A great take away from our recent vacation in Spain was how vibrant neighborhood life was in the areas we travelled. For years I have wondered whether the changes we are seeing here in the U.S. (best evidenced by the millennials) is a temporal or a systemic change? Through my time abroad I had an ‘aha moment’. And that would be we are not changing as much as we may just be catching up, when it comes to vital, urban lifestyles.
As I walked around Barcelona, LaGuardia, Bilbao and San Sebastian I came to suspect that what we are seeing today in our cities – transit and bicycle prioritization, a continually expanding coffee shop culture, an increasing emphasis on local artisan foods, and the adoption of smaller residential units – are all trends that are here to stay. But not because they are new fads, but because the next generation of households is simply adopting best practices and a quality of life experienced in Europe.
This would not be the first time that Europe has had a profound influence on how we live and build our cities. It might be said there have been three epochs of European influence on our lives here in the U.S. WWII soldiers who, after growing up in an era of strong nuclear families, small communities and not a lot of travel came back with eyes opened and memories of the freedom provided by the autobahn. This singular invention had a profound effect on our country’s ideas about mobility and resulting land use patterns (unfortunately, fueling decades of sprawl).
The baby boomers went to Europe in the 60’s and 70’s for more hedonistic purposes, bringing back radical l ideas about music, fashion, and drugs. But through their experiences in Vanagons or hitchhiking with backpacks, those who made the trek came back to take a more active role in choosing the kinds of towns they wanted to live in -or simply how they began to design their homes and lives. Note the rise of things like Metropolitan magazine in that era, or later, the rise of Ikea, which struck a chord with our generation’s new-found appreciation for cleaner design sensibilities and more urbane lifestyles than say Sears and Roebuck or Better Homes and Garden.
Now we have a generation moving into influential roles as home buyers, renters and increasingly, business owners. Unlike their grandparents who went to Europe en masse for war, or their parents who went to Europe in waves after college for pleasure, this is a generation that has traveled to Europe in a more diffuse and incremental way. Whether going with their parents who wanted to expand their children’s horizons, or through cultural exchanges and study abroad programs, this generation has probably experienced Europe more than any other generation before it, and really experienced it rather than just ‘seen it’. What we found as quaint or worthy of a photo album upon return from our trips as college grads, the millennials are demanding in their day-to-day way of life. Like the coffee shop culture, whereby the local bars serve expresso in the morning and are a part of the social scene in the evening.
The café culture where sitting for lingering dinners and lunches, composed of great food, simply prepared and shared amongst friends is just part of being in a community. Complete streets that are a complex tapestry of bicycle, pedestrian and automobile movement corridors that are scaled for humans and work brilliantly for both transport AND socializing. And as I learned, tasting and experiencing the pintxo culture of San Sebastian, socializing and entertaining is done in the small bars and cafes, rather than in one homes. Why? Because apartments are increasingly becoming smaller as people can’t afford large units, and frankly don’t want to accumulate all the ‘stuff’ needed to entertain or the burden on maintaining property.
So the urbanization of America – whether in heart of our gateway cities, or through incremental revitalization of small towns and inner ring suburbs – is not a new phenomenon or globe changing trend. It may just be the maturing of us here in the U.S. Adopting – and perhaps adapting – to a more urbane lifestyle that has been going on for generations across the pond.
And based on what I experienced, that’s a good thing for all of us.