Millennials make up a significant portion of the United States and Canadian populations, so it’s no shock that this demographic has become a critical focus area for all industries. In real estate, the case is no different as urban planners and developers try to figure out how and where to best invest their resources. In recent news, headlines focusing on this important cohort paint a picture that is catching attention and sparking discussion (and in some cases, concern) from real estate professionals across North America:
Real estate trend sees millennials ditching cities for small-town life
Millennials are fleeing big cities for suburbs
Millennials are moving to the exurbs in droves
If you scratch the surface, you will find that these headlines fail to tell the whole story. In fact, what is happening is less black and white and much more nuanced. The primary concern shouldn’t be whether millennials are really done with cities, but rather, in understanding (for those that do choose to leave) where they are migrating and why.
For the past four years, there has been a decline in the millennial population in major urban centers in the U.S., namely in cities that have historically attracted the masses, such as New York and San Francisco. This outflow has prompted a resurgence of the argument that millennials’ love for cities will fade as they replace beer bottles with baby bottles and streetcars with strollers, opting instead for the traditional suburban lifestyle—just as the generations that preceded them did. However, there continues to be discourse around this theory, with opposing experts arguing that millennials’ preference for city life will stand the test of time. But what if the answer to this question lies somewhere between a hard yes or no? When looking at migration patterns in Canada’s urban cities, this is exactly what we find:
Infographic 1: A clear preference for Toronto's downtown core existed in 2014 for millenials aged 25-29. Spatial distribution patterns align with this cohort's entry into the workforce and indicates a preference for proximity to offices, a wide selection of amenities and an overall convenience-driven lifestyle over larger living quarters & green space. As millennials enter new life stages (e.g., marriage, children, etc.), they will become more distributed outside of the city center; however, a clear preference for the downtown core is still exhibited. In considering their migration patterns, it appears that those who can afford to stay in the core will, and those that must find housing options elsewhere will prefer hubs far closer to the core than previous generations. When contrasted to the distribution of generation X (see maps below), millennials appear to clearly favor uban neighborhoods over "traditional" suburbs. For those suburbs with a greater share of millennials, there appears to be strong transit routes/accessibility, as well as an array of their own amenities and conveniences being offered.
Infographic 2: When compared to millennials, generation X has a much broader, spread out distribution—overall, this generation lacks a clear preference for any one area and appears to opt for larger living quarters and more green space rather than the conveniences of an urban core; in addition, accessibility and the existence of amenities do not seem to be strong indicators of spatial distribution. Traditional suburbs appear to resonate with generation X more than millennials, depicting both a clear difference in the lifestyle preferences between the two generations as well as how the definition of a suburb has evolved over time.
Note: Similar migration patterns and inferred generational preferences were also seen across Canada’s other key cities (i.e. Vancouver, Montreal, and Calgary); Toronto is being used here for illustration purposes.
After reviewing these contrasting migration patterns, one major takeaway is that the suburbia of tomorrow is not the suburbia of yesterday.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Live/Work/Play concept helped developers reinvigorate downtown cores, but a new trend emerges as we enter a new decade. As housing affordability and increasing debt limits living options for young families residing in cities, the Live/Work/Play formula is being applied to some suburban neighborhoods surrounding city centers. This trend is driven by millennials that are looking for more housing options but are not yet ready to give up the conveniences of city living.
The suburban neighborhoods that millennials are relocating to are not like the suburbs of the past—what differentiates them is a distinct focus on community. These neighborhoods have strong transit routes, high walk scores and a variety of restaurants, bars, cafes and retail that offer residents a mixed-use environment and a wide availability of housing options. These suburbs are no longer located in the far rings outside of the city; we are seeing more suburban hubs popping up within and along the edges of city limits.
A term known as “Hipsturbia” has emerged, appropriately reflecting the differences between the suburban lifestyle choices of baby boomers, generation Xers (born between 1961 – 1981) and their millennial offspring. So, will millennials ditch cities for suburbs? Some yes and some no, but the most important takeaway is that our definition of “suburb” needs to evolve. Millennials who are choosing suburbs are choosing the ones that fit a long list of qualifications—a list markedly different than the generations before them.
In key cities across Canada and the U.S., demand for living spaces continues to be fueled not only by millennials, but by generation Zers (born between 1995 – 2012) entering the workforce and empty nesters who are ready to downsize. This demand is overflowing into accessible and more affordable hubs near the core, creating new, unique opportunities in place-making.
Secondary neighborhoods have the opportunity to capitalize on the housing affordability and congestion issues plaguing cities but need to invest in their own downtowns to ensure they offer effective transit routes, high walkability and a diverse collection of restaurants, retail and recreation to their residents. The “city of the future” will no longer be a single, dense urban center with a halo of cookie-cutter suburbs surrounding it. Instead, envision a diverse network of smaller, interconnected, mini-city ecosystems—all of which are vibrant, unique and hip in their own right—and tie back to a large, central urban node.
By proactively tapping into the wants and needs of millennials, planners and developers will be able to create new, vibrant neighborhoods that emulate key qualities of cities and will ultimately prosper—giving generations to come exactly what they are searching for: the best of both worlds.
“Emerging Trends in Real Estate United States & Canada 2020”, PWC and Urban Land Institute Report, September 19th, 2019 (PWC)
“‘Hipsturbia’: It’s What All The Cool Suburbs Are Doing And It’s A 2020 Trend”, Stephanie Vozza, September 24th, 2019 (Forbes)
“Millennials Continue to Leave Big Cities”, Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, September 26th, 2019 (The Wall Street Journal)
“More millennials are ditching big US cities for the suburbs, and it shows just how dire the unaffordable housing crisis is”, Hilary Hoffower, September 27th, 2019 (Business Insider)
“Young People’s Love of Cities Isn’t a Passing Fad”, Richard Florida, May 28, 2019 (CityLab)
“Millennials Are More Likely to Buy Their First Homes in Cities”, Amanda Kolson Hurley, November 15th, 2018 (CityLab)
“No, Young People Aren't Fleeing Cities”, Joe Cortright, December 20th, 2017 (CityLab)
“Do Millennials Prefer Cities or Suburbs? Maybe Both.”, Kriston Capps, July 30, 2018 (CityLab)
Maps: Developed by Taylor Blake (Market Research Analyst, Strategic Planning & Insights, Cadillac Fairview); historical & forecasted population data sourced from Environics
Elizabeth Westgate is a member of Toronto CREW and has worked for Cadillac Fairview in a strategic research & advisory capacity for 2.5 years. In her previous role at CF, she was responsible for ongoing assessments of the CRE business environment, industry disruption, and relevant office, retail, and mixed-use innovations to proactively identify and address changing business needs. Today, Elizabeth works closely with the Executive and Senior Leadership teams on developing strategic plans for the organization’s retail properties, identifying opportunities to enhance their value over time. Prior to joining Cadillac Fairview, Elizabeth honed her strategy-focused mindset in Management Consulting.
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