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Hullabaloo


Friday, June 29, 2012

 
Densification: another positive progressive trendline

by David Atkins

To say that demographic trends are against conservatives would be an understatement. From progressive attitudes among the nation's youth to decreasing religiosity to the rise of Latinos as a percentage of the general population, time is definitely not on the side of the Fox News crowd.

Now we can count densification among those trends:

For the first time in a century, most of America's largest cities are growing at a faster rate than their surrounding suburbs as young adults seeking a foothold in the weak job market shun home-buying and stay put in bustling urban centers.

New 2011 census estimates released Thursday highlight the dramatic switch.

Driving the resurgence are young adults, who are delaying careers, marriage and having children amid persistently high unemployment. Burdened with college debt or toiling in temporary, lower-wage positions, they are spurning homeownership in the suburbs for shorter-term, no-strings-attached apartment living, public transit and proximity to potential jobs in larger cities.

While economists tend to believe the city boom is temporary, that is not stopping many city planning agencies and apartment developers from seeking to boost their appeal to the sizable demographic of 18-to-29-year olds. They make up roughly 1 in 6 Americans, and some sociologists are calling them "generation rent." The planners and developers are betting on young Americans' continued interest in urban living, sensing that some longer-term changes such as decreased reliance on cars may be afoot...

"The recession hit suburban markets hard. What we're seeing now is young adults moving out from their parents' homes and starting to find jobs," Shepard said. "There's a bigger focus on building residences near transportation hubs, such as a train or subway station, because fewer people want to travel by car for an hour and a half for work anymore."

Katherine Newman, a sociologist and dean of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University who chronicled the financial struggles of young adults in a recent book, said they are emerging as a new generation of renters due to stricter mortgage requirements and mounting college debt. From 2009 to 2011, just 9 percent of 29- to 34-year-olds were approved for a first-time mortgage.

"Young adults simply can't amass the down payments needed and don't have the earnings," she said. "They will be renting for a very long time."
It's easy to look at this glass half-empty and assume this is all due to lack of economic opportunity. Part of that is no doubt true. But it's also a cultural phenomenon.

Many younger people today simply don't want the big yard, the picket fence and the suburban tract home landscape without mixed use walkability. It's already well-documented that the Millennial generation would rather make a little less money while working fewer hours on more meaningful tasks with shorter commutes. Living in apartments and condos in close proximity to others isn't such a problem for Millennials as it has been for previous generations. My wife and I are prime examples of this: we work mostly from home and could choose to live almost anywhere. But we choose apartment life in a medium-size city within easy walking distance to public transportation and a downtown full of shops and restaurants. All this because we choose to, not because we're forced to. The addition of children will change the dynamic somewhat, but not much.

This is a good thing. City life and densification have almost always led to greater progressivism: it's harder to be a libertarian when the importance of social services is incredibly clear all around you, and it's harder to be a bigot when there are people of varying races, orientations and lifestyles living all around you mostly without incident.

Short-term trendlines are scary for progressivism in a number of ways right now to be sure. The power of money in politics, the financialization of the economy, and the far-right lurch of the Republican Party are all deeply problematic.

But the playing field is gradually tilting against them. Assuming we don't allow civilization itself to collapse over the next few decades or fail utterly to slow the process of climate change, the future looks fairly bright over the long term given current trends.


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