Wrestling With the Restless

Photo via Bob Vonderau

Though the Brookings Institution recently published numbers revealing that Millenials are becoming even more mobile, the focus of planners and city officials has fallen on this generation for quite some time now. CEOs for Cities published its report, Young and the Restless in a Knowledge Economy, just last year— echoing many of the points that we see regularly discussed influential thought leaders such as Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser. It is well known that our young, talented generation is on the move, and to be successful we must capture and captivate them so they can infuse our cities with the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that drives economic growth.

From the point at which we started understanding the link between creativity and growth, the focus of cities all throughout the US shifted to attracting that talent and keeping hold of their own college graduates and creative types. We've seen countless articles and books published on the subject. The top ten lists have been plastered all through the digital sphere, and arguments have waged on about the relative importance of place making vs. creating jobs in securing the younger generation.

All that being said, the high mobility of this group has presented itself as both a challenge and an opportunity for communities, depending on whether a city is already positioned as a magnet for these creative types, or losing their own young professionals to those urban-meccas with the right cocktail of amenities. Millions of dollars have been infused into economic development budgets, attempting to sift through the preferences of these young professionals and create the entertainment districts, walkable neighborhoods, and urban comforts that are said to be in hot demand. Branding initiatives have been employed to draw their ideas and breathe life into struggling cities, live-work spaces built. Coffee shops have found their way to so many city streets.

The idea of approaching management of a city like a startup is an intriguing one—because we understand quite well the concept of competitiveness. But often I feel that we miss the mark for understanding the true opportunity in the pressure to compete for these young and restless professionals: we’re at a pivotal point of transition, and we can use this to work at creating meaningful places.

When we look at the brands often cited for being successful—like Apple and Google—we see that they make their mark not by focusing the bulk of their energy on the bullet-pointed list of features, but on building a culture—both internally and for their customers. Creative people don’t just want the bars and restaurants. They want authentic communities that are exciting and engaging. This can’t be articulated in a pamphlet, and it can’t happen if all we ask ourselves is, “What can we build to make the creatives come?” We should be asking, “What can we do to build a community where people thrive?”

At the end of the day, what us Millennials need to thrive is pretty much the same as anyone else—jobs, grocery stores, a way to get to work. All of those “extras”—the walkable streets, collaborative design, mixed-use development—allow everyone to think more creatively, live a bit more safely, and make the community a better place to be. The world is changing, rapidly. If we want our cities to be diverse, dynamic places where people thrive, we need to change the paradigm, not just the consumer group we’re focusing on. Our young are restless, and that creates anxiety and challenge, but a wise professor once told me to never waste a good crisis. This is a great opportunity.

We need to embrace the potential for change, the opportunity inherent in mobility and choice. 

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