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Millennials turned cities ‘hipster.’ Can they do the same for the suburbs?

Young people once flocked to cities. Now, many are moving to the suburbs. How will that change the way these places look and feel?

A subdivision in Commerce City, Colo. (Courtesy of Flickr user <a href="">Future Atlas</a> )

Even for someone who loathes suburbia, Hastings, N.Y., seems like a pretty great place to live. The town is two square miles, with a compact downtown that features a mix of shops, restaurants and homes, and can be crossed by foot in about 20 minutes. Hastings also has its own train station on the Metro-North commuter-rail line, providing access to midtown Manhattan in 35 minutes.

The suburb is a haven for priced-out Brooklynites and their children. Indie filmmakers and acupuncturists, farm-to-table restaurants, and yoga studios and craft cocktails — all of those obnoxious hipster trappings that we’d secretly love to have down the street — they’re all there. The New York Times even dubbed the town “Hipsturbia.”

None of this was supposed to happen. For years, the running assumption among urban enthusiasts has been that we’re entering a new “Age of the City,” driven by people who look a lot like the residents of Hastings: young, well-educated, employed in the arts, nonprofits or creative industries, not necessarily poor but not rich either. One urban planner quipped that in some cities, what we call “gentrification” should really be called “youthification.” Cities and businesses sometimes go to self-parodic lengths to attract the group City Observatory’s Joe Cortright calls “the young and the restless.”

Members of this generation, the thinking went, were not going to follow in the Baby Boomers’ footsteps to the suburbs. They would move to the city, and stay there. But 13 years after Richard Florida published “The Rise of the Creative Class,” one of the first books to predict the “back to the cities” movement, the evidence is more muddled.

Today’s young people are moving to suburbs at a slower rate than their elders did, but they are still more likely to live in suburbs than inner cities. Millennials may finally be building up some wealth, but the cost of living in the nation’s top-tier cities is growing faster than incomes. In Washington, for example, 25 percent of renters spend more than half their income on rent. In order to afford a median-priced apartment in New York, where two-thirds of residents are renters, a household must have an income of $53,000, or $12,000 more than the citywide median.

Despite all that ink spilled about repurposed lofts and bike lanes, it’s quite likely that if you’re scraping by as a graphic designer, writer or even nonprofit employee in a big city, you’re going to end up in the ‘burbs after all. What does that mean for our suburbs? Will millennials remake them in their image? Is America destined to become a country of “Hipsturbia?”

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If that’s the future, it will look a lot less idyllic than life in Hastings, which is so attractive precisely because it was built before the car was king. Most suburbs don’t work that way. For most of the 20th century, while inner cities suffered from poverty, crime and neglect, wealth migrated out to the periphery. A variety of public policies expedited this process: Interstate highways decimated city centers for the convenience of suburban drivers, and funding public schools with local property taxes allowed suburbanites to sequester their resources locally. (It must also be noted that aside from being poor, the people kept out of suburbs often had something else in common: the color of their skin.)

The opposite is now happening: Young people are moving to the suburbs not because cities are undesirable, but because they’ve become too desirable. This process, which journalist Alan Ehrenhalt has dubbed the Great Inversion, is already well underway. A Boston Globe article provides a glimpse of what it looks like. Boston and its close-in suburbs have a high percentage of well-educated residents between 20 and 34. As a result, young people who don’t make a good salary or are seeking truly affordable housing must live as much as 30 or 40 miles away from the city center.

One of the more attractive among the city’s far-flung suburbs is Gloucester, a seaside town that’s the second-to-last stop on a commuter-rail line. Samantha Porter, a marketing director who moved to the town with her family, told the Globe that she enjoys Gloucester because “you can walk to the supermarket, there’s live music, there’s stuff to do.” Gloucester, in short, looks an awful lot like Hastings.

In other Boston exurbs, things are more difficult — not just because “there’s nothing to do,” the cry of every bored suburban resident, but because those exurbs were designed as bedroom communities for commuters with money. Towns like Shirley and Middleton, profiled in another Globe article, don’t just lack the history of Gloucester; they lack the amenities and mixed-use development that help make life easier for those with a limited income.

Ben Adler, a journalist who writes about climate change and urban policy (and who has written on “hipsturbia” before) says the millennial preference for denser, mixed-use neighborhoods is clear. But, he told me, “the question of ‘What do young artist types prefer?’ and ‘What can young artists afford?’ are very different questions. One is a lifestyle question, and the other is a policy question.” Adler, a Brooklyn native and resident, makes no bones about his personal preferences. (He refuses to live anywhere he’d need a car.) But he also cites broader trends, including real-estate prices and land-use changes in inner suburbs, to claim that the demand for walkable urban living far exceeds the supply. When neighborhoods in the urban core get an infusion of wealth and resources, it raises prices and pushes poor and middle-class people out to the suburbs.

In short: Young people probably won’t remake the suburbs. Their lifestyles will instead be remade by them.

For those who have cared to look, the “suburbanization of poverty” has been underway for some time. Close to home, it’s most apparent in Prince George’s County. Farther afield, the affordable-housing expert John Henneberger told Next City that in his home city of Austin “the working class, and particularly, the African American working-class population, and to some extent, the Hispanic population, have been pushed out into the first-ring suburbs.” Dana Goldstein, responding to the Times’ Hastings profile in 2013, put it more bluntly: “‘Hipsturbia’: Actually becoming poorer, browner, and older.” But even as wealth has migrated back to cities, our public policies have failed to catch up.

To see this phenomenon in action, Adler says we should keep an eye on the San Francisco Bay. The city of San Francisco is outrageously expensive already. Oakland is gentrifying very quickly. Some wealthy Silicon Valley towns have the political power to block new housing from being built, while others were built in the postwar sprawl era. If creative people with low or precarious incomes are priced out of the urban core so thoroughly that they must move to these areas, they will lose the benefits that help make urban cores more affordable for low-income people in the first place — social clustering with potential friends, partners and colleagues, public transportation, and dense rental-housing stock. At that point, they’d be justified in asking what exactly they’re paying for in the first place.

To a certain degree, predicting how urban development will pan out decades down the road is a fool’s errand. Adler jokes, “In 20 years, young artsy people will live in someplace that’s just as unfathomable to us now as living in Oakland or Bushwick was to our parents’ generation.” But much as urban theorists like Joel Kotkin might point to immigrants’ growing suburban presence as proof that the suburbs are actually cool, a great banh mi won’t help you get to work. Most modern suburbs were built through a combination of racial segregation, subsidized mortgages, forced low-density zoning and auto-dependent design. That’s still the way many suburbanites like it, and even the much-vaunted Creative Class may not be creative enough to redesign places that were built to exclude their kind.