Monday, 31 July 2017

Is this the new suburbia? And should we worry?

From City Lab comes an article about Urby who build high density apartments in New York suburbs (Staten Island, Jersey City, Stamford):
Barry says that at least 80 percent of Urby tenants are under 39, don't have children, and expect to stay for perhaps three years or so; he calls them “starter apartments.”
I get everything that Urby are doing - it's straight out of the New Urbanist playbook with densely packed accommodation near transport hubs meaning less parking. Assumptions about modern living argue for less storage or common storage (bike rooms and so forth) and, because there are a lot of single people, planned for entertainment:
...Urby employs a cultural director with a nightclub and hospitality background and deputies to organize activities for residents. There might be stump-the-chef or other paid event in the kitchen, standup comedy in the cafe, and flower arranging in a workshop room. “It’s a boost,” Barry says, “to help people in this demographic connect to each other—and make them feel more emotionally connected to the brand."
What we see here is an interesting shift in how we (or some of us) live. People leave home and live in shared student accommodation while at college. There next move is to the new style shared living (or, as we're already seeing in London, Manchester and Leeds as well as in many US cities to a world where student apartments become 'student and young worker' apartments) and then to something slightly more private like this suburban Urby development. Note that people are still single or at least haven't committed to a family and are 'under 39' - these are career-focused thirtysomethings we're talking about.

The question here is what happens next. Urby don't tell us where their former tenants move onto - is it family units of some sorts or are they simply earning more so can afford a slightly more swank address? More to the point is this where we're heading for suburbia in big cities? A sort of slightly more funky version of the crammed urban towers of downtown living. Millennials living in what sounds like a younger version of elderly retirement living.

I've said before that housing design in inner urban places is persistently anti-child built without thought to the young and where space for kids to roam simply doesn't exist. Yes we can build playgrounds, tidy little places tucked into corner spaces where the very young can be watched at play but the old suburb with gardens, greens and recreation grounds is lost, cities simply aren't great places for ten-year-olds. Yet every planner talks now about ways to cram more and more into less and less space. People's worlds are becoming directed and organised even down to what happens in free time.

It does seem at times that this dense city living is a dead end despite its appeal and the manifest wealth of these places. But if the cramped world of modern apartment living is now spreading to suburbia, should we be bothered? Isn't the whole point of the suburb that it gave space, openness and the chance for a family to grow while still being reachable from the centre of the city. If suburbs become indistinguishable from the city then the world those ten-year-olds once enjoyed becomes only available to the wealthiest in the big city and those who opt for a less fancy, less well-paid life somewhere else. On balance we should be bothered - it shouldn't be a choice between a good rewrding job and the chance to raise a family. Right now it seems that it is.


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