When the automobile became a widely affordable amenity in the early 20th century, nearly 5,000 years of urban history suddenly shifted.
In the United States, millions of people had the opportunity to leave cities for the new spacious American suburbs. 1950 marked the first year that more Americans lived in suburbs than elsewhere.
Now, 65 years later, the consequences of a car-centric society are apparent. The suburban lifestyle that requires car travel drains natural resources, drains financial resources and is detrimental to physical, mental and emotional health.
Suburbia brought vast new spaces for residential settlement. There was more room to roam, and we filled that room with endless acres of larges houses. Then, we filled those large houses with stuff.
But new American generations are rediscovering the city. Sixty-two percent of Americans born between 1980-2000 (the millennials) prefer to live in mixed-use urban environments. And within those environments, millennials are choosing to live in smaller spaces.
My generation has grown a distaste for too much stuff. We prioritize experiences instead. We also embrace the shared experiences of great urban neighborhoods.
Where the suburban generations sought to close themselves within their homes and stock those homes with personal entertainment (think: home movie theaters), the millennial generation wants to be social. We want to interact with our friends and neighbors. We want to spend time outside of the house experiencing culture and food. And we want to live in neighborhoods that are dense enough to offer all those opportunities within easy walking distance.
So we no longer need large spaces to satisfy our individual needs. And our smaller personal spaces help finance the experiences we prioritize so highly. Great urban neighborhoods have become an extension of our personal living spaces.
The changing American urban experience
Reversing decades of car-centric suburbia culture will take time. But urban populations are once again growing at a rapid pace. We are headed for an urban future in America where smaller personal spaces will become more and more normal.
And I don’t mean to say that 250sq micro units are the future. What I believe we’re going through is simply shaving off excess and largely unused personal living space, resulting in smaller (yet still entirely functional) overall spaces.
This trend means we have to start thinking and planning differently.
My neighborhood has a favorite ratio: Number of units per acre. It’s a rallying cry many use against new dense development. I’ve wondered often what exactly it is that worries so many people about a high ratio of units per acre.
I suspect some of it comes from the common misconception that density means overcrowding. Density creates lively, robust urban neighborhoods. Overcrowding creates public health hazards. And no proposed development in my neighborhood over the last few years has come close to overcrowding.
It may also be a fear of massive buildings. This is a more legitimate concern. Our neighborhoods need to be well-scaled. But the new reality of American urban spaces is smaller units occupying less space.
So we need to rethink what we determine to be healthy unit-to-acre ratios, because we’re simply fitting more units into the same number of spaces. This is good news for efficiency, and it’s good news for creating lively, dense neighborhoods.
Efficiency is another top priority for my generation. We want fast internet and car sharing.
We also want efficient living spaces that give us only what we truly need. Small spaces are more efficient to maintain and are a more efficient use of our financial resources.
The suburban lifestyle confines your living experience largely to your home. But in urban spaces, your streets, neighborhoods and cities become an important part of how you experience life.
When we embrace urban neighborhoods and the shared experiences they offer, we spend less time in our own homes. And when we spend less time living in our personal spaces, we simply don’t need excessive personal space.