Confessions of an Urbanist

Transitional urbanist. That’s me.

I am a hypocrite. While advocating almost all things urban, I live in a single-family house in a neighborhood of mostly single-family houses. My surroundings were built at various times between the 1880s to the 1950s and range from historic Victorian farm houses to run-of-the-mill ramblers. The intermingled housing styles look vastly different, but have one connection; their function as a single-family house.

Every generation in some way, rebels against the previous. We’re seeing that now in the preferences of where the Millennials, like myself, are choosing to live. We almost unanimously disdain the typical suburban arrangement and even those living in the grips of suburbia clearly see its diminishing returns. This goes beyond my anecdotal observations, statistical trends certainly seem to be pointing in this direction too.

Millennials have spent their entire lives entrenched in the suburban experiment and want out. Our vision of city life is not the race riots of the 1960s or the crime waves of the 1980s. These are all but history, and the seemingly irrational fears of dense living aren’t even in the Millennial lexicon. For the college-educated Millennial, at some point, most of us studied abroad and experienced the simple joy of actually being able to comfortably walk somewhere – a task nearly impossible in most American cities.

We want out, but the problem is that housing options we prefer, aren’t really available. And those that are – they’re too expensive. So much of the stuff we would have loved to have lived in was torn down a long time ago, mostly to accommodate parking, and the new infill development is still usually aimed as high-profit generating luxury rentals. This brings us to one of the primary reason that people populated suburbia in the first place – more space for your buck. I think that more Millennials genuinely want to live in a quality urban environment – they just can’t afford it. With the economy as it is today, we’re playing it safe [read: cheap]. This means finding the hybrid option: a place that combines urbanism and affordability.

The other problem is the geography of metropolitan jobs – they’re dispersed. That’s a huge problem. I have friends who choose to live in downtown and drive to work in the suburbs. This is actually pretty common for Millennials, and this helps continue the demand for parking in downtown, which in turn, hurts urbanism.

As for me – I do like that I have a space that includes a small yard, sizeable garden and off-street parking [although I’d gladly ditch my car if my job situation allowed it]. I love that nobody is living above and below me and that I no longer have to compete with 8 other apartments for water pressure. However – I’m lucky enough that my chosen a neighborhood that has access to public transit, decent biking paths, a “neighborhood center” with a grocery store within a 5 block walk. Plus, I’m less than 4 miles to downtown. But, I do genuinely miss my old, turn-of-the-century “vintage” [read: dumpy] Uptown apartment.

I chose the hybrid option: to be close to the urban village, near transit and within city limits, yet with my own private space. Some days I feel like I live in the suburbs. Other days, I feel like I live in the city. I recognize that I’m lucky I found such a place, but the attempt to systematically replicate this environment is what helped start the wave towards mass suburbia in the first place.

Unfortunately, right at this pivotal point of where we finally rediscover American urbanism, we are simultaneously faced with the Great Recession and a severe lack of capital. This will prevent us from re-urbanizing our once great urban places in the traditional sense.


  1. Dave · October 16, 2011

    I am in the exact same boat. Most of the time (besides wanting access to RAPID transit) I feel like the street car burbs (counting S MPLS as a burb) are truly the best spaces in the metro area. One caveat, must love airport noise ;-).

    I am the youngest in my family, the rest are a gen x with kids. They have in living in “the city”.

  2. Reuben · October 16, 2011

    I think there’s a definite housing-age problem in central cities (meaning all of Minneapolis/St. Paul, not just downtowns). Theoretically, living in a condo should be cheaper than owning a single-family home. Putting up with neighbors in close proximity and sharing costs with neighbors should cost less than owning a private home where you pay for everything on your own. But this simply isn’t the case. The condos are either brand new – and thus expensive (even when not intended to be “luxury”), ancient and in disrepair, or were poorly constructed apartment conversions that are hardly worth buying.

    For potential home-buyers in Minneapolis, it will be hard to justify the expense of a new condo, when a single-family home costs substantially less (even if it is 80 years old).

    I don’t know how to solve this, other than to just keep building more condos (luxury or otherwise), that will someday be 50 years old and affordable.

  3. Alex · October 16, 2011

    This is a great post Nate, and it’s fueled my thoughts since you posted. Not sure I’m ready to respond, but let me ask you a question:

    Do you think people’s level of discomfort rises with the number of units in the structure? In other words, is living in a duplex twice as comfortable as living in a triplex? In other other words, are people more comfortable living in duplexes rather than apt buildings, or is it detached or nothing?

    • Nathaniel M Hood · October 16, 2011

      Alex –

      Good question. It’s hard to generalize. But, I think there is an unjust negative perception of density. People tend to view it exclusively as large buildings – and not as, for example, a tight, compact neighborhood of single-family homes [SFH] intermingled with small apartment buildings in a walkable setting. I think people might think living in a duplex, triplex, etc. is less comfortable without any real experiences to back it up.

      Of course, we’ve had 2 to 3 generations of people who, other than maybe a college dorm, have never lived in anything except a SFH and can’t imagine life any other way. Our culture has promoted the SFH to the Nth degree, and people view it as the only way to live.

      For density to be successful it needs to be coupled with good ‘urbanism’ – and this is where we have failed in the Twin Cities. Even now, there are only patches of downtown Minneapolis & St. Paul that have good ‘urbanism’. In fact, a majority of the density we’ve created might be the worse of both worlds: density without urbanism.

      Your thoughts? -Nate

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