Flight of the Suburbs

A few months back, a friend mentioned something that stuck with me: he said that he assumes that we (meaning both of our families and most people that are our age) will have to move out to the suburbs at some point in the near future. He said this in a way that made it seem like an inevitable fact of life; that living in a dense, or even mostly dense, urban environment was something that we could only do while we were young. Once we are at the point in our lives where we are expanding our families past just our wives, heading towards the outer edges of development with ample space and cheaper housing costs are simply a fact of life.

I find myself, and most of those that are around my age (the “young professional” age) identifying with the Peter Campbell character of the hit TV series Mad Men (his preference of living in Manhattan instead of moving out to the rural suburbs… not the whole infidelity and general snake-like tendencies part). The “millennial generation” is one in which we are increasingly drawn to a more urban lifestyle because of the convenience and proximity to a wide array of activities and cultures. In fact, according to the Brookings Institute, cities outgained suburbs 1.1% to .9% from 2010-2011, in contrast to the 2000’s where suburbs grew at 1.4% and cities at .4%. Does this mean that downtown Denver is on the verge of becoming an even more vibrant city center? Will it be filled with a wide array of people and act as an urban melting pot for people of all ages, backgrounds, and incomes?

Figure 1 - BrookingsFigure 2 - Brookings

Unfortunately, this seems highly unlikely to be the case in the near future. This brings me full circle back to my friend’s take on the inevitability of heading to the ‘burbs in the next few years. To a certain extent, he is right. At our current income levels, buying a decent sized home big enough to house a family in the fairly immediate area of downtown Denver isn’t too feasible because it is either a) way too expensive or b) there isn’t anything available.

No doubt, people are noticing that many of the buildings going up around Denver are addressing the need of housing. However, these are being built as for-rent apartment buildings and not for-sale condos, townhomes, or houses. If there is such a need for housing, why is there only a single demographic (young and not quite ready to buy) being addressed?

The answer to most architects, emerging professionals, contractors, and developers is simple: the liability of building housing to own is far greater than building housing to rent. Because of this, the market has been saturated with thousands of apartments that, for the most part, are all cut from the same cloth. Subsequently, the amount of diversity that stems from these apartment buildings is about as easy to find as a non-Starbucks coffee shop in downtown.

I don’t profess to be an expert in contract law or liability (I will leave that to others… maybe even one of my fellow AIA EP bloggers…), but it seems pretty apparent that this practice is leading to developers, contractors, and architects to address a single, short term housing issue instead of creating a sustainable solution for the future. It seems inevitable that this will have to change at some point in the very near future if our city is to retain the people that are so desperate to live here and live in an urban environment.

Aside from changing laws and contracts, creating parts of downtown that draw families and various others to actually live there long term will be essential. Adding grocery stores, functional parks, and other spaces that aren’t swanky restaurants, bars, or office buildings will go a long way to convince people that living close to or in downtown is a viable option. I can’t say for sure which one of these steps should come first, but I am fairly sure that as each one comes to fruition, the others are not far behind.

If the trend of flocking towards urban centers continues, as it is projected to, addressing these issues is an undeniable necessity. It also seems safe to assume that a husband, wife, and several children aren’t going to want to live in a for rent apartment building that functions eerily similarly to a college dormitory or fraternity house either and will need more of the amenities that are so prevalent in the suburbs or various neighborhoods around Denver. Obviously, many things need to happen before this is a viable situation, but maybe we (as a generational shift), can have a say in the manner and how quickly this all happens.

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