We all see it happening in our downtowns, from Rome to Hudson and everywhere in between. Big cities and small communities are seeing old, vacant buildings transformed into high-end apartments and lofts to meet the increasing demand for urban living space. And maybe you’ve noticed, it’s not just apartments… these old industrial skeletons are often being revived with a blend of housing and office space, with retail or restaurant space on the ground floor.
So why is this “mixed use” space becoming so popular in cities large and small? Why, when for so long we kept areas where we work, live and play separate, are we mashing them all up together?
The concept is simple, even if it is a departure from what we’ve known for more than 50 years. When urban areas were at their best, they were thriving, vibrant places where people had everything they needed for a happy life in one convenient neighborhood or area. The idea of stepping out of your apartment in the morning, walking next door for a cup of coffee and seeing your neighbors doing the same, then walking, biking, taking public transit or driving to your job close by is once again an appealing lifestyle. As is the thought of leaving work, grabbing a drink with friends or dinner with your significant other around the corner, seeing a show or visiting a gallery, all in the same neighborhood. Perhaps you have a family… a day might consist of coming home from work or school, heading out for a walk to your local urban greenspace, visiting your local zoo or biking around the corner to the library to get homework done or enjoy a good read. Essentially, it’s bringing elements of bustling, small town living back to our urban areas, where after all, they once belonged.
The thought that we might be able to return to a time when everything we want is close by, the idea that going to work doesn’t have to mean a 30 minute commute by car through endless mornings and evenings of frustrating traffic and crazy drivers… the reality that we are happier people the less time we spend in our cars (which is a psychological fact) and we are more fulfilled when we feel a part of a community that has everything we need locally is driving this new generation of urban development.
Still skeptical that this is the way to live? Understandable. It’s a rather harsh departure from the traditional American ideal of the suburban white picket fence surrounding .75 acres with a town home and the 2.5 children. And hey, if this is YOUR ideal, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The important thing is that we continue to cultivate choices regarding the way we live, while still coming together on community issues.
There are some compelling reasons for an urban environment in which we can work, live and play. One of these is obviously the luxury of a shorter commute, especially in an area of the country where we can have as many as 5 months of legitimate snowfall. Shorter commute times mean happier, more productive people, and time saved for other activities.
Another interesting log on the fire of of change is the fact that young people today are more likely to make choices regarding where to live and work based on lifestyle and happiness over wealth accumulation or property ownership. For example, my fiance Amanda and I are likely apartment dwellers for life… we like the idea of living centrally, enjoying shorter commutes, having home maintenance issues taken care of for us instead of by us so that we have the time to do what we want and need to do in our own lives. I like that I put less then 6,000 miles on my car last year and if pressed, I could probably get rid of it entirely. Others ask us why we don’t buy, citing the affordable housing in our home city of Rochester. I cite new research that shows the growing myth that home ownership in today’s America, with rising taxes and maintenance requirements, is still the can’t-miss investment that it used to be.
Furthermore, we are a nation based less in permanence than at any time before. The average young person today will likely have 3-5 careers… not jobs, careers. With a job market that is always in flux, no matter where you live, flexibility and being “quick on your feet” with regard to living and being able to move is increasingly a necessity.
Finally, and we have addressed this more and more, we are seeing a major shift in the desire for greater public transit. While the car is and will likely always be king in our country, license acquisitions have been declining across the nation. A January 2016 article in The Atlantic shows just how much…
“16.4 percent fewer 20-to-24-year-olds had licenses in 2014 than in 1983, 11 percent fewer 25-to-29-year-olds, 10.3 percent fewer 30-to-34-year-olds, and 7.4 percent fewer 35-to-39-year-olds”
There are likely a multitude of factors causing this shift in transportation preference (student debt, increased cost of owning a car, increased license requirements, etc.) but my personal favorite is the notion that young people increasingly want to feel connected to their world via their mobile devices. Using public transit instead of driving allows us to continue the information and social media binge on our mobile phone instead of white-knuckling through traffic, maximizing our time to be productive or, just play Words With Friends.
The most commonly held misconception about the “Live, Work, Play” cry of New Urbanism is that every city is now trying to be New York, Chicago, LA, Boston, Atlanta, etc. On the contrary, even these cities are making incredible strides to change their neighborhoods from dark, cold, dirty, fast paced arenas to warm, friendly, greenspace-filled hubs of local shopping, apartment living and quality entertainment and culture. It’s taking the mistakes we made with our cities and correcting them, bringing them back to the livable, comfortable, friendly and beautiful centers that they once were.
The one piece that this urban rebirth movement struggles with is how to include everyone in it. The “gentrification” of our city neighborhoods and the newfound popularity of city apartment living is causing rents to rise drastically across the nation, leaving our poorer populations out in the cold… often literally. A truly successful New Urbanistic approach is one that is all-inclusive, offering the amenities and conveniences mentioned here to everyone, not just the upper-middle class and above. One of the goals behind this movement is to create a city where a greater number of residents, regardless of socioeconomic status, have access to the conveniences of local jobs, local shopping, strong education, community resources and entertainment outlets.
Shorter commutes, more centralized living, public transit, having everything you need close by… none of these are “new” concepts. This is what the American city used to be when they were thriving engines of social, cultural and economic strength.
Rural and suburban America will continue to be the desired living space for a huge percentage of the population… and as mentioned above, that’s just fine! The important piece of any social movement is that we continue to maximize the number of choices, allowing Americans a greater opportunity to live the lifestyle that best fits their situation and preference.
But for those of us who want to get back to urban living the way it was meant to be, get ready, because life is about to get really, really good. 😉