Wednesday, January 7, 2009

FORWARD Article

I hope that I'm not jumping the gun, but here is the rough cut of the article (with some later minor tweaks that occurred after editing...well, just because I was unhappy with a few phrases) that will be published on Jan. 22, 2009 in The AIA National Associates Committee's Quarterly Editorial Online-Journal, found here [Link]:

Full disclosure: I am not an architect. But, I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Actually, I just work for an architecture firm, in the Urban Design and Planning Group. I am writing because I have shared interests in sustainability and generational studies and believe these topics to be interdependent and intertwined. The point of this article is to discuss how the Millennial Generation will drive the architecture and sustainable urbanism of the 21st century and how the real estate market is failing them and architects and designers must deliver it for them.

Before moving forward with this thesis, it is critical to understand a few things about generational studies. First, generations are cyclical. Characteristics cannot be linearly extrapolated from one generation to the next. Rather, they are mostly reactive to previous generations. Next, there are always outliers and anomalies. The key is to focus on trends and find the statistical mean or center of gravity of the cultural shift.

Now, who exactly is a Millennial? Academics like to assign specific age brackets and birth years to define and identify generations. They bicker over whether they were born in 1977 or ‘82; 1994 or ‘96. I prefer to focus on epochal shifts – moments in history that define them – as people – as a group. So I will define this cohort as individuals graduating college post 9/11 at the oldest extreme and those involved in the historic 2008 presidential election at the youngest. Anecdotally, I have heard too many stories of eleven, twelve, or thirteen year old volunteers. They are active, involved, informed, and the largest generational cohort in American history.

If there is one word to best describe the Millennials, it is that they are communitarians. Millennials are team players, working better in groups than individually. They have redefined the internet’s networking capabilities while maturing along side of it, with the creation of YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, etc. proving the internet would not replace community leading to a world of plugged-in shut-ins, but serve as a tool to build and maintain relationships.

[Common areas and public spaces take precedence when designing for Millennials. Pictured: Addison Circle where each building faces a park. Image courtesy of RTKL.]

Their chosen fashion is about subtlety, details that give a hint of individuality without shock or rebellion. As Nadira Hira writes in Fortune, “this isn't a group you'll catch in flannel. They're all about quiet kitsch - a funky T-shirt under a blazer, artsy jewelry, silly socks - small statements that won't cause trouble. The most important decorations, though, are electronic - iPods, BlackBerrys, laptops - and they're like extra limbs.”

You have heard of Generation Me, say hello to Generation We.

In Millennial Makeover, Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais describe the two types of realignments -"idealist" and "civic"- that have alternated throughout the nation's history. From pop culture, to fashion, to the historic turnout of 18-29 year old voters this election suggests that Millennials are beginning to come of age; seizing the mantle from the Baby Boomers, defining the collective consciousness.

The tidal shifts are not isolated to politics or pop culture. Our cities, the places that house us, provide platform to live, learn, love, interact, and transact, are also at the tipping point. They are lacking real urbanity. The real estate community is supposed to deliver what the market demands. But, according to Chris Leinberger, only 3% of Americans live in walkable urban communities, while 30% said they would like to join them. That is some serious pent up demand.

Millennials grew up in suburbia; bland environments dependent on others for mobility. They are entering the adulthood seeking lifestyle: vitality, diversity, and community. But, Millennials are not the only ones who will be driving this sea change from suburban to high quality urban environments. Baby Boomers will be retiring by the boat load. Retirement communities in their current form resemble warehouses more than they do the most desirable of retirement “villages”: real communities where retirees can be independent and empowered, such as the Upper East Side and Key West.

[Millennials meeting at a "Third Place." Stock image courtesy of RTKL.]

The paradigmatic issue is that the world constructed between 1950 and 2000 is one of planned obsolescence, of consumption. We have overspent, so retailers (and similarly, homebuilders) over provide products. Combined with a more frugal younger generation, a vast shift in urban form is required; scaling back and relocalizing in conjunction with relocation of the “market” where transactions occur in places that fulfill the social needs of the new generation. Driving to the mall is no longer as convenient (or desirable) as heading to third places: the corner store, the coffee shop, the local pub.

I recall the overly simplistic, undergraduate argument whether Architecture was an art or a science. Certainly, it is both, but art reflects its place in time. Architecture in the 21st century will be as different as the Millennials are from the Boomers. They are doing whatever it takes to get into interesting, urban environs at a time when it is hardly affordable for them. They are moving into “micro” units, taking on roommates, and more willing to live in multi-generational households.

Like society, the architecture profession is at a similar transitional stage as Generation We, the communitarians, and sustainable urbanism struggle to take center stage from the attention seeking, entirely self-referential architecture and high tech gadgetry posing as sustainability as if it is some sort of fleeting fashion, temporarily en vogue. These are postcards, nothing more.

We have to all become less specialized in our individual professions, under one umbrella, each as city builders with a common cause focused on placemaking, which becomes more than series of stills, greater than the sum of its parts. It becomes drama. Only through Architecture of the We, not the Me, can we design and begin to rebuild our cities as stimulating places for the next generation and achieve real sustainability.


Recommended Reading:

Farr, Douglas. 2008. Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design With Nature. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Greenberg, Eric, and Karl Weber. 2008. Generation We: How Millennial Youth are Taking Over America and Changing Our World Forever. Emeryville, CA: Pachatusan.

Hais, Michael D and Morley Winograd. 2008. Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Hira, Nadira A. “Attracting the twentysomething worker. The baby-boomers' kids are marching into the workplace, and look out: this crop of twentysomethings really is different.” Fortune, May 15, 2007. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2007/05/28/100033934/

Howe, Neil and William Strauss. 1997. The Fourth Turning : an American Prophecy. New York: Broadway Books.

Howe, Neil and William Strauss. 2000. Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books.

Leinberger, Christopher. 2008. The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Nasser, Haya El. “Less is More in New Housing: Young Renters and Buyers Seek Small Spaces with Big Appeal—and Luxury at a Lower Cost.” USA TODAY, December 5, 2008. http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/news/20081205/tinypads05_st.art.htm

Zogby, John. 2008. The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream. New York: Random House.