Consider the smell of freshly cut grass. The echo of Golden Retrievers barking. A pleasant afternoon chat with your neighbor. Or, alternately, the ever-present smell of garbage, the blaring of sirens, and the aggravation that seems to come with even the smallest of errands.
Where would you rather live?
We know by now that large numbers of young, educated, upwardly mobile Millennials are in fact choosing the latter, fleeing the suburbs where many of them were born in favor of the bustling city center. Speculation about why this generation in particular seems to be making this choice has of course inspired plenty of discussion over the last several years.
One of the more recent entries is The Metropolitan Revolution by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley. Katz and Bradley argue that cities and their immediate surroundings are becoming increasingly important to the global economy, both economically and politically, because they are better equipped to quickly and efficiently address challenges and promote policies that encourage innovation. In other words, cities are offering young people more opportunity and more responsive local governments.
But this influx of Americans back to urban cores cannot be explained by economics and politics alone. As recently as two decades ago, inner cities were dismissed as places where rampant crime, drug use, and poverty reigned. Today, we talk about downtowns in the same breath as the craft beer movement or the conversion of formerly industrial warehouses into loft apartments, or the rise of car-sharing services such as Zipcar and Car2Go.
And when you think about all these things together, it’s not hard to see why an increasing number of Millennials might be choosing the city center as their new home. What more could a young adult want?
As it turns out, a lot.
I’m one of the thousands of Millennials who make up this new urban demographic. I left the comforts of Eden Prairie, Minnesota — a suburb of the Twin Cities and a community that has consistently been ranked one of the best small towns in America — for New York City. And while my move to New York was the right decision for a variety of reasons (or so I keep telling myself), I often wonder if the grass might indeed be greener—both literally and figuratively—had I stayed in the suburbs.
While we're on the subject, let’s talk about green space. Multiple studies have tracked the social, cultural, and emotional assets green spaces bring to a community, including mental health benefits and reduced rates of gun violence. While cities such as New York and Philadelphia have made tremendous gains in creating new and better public spaces in recent years — former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg presided over the biggest program of park building since the 1930s — too many urban communities are still "park deserts" compared to their suburban counterparts.
Another area where suburbs often trump cities is in the quality (or lack thereof) of their public schools. From the mass closing of public schools in Chicago to the "dizzying, byzantine system" eighth grade students and their parents go through to select a public high school in New York City, it is as hard as ever—if not harder—for parents to find quality public education for their children in large American cities. And this particular reality seems especially stubborn: students from suburban communities are more likely to graduate high school and go on to higher education than their urban counterparts, which of course in turn makes them more likely to get well-paying jobs as adults.
But the number one way the suburbs beat the city, especially for young people, is in affordability. After living in both Washington, D.C., and New York City, I can safely say that affording basic human necessities, such as shelter and sustenance—not to mention having a little fun here and there—is much cheaper outside of the city center. When paying $1,000 per month to share an apartment is a “good deal,” and when you don't think twice about spending $14 for a single cocktail, what chance does a young city dweller have to actually save money? Not all cities are as insanely expensive as Washington and New York (Philly! Baltimore! Portland!), but when the mortgage on a spacious, four-bedroom home rivals the monthly rent of a cramped one-bedroom apartment, there really is no competition.
As it turns out, I'm not alone in my longing for the suburbs. Despite some recent hype about the End of Suburbs, a report from Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of Millennials currently live in the suburbs, compared to 32 percent who live in city centers. And as more Millennials begin to start families of their own, plenty of urban governments are already worrying about whether the young people who have moved in will really stay in the long run.
This is not to say that the suburbs are perfect — there are many elements suburbs can and should adopt from urban development forms to make them more desirable for the next generation. Building and maintaining more reliable public transportation networks seems the most obvious winner, as survey after survey shows Millennials want to move beyond a car-dependent lifestyle.
While I’m not quite ready to give up on the city just yet, I often wonder about the sustainability of my urban life. The cost of living continues to rise, and moving beyond the college lifestyle — dragging clothes to the laundromat, living with roommates, and being chronically broke — grows ever more elusive. Give me a few years, and the keys to an affordable single-family home, and I might just be ready to boomerang back to the ‘burbs.