Is Your Neighborhood Changing? It Might Be Youthification, Not Gentrification

One urban planning professor has defined this as a process that occurs in discrete stages.

Image Flickr/Andréa Portilla
Flickr/Andréa Portilla

Much has been made of the wave of millennials moving to cities. In intriguing new work, geographer and urban planner Markus Moos of the University of Waterloo gives the phenomenon a name: “youthification.” Moos defines youthfication as the “influx of young adults into higher density” cities and neighborhoods. And in some ways these neighborhoods are “forever young,” where new cohorts of young people continue to move in as families and children cycle out in search of more space.

Moos takes care to distinguish youthification from the broader process—and less precise construct—of gentrification. “The youthification process differs from gentrification—an increase in social status of a neighborhood—in that the former is not as explicitly a class-based process, although the two are not mutually exclusive,” he writes. “Gentrification, when viewed as a series of stages involving ever slightly wealthier but more risk averse in-movers, arguably has set the stage for a broader segment of the population. “

Moos explains youthification as a process that occurs in discrete stages (see the table below). It begins as younger people move into relatively inexpensive neighborhoods, such as those with spaces leftover from de-industrialized manufacturing districts. As youthification continues, newer rental housing and smaller one-bedroom condos are built and amenities flood the neighborhood, drawing greater numbers of young people even as living costs rise.

(Moos)

But which cities and metros are most “youthified?”

The map below, from Moos’ related online project “Generationed City”, charts selected metros across the U.S. and Canada according to youthification, which he defines here as the share of 25-34 year-old residents. There are some surprises. Salt Lake City tops the list, ahead of Austin, Denver, D.C. and Seattle. Houston and Las Vegas rank highly as well. In Canada, Calgary and Edmonton (two rapidly growing western metros) outpace Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Less surprising, the Rustbelt metros of Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Rochester, Cleveland and Detroit rank at the bottom of the list.

(Moos)
(Moos)

But youthification is not just a characteristic of metros, it can be seen even more clearly at the neighborhood level. To get at this, Moos maps youthification by neighborhood in Canada’s three largest metros: Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. On the maps, darker red indicates higher levels of youthification.

In Toronto, youthification is concentrated in the urban core and along transit lines, clustering around the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and the Ontario College of Art and Design, and along College and Queen Streets, which offer abundant bars and restaurants. There are also significant blocks of young people at the ends of metro lines, where they can access more affordable housing served by transit.

(Moos)

In Vancouver, youthification takes more of a bloc-like pattern, concentrated mainly and radiating out from the city’s Burrard Inlet waterfront. Young Vancouverites also cluster around public transit and around main commercial drags, like Main Street and Commercial Drive.

(Moos)

In Montreal, young people are much more dispersed, albeit still mostly along transit lines (in green).

(Moos)

What lies behind youthification? To get at this question, Moos conducted a detailed statistical analysis of factors that might be associated with the movements of young people—such as household income, household size, the share of potential gentrifiers and the share of immigrants—across Canada’s three largest metros between 1981 and 2011.

While Moos finds several factors (including household income, household size and immigration) to be associated with higher density, he finds that the connection between density and age of residents has increased substantially over time. This is true of all three metros. In Montreal, the correlation between young people (aged 25 to 34) and density grew from .22 in 1981 to .66 by 2011; in Toronto, it went from .36 to .62; and in Vancouver it increased from .49 to .68.

The associations between density and older age groups (44-54 and 55-64 years old) have generally moved in the other direction, indicating that these individuals are moving toward the lower-density suburbs. In Toronto and Montreal, there is a negative correlation between people aged 65 and older and density. This points to growing geographic segregation of age groups in the city. In the case of Vancouver, however, Moos suggests this divide has become a “generational bifurcation,” where older and young people live in the inner cities and those in middle age live in the less dense suburbs.

Why has this happened? And what does it mean? Moos suggests that these changes grow out of a number of socio-economic shifts. Young people in the U.S. and Canada are experiencing less job security, more chinks in the social safety net, high housing prices, delayed childbearing and a growing enthusiasm for urban living. For these reasons, renting closer to the city center—where increasing stocks of divided row housing and condos are readily available—becomes a more attractive option.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether this pattern will last. Will those who move to city centers in their 20s and 30s remain there to raise their children? Or will they pack it up and move to less dense places, leaving cities to become “forever young” zones that serve as resting stops for the transient?

As Moos notes, the generational divide he observes is not nearly as stark as that of ethnic or class segregation. Of course, older and younger people may meet and mingle in different fashions: through work, in restaurants or bars or in public transit. But, as he writes, “there are clear signs of a process of youthification underway that is indeed creating generationed spaces in our cities that if intensified in the future could lead to further inter-generational conflict.”

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