The Urbanization of the 'Burbs

Regardless of where they live, urban amenities are no longer a bonus but a requirement for many millennials.
June 2016
The Woodlands is a master planned community in the suburbs outside of Houston. (VisitTheWoodlands.com)
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

Not long ago, I was sitting in a hotel ballroom in a suburban master planned community watching a panel of developers talk about, well, master planned communities. The hotel was located in an urban-ish town center with townhomes and mixed-use buildings and parking garages that cost a lot of money to park your car in. It wasn’t lost upon these developers that the differences between suburban and urban amenities were few and far between.

What was really striking, though, was that while they clearly understood the increasing urbanization of the suburbs from a business perspective, they didn’t really understand why it was happening. To hear them tell it, the walkable town center with the restaurants and the coffee shops was just a new type of amenity around which to market the housing in the master planned community. Put another way, they were just building town centers instead of golf courses.

But these very smart developers -- all of whom were experienced, white-haired and around my age -- plainly didn’t understand why anybody would want a town center instead of a golf course. The answer, of course, is clear: Millennials are coming, and they don’t want golf courses in their backyards.

There’s a lot of debate these days about whether millennials will stay in city neighborhoods and live an urban life, or whether they’ll do what their elders think they’re supposed to do and get married, have kids, move to the suburbs, buy a house and drive to work. But the choice isn’t an either-or. They’re going to do both -- after all, there are 90 million of them.

But even the ones who move to the suburbs aren’t going to want to give up their urban lifestyle completely. For those who have lived in hip city neighborhoods as young adults, walking and socializing in an urban neighborhood is baked into them very deeply. And for those who have spent their 20s living in their parents’ extra bedroom, the suburbs have lost their allure.

All this doesn’t mean that millennials won’t want to buy houses. But they’re likely to buy smaller houses, or even townhomes. And if they drive to work, they’re likely to buy those houses in close proximity to town centers where they can still have a taste of urban life. Maybe they’ll walk or maybe they’ll drive three-quarters of a mile, but they still want to live close to coffee shops, bars and restaurants.

And this kind of thing is exactly what developers of master planned communities are good at: finding people who are willing to trade home and lot size to be near desirable amenities. In the past, those amenities were golf courses or parks or hiking trails. Either way, these master plan guys have figured out the market.

I have a lot of urban planner friends who actually get mad at developers who think about all this stuff in market terms. When you believe deeply that you’re making life better for people, who wants to hear somebody say that he’s doing this for the money? But to me, that’s the whole point: Urbanism now sells, even in the suburbs. It’s time to recognize that urbanism in the ’burbs is no longer a cutesy niche, but rather a mainstream market phenomenon.