communte from the core as opposed to a bland tract McMansion WAAAYY out in one of the exurbs that are nearly an hour away from the city.

  38. Urbaniste

    Wil enough Gen Y’s leave home for long enough to make a migration to the cities noticeable?
    Just saying… 🙂

  39. Urbaniste

    Ace, the Boomers started out with the same idea(l)s about trendy downtowns and ethically cool townhouses.
    Nonetheless, I still think that Gen Y’s intent will be badly knocked around by the GFC-shocked economy, and they may have to be actually creative enough to find a new place in the world.

  40. I am a bit apocalyptic on this subject. I see oil-the car-sprawl as an unsustainable reality and believe that there will be a technological advance in the macro-realm that will revolutionize housing and transportation. Indeed the whole economy. The positive outcome would be a sort of “Pattern Language” solution minus cars (car free, multi-zoned, dense communities). The negative result could be a fortress society where the rich are not gated but walled. And the rest fend somehow. Road Warrior lite..

  41. Urbaniste

    It amazes me that cars are always associated with petrol/diesel engines. I just assume we will always have personal vehicles, but they will be driven by a new propulsion system. Patents for all the good/practical systems are currently held by oil and car companies, and will get rolled out when the oil becomes too expensive for the economy to run. (Electric cars are a sidetrack.)

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  44. Rob from North Fork

    From a Gen, um, approximately Q’er (post-baby boom pre-Vietnam draft eligible):

    “Indeed, at the recent New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in San Diego, Chris Nelson, Joe Molinaro and Shyam Kannan made it clear that a radical shift in preferences is on the horizon.”

    And the Robert Charles Lesser graph data are sourced from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Suburbia is a virus. Who woulda thought…

    Dude, the medium is the massage.

    From Wikipedia:

    “Friends is an American sitcom created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman, which aired on NBC from September 22, 1994 to May 6, 2004.”

    “Cheers is an American situation comedy television series that ran for 11 seasons from 1982 to 1993.”

    “Good Times is an American sitcom that originally aired from February 8, 1974, until August 1, 1979”

    “All in the Family is an American sitcom that was originally broadcast on the CBS television network from January 12, 1971, to April 8, 1979”

    “Happy Days is an American television sitcom that originally aired from January 15, 1974, to September 24, 1984,”

    “I Love Lucy is an American television sitcom starring Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley. The black-and-white series originally ran from October 15, 1951, to May 6, 1957, on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). After the series ended in 1957, however, a modified version continued for three more seasons with 13 one-hour specials, running from 1957 to 1960”

    “The Andy Griffith Show is an American sitcom first televised by CBS between October 3, 1960, and April 1, 1968. Andy Griffith portrays a widowed sheriff in the fictional small community of Mayberry, North Carolina.”

    Bonus point for white flighters:


    With warmest regards,

    Rob from North Fork

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  47. abeautifulcity


  48. objektivedesire

    I disagree. The most common reason people are moving into urban areas is because the Boomers and Gen X-er’s spent money and time revitalizing cities and developing the product that didn’t exist before. This is the direct result of the New Urbanist movement and desire for walkable communities where all aspects of life are connected. In the late ’80’s Dana Crawford saved a historic building in downtown Denver, now the Oxford Hotel, and ignited renewal. In the mid-1990’s warehouses all along 16th Street Mall were being converted into lofts. Richard Moe wrote Changing Places highlighting this phenomenon in 1997. There’s Seaside, Celebration, Rosemary Beach, Prospect, the Kentlands, and many other New Urbanist communities that were developed in the 1980’s, and the Congress for New Urbanism. Aside from Moe’s book, there’s Calthorpe, Krier, and books from Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck, all from the 1990’s, and the bible from Jane Jacobs, which forced American planners to reconsider cities, and essentially started all of this when it was written in the 1960’s. Giving credit to Gen Y dismisses all the work previous generations of cutting edge planners and developers have done to give people a choice. Nevermind the public/private partnerships that were enacted in Vancouver, San Francisco, Seattle, and countless mid-sized cities around the country. This may be Why Gen Y likes cities, but they are just buying a product created by others long before they were learning geometry.

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  52. Like a lot of the other commenters here, I think the article is too obsessed with buzzwords (social media, connectedness, generation Y), leading it to gloss over the core demographic and urban planning factors that are making cities “hip” again. For example, why is “safety to adventure” the #1 reason for the movement to cities when many suburbs have pretty high crime these days (think outer DC vs central DC).

    Here are my two cents, some based on intuition others based on data:

    First, if we remember from back in the 1970s, cities were going to crap back in the day. In fact, rich people wanted to live OUTSIDE the city in gated mansions (except maybe in New York). Boston, where I live now, was a run down city full of crime (gang wars, tourist center Faneuil hall was a bad place to bring your kids, etc), prostitution (the red light district was near boylston street, a hip shopping spot today), and run down buildings. Ok, so maybe buildings are still run down but crime and prostitution are way down. And you saw the patterns of gentrification duplicated in many other major urban areas like DC and Harlem in NY, making people want to move back in again.

    Second, suburbs got saturated and over time also became run down, just like a lot of urban centers had before gentrification. If you think of the prime suburban real estate being taken up by the 1950s and 1960s this isn’t surprising. So now you start losing the advantages of suburbs (very low costs, low crime, young families, new housing) and to get the same advantages of earlier suburbs you had to move even farther out from the cities. For example, I remember some article in the nytimes a few years back that said that crime was being pushed to the suburbs of DC and baltimore because of gentrification of parts of those cities. So…the appeal of suburbs starts to decrease.

    Third, we moved from a “manufacturing” economy to a “service” economy. People moved to the cities at the turn of the century because that’s where the industrial revolution was. Then people started moving out after world war two because jobs like GM and GE were located outside the city. Then in the last 20 years we moved to a “knowledge economy.” So now you could have a company inside the city because all the new companies did were write code and create content. You didn’t need a lot of floorspace for manufacturing equipment and people in these jobs didn’t mind moving into the cities because it was closer to where these companies were plus reasons 1 and 2.

  53. David

    Good stuff. But Gen X started this trend in the US. Also this is something Europe has been doing for a while, we’re just behind the curve. Otherwise good insight.

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  57. Richard

    You are giving generation Y too much credit. The issues at the end of your article are sound and they are not generation specific reasons. The trend back to the city began over a decade ago, fueled by a cross section of ages from x to y to empty nesters flocking to new downtown condo’s. If there is actual comparative Data that points to generation Y as the Reason or Leaders of this change, that would be interesting to see. This data might allow your article to not seem like such an oversimplification.

  58. None of these comments says anything about living in a small city that is 50 miles or more from an urban center, There are thousands of such cities in the U.S., and many of them are dying because their well-educated young people are not returning home after college but seeking opportunities elsewhere. Although their home towns may have small industries where people can earn a modest living, they are often lacking in amenities that make life convenient and stimulating for young people. Main Street clothing and furniture stores are closing and residents have to drive at least an hour to some bigger city to buy things they need. Intellectual activities are minimal, so educated young people are soon bored. As they flock to big cities, not only for jobs and social activity but for shops, stores, museums, theaters and bright lights, the small cities slide further and further into a kind of backwater, a residence for rednecks and retirees. I’m afraid my own small city is becoming such a place. I am a retiree, but I once lived in the heart of Chicago and I’d move back there in a minute if I could afford it.

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  60. Nathan

    I have updated the article to incorporate some of the concerns expressed in these comments. Thanks to all who took the time to share their insights— especially the person (“retius”) who alerted me to the “MADD generation.”

    As regards Jean Williams comments above, small towns have always had a hard time retaining talent. That is why cities have always been the great generators of wealth (they attract talent, and they produce wealth).

    Nonetheless, I do not believe that smaller towns are doomed. First, the internet permits many workers (myself included) to locate anywhere. Many small towns offer a friendly atmosphere, clean air, no traffic, and lower fears regarding crime— that isn’t bad. Second, changes in the delivery of education (a factor of the tech revolution) will also provide a higher quality of life to young families in smaller towns. Third, many people are forecasting that agricultural land and production will become more valuable than it is today. If that is the case, many smaller towns that are surrounding by agricultural operations will benefit. Finally, the downtown of large cities will never be for everyone, and as people who can afford to live there move there, many will come to learn for the first time why they do not want to live in a downtown.

    What all of this means is that both large towns and small towns will continue to compete. And any small town can become better over the next 20 years (when a lot of folks will be vying to move into large cities) if they simply care enough to use placemaking as an economic development tool. In other words, so many towns do a horrible job, that those that do a good job of it have the ability to effectively compete.

    And my last comment is that if your town is losing a lot of well-educated young people, it is most likely because no one told them why they should stay. No one told them how the town would become better over time and how they could participate in that effort.

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