May 06, 2019

Why millennials will help save your city

Smart Resilient Communities

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In my quest to write an article about desirable cities, I came across a piece detailing how Atlanta was actively courting millennials to move there. The city recognized the direct correlation between economic viability and innovation with millennials and other young professionals living, working and playing in Atlanta.


Now, reading a positive article about my generation is always a treat considering we have ruined numerous industries (engagement rings, avocados and cheese—which personally, I have a hard time believing!) since the early '80s. But what I found particularly interesting, while reading this article, is why Atlanta needed our generation there to grow and sustain itself. As Andrea Hershatter, senior associate dean of Emory University's Goizueta Business School, explained, "People see millennials as this crucial generation. They've had access to more information than ever before and all of these technological innovations they can use to change the world. At the same time, we're at a historical moment with big societal issues like climate change and the war on poverty, and people are really looking to millennials to solve those problems."

Many factors have shaped millennials. We grew up with and without smartphones, we can operate a VHS player, a DVD player and streaming platform with ease, and we told ourselves that by working hard we could afford traditional aspirations like owning a vehicle and a house. However, with rising costs and stagnating salaries, the latter is much harder to attain than it was for baby boomers. According to a global report in 2018, "it's common for millennials who've reached their early 30s so far to have experienced little or no income improvement on generation X". In fact, millennials have a lower net worth ($10,400 in 2013) than generation X had ($18,200 in 1995). Previous generations have built cities and infrastructures that worked because we assumed capitalism would never fail and natural resources would never diminish. Millennials lived through a time when that was still thought of as possible, and now we realize it isn't. I'm not bitter, but I find it funny that while some baby boomers and generation Xers enjoy dismissing our contributions or blaming us for not investing in diamonds, still expect us to address issues their generation ultimately caused or facilitated. We're the first generation who will experience a lower quality of life than our parents.

Not to mention, we have a definitive timeline to address climate change. As Akum Maduka highlighted in a previous article: The United Nations Governmental Panel on Climate Change—a collection of leading climate scientists—released a report in October 2018, warning that if the world's global temperature exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next 12 years, the weather will significantly worsen. The rise in temperature will increase the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people, intensifying common risk factors associated with mental health disorders, affecting children, seniors, the chronically ill, pregnant women and postpartum women, the urban poor, migrants and the homeless the most. So, we also have that to look forward to.

I don't represent all millennials, but I certainly appreciate what many of us value and prefer and how it contrasts with the environments that our predecessors have built—especially in North America. I feel like a broken record writing about "people-first places", but it's so important and relevant to many of the more significant issues facing us today. We need to reduce carbon emissions because of climate change, and we need to encourage people to get outside and acknowledge the importance of our naturalized landscapes and spaces to keep them viable and healthy. I'm not under the illusion that we know everything about city planning, policies and budgets, but we do see that real, tangible changes need to happen to make our cities more sustainable and resilient.

As millennials overtake baby boomers in the workforce, cities need to make a conscious effort to attract young professionals to remain economically viable. It's not so much as requiring our help but understanding why that help is needed in the first place. Cities that live and breathe in the present and refuse forward thinking or future-oriented ideas will not attract young professionals to their dwellings or maintain their city's longevity. As Hershatter pointed out, we have access to a myriad of information. We can find out how a city or town values innovation and creativity. From there, we make decisions that support and complement how we view the world and how we want to contribute and live in it.

In 2014, American commercial real estate services company Cushman & Wakefield released their study "Riding the Millennial Wave", which looked at how millennials have impacted workplace design and urban planning. The report, which reiterated our reputation for being tech-savvy and understanding consumer trends, also found that while "older generations adapt to the workplace, millennials expect the workplace to be adapted to their preferences." Even though this finding illustrates the difference between workplace expectations, it also reflects how millennials choose where they want to live, work and play. The study found that 62 per cent of millennials prefers mixed-use or complete communities typically found in urban centres that encourage and support a pedestrian-friendly environment.

Politics and city planning are intertwined. In Winnipeg, all I want is for people to care as much about land art and public space as they do about their commute and potholes. Moreover, I don't care for the term generational divide in this dialogue because it's dismissing the contributions of city planners, urban designers and landscape architects who have shaped the discussions I'm having right now. To illustrate this point, the American Planning Association surveyed 1,040 Americans (half millennials and half baby boomers), finding that the places they want to live in were "technology-enabled cities, walkable communities, and residential areas that allowed citizens to age in place." Moreover, "They also believed that the road to economic recovery began with building local communities by implementing the basic elements that make a place desirable to live in, and not through more recruiting companies." The reason a divide might exist isn't that progressive ideas are only for the young, it's because there is real urgency on our part to start repairing our cities, and the planet to get it right.

Millennials won't be the answer to every issue, but we are inevitable to move our cities forward. We expect more not because we are entitled to it, but because the structures already in place are no longer viable or in the best interest of people and this planet. The ideas and solutions concerning public transportation, walkability, good schools and parks are not radical or innovative, they're necessary to move forward. Cities like Atlanta that invest in millennials and young professionals aren't catering to current trends but understand the importance of what young people can bring in terms of economic and environmental prosperity.

So, grab your avocado toast and lean into the millennial wave. You won't regret it.