Thoughts on the New “Quasi-Urban Suburbia” — What Do “Millennials,” “Young Professionals,” and “Empty-Nesters” All Have in Common?

It’s funny.  When I started writing this blog about my experiences moving from the city to the suburbs about seven (!) years ago, I thought my desire to retain a certain urban sensibility was unusual.

After all, I’d seen my city friends leave for the glories of suburbia, one after another, without ever apparently looking back.  So I sort of thought that my desire to maintain a walkable, urbanist lifestyle, my own “SUMA,” was unique, almost quixotic.

But either I just wasn’t tuned in to the world around me, or I was a bit ahead of my time.  Because now I keep reading how developers are trying to build multi-use, multi-family suburban communities that retain a certain urban sensibility.  Here’s an article from this week in the Times by Marcela Susan Fischler:

Some suburbs around New York City are becoming decidedly less suburban, as new apartment buildings and condominium communities close to mass transithelp expand the downtowns of these villages and towns. Multifamily housing is also popping up near highways and main thoroughfares.

Young professionals seeking more space than they can afford in Manhattan or Brooklyn, empty nesters looking to downsize and leave the snow shoveling to others and, to a lesser extent, millennials moving out of their parents’ basements are leading the charge to a more urbanized suburbia.

What’s interesting is not just that people are looking for that urban experience in the suburbs, but the TYPES of people looking for it.  As the Times notes, it’s not just millennials who are loathe to give up the urban lifestyle — we’re also seeing the appeal to “young professionals” and “empty-nesters.”

Now, of course, one of my main themes in this blog is that NO ONE who lives in a city  ever WANTS to move to the traditional suburbs, any more than people WANT to buy a minivan.  It’s a choice borne out of circumstance (or even desperation) when you have kids and you simply have to accept that you have to give up the urban amenities for a more child-friendly lifestyle.

That is, think about what “millennials,” “young professionals,” and “empty-nesters” all mostly have in common — NO KIDS. And that makes sense. If it’s just you, or you and your new spouse, or you and the spouse you’ve had for a while, then a two-bedroom with no back yard but with a short walk to trains and downtown makes a lot of sense.  Once you have a couple of kids, though, and that second kid is sleeping in a closet, and they’re driving you ABSOLUTELY FREAKING CRAZY when you’re cooped up with them all day, then you’re going to want a bigger place.  Go break things outside for a while, kids!

So what’s my point? That there are limits to this new urbanist suburbia, and that it’s not a replacement for the traditional suburbia, at least not for the vast majority of people who decide to move (however reluctantly) to the suburbs in the first place. And as much as I absolutely love that developers are responding to urban exiles who want to retain at least some of that lifestyle, I don’t think it means the end to the traditional suburb.

Anyway, tradeoffs do not have to be absolute.  I gave up my 2,000 square foot apartment on the Upper West when my wife and I decided to have kids, but I’ve retained at least a semblance of my former life by finding a place that’s a seven-minute easy walk to the downtown of Nyack.  I don’t have the full suburban experience of a one-acre lot and all that, but I’ve got a backyard and a small pool.  And I’m surrounded by people with that same sensibility, who are willing to take that same “half-step” of moving to the suburbs, getting the bigger house, but keeping just a touch of that walkable urban sensibility.