How Millennials Are Making U.S. Cities Future Ready

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, things are finally improving for millennials on the employment and economic fronts. What are the potential climate ramifications of what appears to be a watershed demographic moment? And how can leaders of sustainable communities leverage the millennial generation’s economic coming-of-age for the local and global common good?

Economic prosperity has typically meant bad news for greenhouse gas emissions, as economic activity is closely tied to increased energy use across the manufacturing, building energy use, and transportation sectors. A strong economy means more people going to and from jobs (which results in higher energy consumption in the workplace and transportation sectors) as well as higher consumption of goods and services that rely on energy use for their production, transportation, and disposal.

The recession that hit the U.S. in 2008, combined with high levels of student loan debt, drove millions of young people back to their parents’ homes. Last year, for the first time since 2005, the share of 18 to 24-year-olds living with parents dropped–signaling the beginning of a demographic seismic shift as the 86 million members of the millennial generation begin to fledge from their parents’ nests and build their own.

Pew Research Center described millennials as America’s largest, most diverse, most well educated, and most plugged in generation. Millennials have tremendous earning potential, are bullish on America’s future, and are politically liberal.

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies predicts that, as their incomes begin to rise, millennials will add 2.7 million new households to the nation’s housing market in the coming decade.

The Census Bureau reports that cities continue to grow in population, a trend that has emerged in the past several years. In 2013, 2.3 million more people lived in urban areas than in 2012. Of the nation’s 381 metro areas, all but 92 gained population between 2012 and 2013.

What will be the impact of these new urban households on U.S. energy use and climate pollution? Will all of these new households spell doom, in terms of the sheer volume of energy use, consumption of goods and services, and transportation needs?

Time will tell, of course, but other trends within the millennial generation may provide crucial counterbalances to the presumption of consumption.

Millennials are making lifestyle choices that are very different from those of their parents’, and some of these choices have clear energy and climate benefits. And smart local leaders are taking advantage of this trend to attract young, educated people to their cities.

Housing Density

Millennials are moving into apartments and multi-family housing in more densely developed neighborhoods. In cities with green building codes, these new or renovated buildings will function using less energy, and produce less waste.

According to Time,

Americans are experiencing an urban renaissance of unanticipated proportions, as young people graduate college and flock to cities, delaying buying a home and perhaps rejecting the suburban ideal altogether. In 2005, multifamily housing accounted for just 17% of all housing starts. In 2013, multifamily housing accounted for fully 33% of starts. Data released last week on housing starts in March reinforce that trend, with multifamily homes, a good portion of it high-rise apartment buildings, accounting for 40% of all new construction.

This urban housing renaissance is chiefly driven by millennials, as they begin to establish households in places, and in circumstances, that reflect their lifestyles.

“There’s been a surge in urban apartment building,” says chief economist for the National Association of Homebuilders David Crowe. “The 25- to 34-year-old age group is focused on living near their peers. They want be socially engaged and live near work. They want to reduce their automobile use. All of those things aim at high-density, urban-type living.”

Fewer Cars and Drivers

Millennials are choosing not to own cars, and many are forgoing the option to even obtain a drivers license. Millennials are choosing density, transit options, and digital connectivity over cars as their primary means of staying connected, socially and economically.

A report by USPIRG finds that increasing digital connectivity, active and public transit systems, and the “sharing economy” have led to millennials adopting a multi-modal approach to transportation, resulting in a 23% drop in driving among 16- to 34-year-olds between 2001 and 2009.

The question remains how long this trend towards “manifest density” will prevail, as millennials gain stronger economic footing and begin to start families.

Local leaders, however, have the power to extend and strengthen this trend, and have every reason to do so. Local policies and programs that promote improvements in building efficiency, land use, communication, and transit options will provide millennials with strong reasons to remain in climate-friendly? urban areas, which in turn will return economic and social benefits to those communities. Failure by local leaders to provide these essential components of the millennials’ urban lifestyle, however, could well lead to a second exodus to the suburbs.

As they establish their careers, their homes, and their families, the millennials—America’s largest and most diverse generation—will shape the future of American cities, and the country itself. Their lifestyle choices, if supported by urban policies that promote economic viability, social equity, and environmental protection, will do a tremendous amount to make our cities future ready.

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