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Are millennials going to kill the suburbs?

The suburban home has served as an important cultural icon in this country since its inception post WWII. It has held its place as an aspirational staple of the American dream. However, as millennials enter their peak home buying years, they are becoming homeowners later and at lower rates.

  • How has growing up in the 21st century affected this generation’s idea of the American dream, its desirability, and its achievability?
  • As the largest generation in US history, how will this affect our cities?
  • As designers, how should we rethink our work as well as and the structure of our workplaces? Baby boomers and Generation X have undeniably propelled the profession into the 21st century, but millennials will soon set the prevailing culture of both the workforce and built environment.

Panelists

Jill Grano

Jill Grano
Moderator

Sara Taketatsu

Sara Taketatsu
Sopher Sparn Architects

Ted Church

Marty Brodsky
Buildwell

Janna Ferguson, Pyatt Studio

Janna Ferguson
Pyatt Studio

Ivan Patino, Workshop8

Ivan Patino
Workshop8

Q&A

Sara TaketatsuSara Taketatsu: The two were intrinsically linked together by policies and practices that shaped the suburbs. So when we see a snapshot of the suburban experience today, we cannot look at them as two individual elements. We have to be realistic about the discriminatory history that led to modern segregation, exclusive wealth-building, and an American dream only accessible to a few. Looking forward, we should design an American dream that is accessible to all people from all walks of life. Although the demographic makeup of the suburbs is the result of discriminatory policies and practices, it is not a permanent condition.

Marty Brodsky - BuildWellMarty Brodsky: The short of it? Money. It’s cheap to be idealistic when you’re young. It’s easy to buck the path when you’re young. Eschew the “dream” that might not be yours but that’s nonetheless the gold-standard amongst the taste-makers of American culture. And, as if somebody knew it was inevitable all along, 98% of the counter-culture eventually falls in line. This has been the case for many generations, I would assume—not in regards to suburban living, specifically, but as far as trying to change the status quo. To make it stick seems to require some external excitement beyond the internal roiling of the youth and young-at-heart (Upton Sinclair’s muckracking, widespread automobile use, televisions in every home, AOL—to name a few culture-shifting developments). Will Millennials enact some major shift to the inevitability of suburban life? I think the answer is another question: will something happen, assuredly driven by climate change, to make a placid move to the suburbs an irrelevant choice? Maybe not for us—we could be too old already. But it will. Train’s-a-coming.

Ivan Patino, Workshop8Ivan Patino: What a great philosophical question, it reminds me of a BBC article called, Are we too broke to stick to our principles?
Dealing with projects and Clients that opposed our “Moral Compass” is thought, and a potential contributor to employe overturn. With this in mind, not all millennials quit, as soon as our goals un-align with those of our work… we have to eat too.

This may be one of the few times the old saying; you get what you paid for does not stand to be true. If someone is paying Millennials good money to do work they feel half-hearted about, the result is going to be apathetic work. I think the key is for leadership roles to pear up teams and projects that work well together. Millennials are generally very passionate; we often don’t mind putting the extra work if we believe in the cause.

So to answer the question: Millennials deal with morally conflicting work by doing the work, if they have to. But there is potential to maximize our productivity if the work we do is meaningful to us and aligns with our goals.

Janna FergusonJanna Ferguson: First, we should define what it means to ‘kill’ the suburbs. From a sustainability standpoint, tearing them down and starting from scratch isn’t an option – so many financial and natural resources have gone into building the suburbs. For me, ‘killing’ the suburbs is not about getting rid of them entirely as the word killing might suggest. It’s about changing the (outdated) idea of what is desirable in a home and neighborhood, and adapting the existing infrastructure to be more sustainable. I do believe that creating ‘suburbs’ that are more walkable, provide more opportunities of employment and are more responsible in the way the land is used is part of the track towards curbing climate change. In a world where cheap energy is becoming more scarce and climate-related events are more frequent – small and more local is inevitable.

Side note: There is a book called “The Transition Handbook; From Oil Dependancy to Local Resilience” that answers this question much more thoroughly than I can!

Lauren Folkerts, HMH Architecture + InteriorsLauren Folkerts: In a word DENSITY. But not just any density, adding a skyscraper in the middle of a suburban housing development isn’t going to solve our problems. We need to rehumanize the suburbs. That’s a different kind of density. It’s about allowing us humans to live closer together, and giving us the opportunity to create businesses, work, shop, and recreate where we live. We could accomplish these things without changing the buildings themselves, we just need to change what we’re allowed to do with the buildings we have. Small interventions and changes to zoning (like allowing two or more residential units on every parcel, and allowing small businesses on the corners of larger cross streets) would go a long way. We should also modify the buildings, to support increased density, changes in use, and to achieve higher levels of energy efficiency, but these changes will only matter if they are part of smart zoning changes.

Janna FergusonJanna Ferguson: I definitely understand the value of equity – this is one of the reasons I did choose to buy a home rather than renting. However, what is attainable for our generation is significantly different that what was attainable for previous generations, so our understanding of how much that will actually be able to help us in retirement is changing. I also can’t help but think about the difference in world view between ‘boomers’ and millennials and how many resources went in to building an infrastructure that is less relevant to the next generation. What happens if ‘boomers’ are unable to see their homes, or the property values decrease more than anticipated? How much equity is there in an infrastructure that is no longer relevant? I think we need be be very thoughtful in future city/suburban planning to try to make development relevant and sustainable to future generations (post-millenial).

Lauren Folkerts, HMH Architecture + InteriorsLauren Folkerts: I think millennials see the value of equity similarly to Boomers, but as a generation we have significantly less access to home ownership.  With the dramatic increases in the cost of homes, increase in the cost of higher education, and the decrease in average earnings, saving for a downpayment is just not realistic for many millenials.

Marty Brodsky - BuildWellMarty Brodsky: I think Millennials, by and large, see homeownership as the stabilizing force that it is. I mean, it’s obvious to us, as well, that paying a $1,500 mortgage is better than that same amount in rent. And we think about the cash-flow possibilities of an extra room. But how to get the down payment? That’s the real problem. The only way I could come up with it was by going in with my significant other. So, as it turns out, buying a home often also means committing to a long-term relationship with either a partner or possibly friends, diluting the equity waiting patiently for us at retirement.

Sara TaketatsuSara Taketatsu: I think the value is well understood, but some of the traditional ways of building this equity have become harder to attain or are less appealing.


Janna FergusonJanna Ferguson: To be honest, I’m not sure that I have a dream home! It’s not something that I spent or spend much time day-dreaming about, since what I will be able to have is so unpredictable. I do love living small and not worrying about how much I have or what to do with all my ‘stuff.’ I think my favorite houses that I see (around Boulder) are the little one story brick ranch houses like the the ones you find or Aurora Avenue or Edgewood Drive…although ideally those neighborhoods would be a bit denser!

Marty Brodsky - BuildWellMarty Brodsky: A commune with friends. (Ignore earlier rag on eventually falling in line.)

Lauren Folkerts, HMH Architecture + InteriorsLauren Folkerts: I dream of having our condo paid off so that we can afford to build a tiny cabin in the mountains, but I wouldn’t trade our condo for anything else in Boulder, even if I could afford to.

Sara TaketatsuSara Taketatsu: Something affordable, sustainable, manageable, socially connected, accessible, beautiful, small(ish), functional, flexible…hm, that might be too much to ask.

Janna FergusonJanna Ferguson: Design standards are what you sign up for when you buy a house in the suburb – the standardization is what people want. When my parents bought their house in the suburbs, they chose one of only several floor plans available – I don’t think they yield very creative environments. You’d probably end up with some pretty unhappy neighbors if you wanted to paint your house pink, or build an ADU in the back yard.

Marty Brodsky - BuildWellMarty Brodsky: Design standards sterilize.

Lauren Folkerts, HMH Architecture + InteriorsLauren Folkerts: I think design standards can help create a sense of place, but more often than not, they are poorly written and overly constraining.  These bad design standards we normally deal with are worse than no standards at all.

Sara TaketatsuSara Taketatsu: As a generation, we have much bigger challenges ahead of us than, “how uniform does the neighborhood look?”

Janna FergusonJanna Ferguson: Zoning
Town Centers

Marty Brodsky - BuildWellMarty Brodsky: Continuous improvement of public transportation to lessen the needs for personal vehicles—less vehicles equal less congestion equals more appetite for density.

Lauren Folkerts, HMH Architecture + InteriorsLauren Folkerts: We have great bike paths, good roads, and tasty water.  In general our infrastructure is pretty great, but we could use some major changes to our electrical and communications infrastructure. The municipalization of the electrical grid will be expensive, but I haven’t heard of any other proposals that get us where we need to be with clean energy and as the opportunity avoid the worst of the climate catastrophe disappears I have a hard time coming up with better ways to spend our money. Also, how can we continue to let Longmont show us up with their affordable and amazingly fast municipal internet? It’s not just a matter of civic pride, this type of infrastructure is too vital to allow corporations like comcast to control it.

Sara TaketatsuSara Taketatsu: One of the most frustrating aspects of prioritization is seeing how historically unmanaged challenges are dealt with today. By the time we have to prioritization those challenges don’t get the time of day because they are too expensive or too complicated. The metric we qualify problems with needs to take historic inaction into account.”

Janna FergusonJanna Ferguson: This is a GREAT question. I appreciate the height limits Boulder has…sometimes. I don’t think that four (or even five) stories is too tall, especially considering Boulder’s urban growth boundary & population increase.

Marty Brodsky - BuildWellMarty Brodsky: Go up or out, right? At least going up would make the Williams Village towers blend in.

Lauren Folkerts, HMH Architecture + InteriorsLauren Folkerts: I think our city wide 55’ height limit (based on the height of a mature cottonwood tree) makes a lot of sense for our community.  From a fifth story window you can still recognize people on the street, and have a connection to the public realm. I can’t think on any area of town where buildings taller than that would be appropriate. I have a problem with the fact that a large percentage of the properties along transit corridors are restricted to 35’ height limits (I also have a problem with the way we measure height in the city of Boulder.  The 35’ height limit wouldn’t be so bad if you could really go up35’). Density and alternative transportation make for great symbiotic partners. If we want people to use busses we need to give them housing with easy access to bus routes. If we want to house people and not increase congestion, we need to give people reasonable alternatives to cars.  Larger multi use buildings along transportation corridors are an important piece of making our community more sustainable and equitable.

Sara TaketatsuSara Taketatsu: Go for it! Although, I do cringe a little when I look at the Stearns towers…but maybe that’s because I lived in one of them?

Janna FergusonJanna Ferguson: There are lots of ways to increase density and diversify the land use in the areas that are currently zoned single-family residential. Incentivising ADUs (accessory dwelling units), allowing some commercial/retail use in neighborhoods to create neighborhood centers with services (coffee shops, food trucks, even neighborhood farmers markets) are a few that come to mind.

Marty Brodsky - BuildWellMarty Brodsky: More mixed-use space, similar to the newer construction around the Gunbarrel center, adding density and creating some of those “third-spaces” to allow room for more culture to grow in the outlying parts of town.

Lauren Folkerts, HMH Architecture + InteriorsLauren Folkerts: I know everyone is sick of hearing about Copenhagen, but their urban planning has created  really great neighbourhoods. Based on their model, I would focus on making neighbourhoods as walkable as possible.  This means allowing commercial uses in select areas, so we can have neighbourhood corner stores and coffee shops in all neighbourhoods.  We need to allow small increases in density everywhere by modifying the zoning code to allow ADU’s and/or duplexes on all parcels. Finally I would also allow more density along transit corridors, and at hubs.  The amount of increase should be proportional to the size of the corridor and hub, but again 5 stories or less even in the densest areas.

Sara TaketatsuSara Taketatsu: Reevaluate zoning! Take a long look at who it benefits and how it could be reimagined to make Boulder a leader in environmental and social sustainability.