The new wave in suburbia

Millennials are now opting to live in the suburbs, and commute to work/study in the city. They believe being in ‘a quiet place’, away from the urban jungle, is worth their while

By K Badar

Published: Fri 7 Jan 2022, 10:27 PM

Last updated: Fri 7 Jan 2022, 10:30 PM

Season 3 of the popular Netflix show 'You' was an absolute delight to watch. It is one of those serials that tend to capture the mainstream cultural belief system of a particular period. We see Joe and Love, the newly-wed millennial couple deciding to move from Los Angeles to a fictional Californian suburb of Madre Linda in hope of a better life.

But is that a reflection of a current “new” trend of people moving to metropolises for a better life — or is it too early to say?

In popular culture, especially in Hollywood genres, the “burbs” have been associated with a certain implicit darkness. They’ve been projected as areas from where youngsters are desperate to get out of, returning only during Thanksgiving and Christmas to “meet the family (read: middle-aged or elderly parents)”. They are like Stepford towns where, underneath the façade of pretty homesteads and white picket fences lurks the dangers of inner isolation. The “quiet desperation” in Desperate Housewives, for instance, wouldn’t have been evident if the series wasn’t set in suburbia.

But the reality emerging these is quite different. Lucia Graves, in a piece in The Guardian titled ‘Welcome to suburbia: the millennials done with city life — and city prices’, wrote: “…millennials, pushed away from exorbitant city prices and finally able to afford their first houses, are rediscovering suburbs’ spacious charms”.

In the US, since the era of the industrial revolution, urban pockets have been the preferred location for working-class professionals to settle, grow and finally live the “American Dream”. The dream was not just confined to America but travelled across Europe as well as to the newly independent countries post 1950s. The growth of metropolitan cities has accelerated at such a rate that, in the last few decades, multiple metropolitan cities across the globe made it to the ‘most 
expensive cities in the world’ list. But these trends have not been constant, with slight dips and ups congruent with the economic and political climate of the region as well as other contextual factors. Especially during the 2008 American economic crisis, it was observed that the shift of people to metros dropped significantly. However, the trend reversed very quickly by 2014, when the global markets started picking up. “Young people are not going to make that plunge to a suburban house because they think there’s a risk to it,” William Frey, a demographer with Washington’s Brookings Institution, told USA Today that year.

And then, some years down the line, descended the Covid-19 pandemic, something which went on to disrupt the world as we knew it. While there were massive job losses, new opportunities such as “remote working” emerged for the first time. With international borders being closed, this prompted a lot of internal migration of people within the country away from hotspots to quieter places. Guess what? The trend is not just limited to the US. In neighbouring Canada, around 87,444 people left the three big cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver for smaller cities within the same province according to data released by Statistics Canada in January 2021. A similar pattern played out across the Pacific in Australia, as a record number of city slickers shifted to suburbs and smaller towns.

There are two primary motivations: to escape lockdown in cities for a better lifestyle and to search for a new job.

This is not just about people over the age of 40. Youngsters and millennials are very much part of this wave of migration, according to a report from search engine company Muval.

‘WFH has made moving to the suburbs a workable option’

Xavier Logan is a 22-year-old student, doing his Bachelor of Business in Sydney. He believes that even though we see a recent trend tilted towards the suburbs, younger people will continue to flock to cities for more opportunities and career avenues. “My reason for liking the city life is very much related to the place where I grew up,” Xavier tells Khaleej Times. His most formative years were spent in India before his family moved to Australia. “I grew up in Hyderabad (India) and stayed there for around 12 years. I am used to the chaos and the energy around a city.”

He now stays in a suburban area called Blue Mountains, a 12-hour drive from bustling Sydney. He attributes housing price inflation as a major reason for his family to decide to not move to the city. “Demographics play a key role in terms of housing preferences.

Suburbs are popular among newlywed couples who are planning to start a family. “However, cities remain a popular choice for young people as most of the universities are situated here and there are a lot of job opportunities,” he says.

Xavier has also analysed market trends in Australia as a part of his course work at University of Technology, Sydney. He believes that companies such as Deloitte and PWC have made “Work from Home” a very exciting proposition, which have made moving to the suburbs a workable and sustainable option. The Blue Mountains is currently one of the most sought-after suburbs in Australia. “It [Blue Mountains] derives its name from the eucalyptus trees which are native to the region that releases a special scent which turns the lush green forest cover covered in the deep blue haze.”

Xavier is the co-founder of a podcast Utopia is Now along with his friend Sashwat, who is based in the US. The podcast focuses on trans-disciplinary conversations that challenge the existing views of the world. The issue of millennials wanting to move to suburbs was their podcast discussion points in one of their recent episodes.

‘Not sure whether this trend will continue post-pandemic’

According to Marco Cerenio, a media consultant who works with an American NGO based out of New Jersey — which trains migrant nurses in specialised skill programmes — the movement of people from metropolitan to suburbs in the US has been prevalent since the post-war years. But “in the 1970s, there was a huge push to move away from the metropolitan cities,” 
says Marco. “In the 1980s, there was another wave of people moving away — which was in 
response to the non-white people’s movement to capital cities,” he adds, elaborating on the problem of gentrification in most of the older north-eastern cities in the US such as New York and Boston.

Marco resides in New Jersey, a suburb located outside of Philadelphia. His understanding is that most people move away from Philadelphia to the suburbs in their early 20s when they plan to settle down and have a stable life. “There is a huge crunch of resources in the city which facilitates this move.”

“I am not too sure whether this trend will continue even post-pandemic as it is too close to call,” he offers, when asked about the movement of people from metropolitan areas to suburban areas in the Covid aftermath. His decision to not move to a city and live in the suburbs is influenced by a host of factors. In September, Philadelphia witnessed massive flooding that helped him decide against moving to the city. On the trend of popular celebrities moving away from cities like Los Angeles and settling in remote areas or smaller cities, Marco says, “It makes sense for them to do this. Taxation rates are lower in most of the sparsely populated states. Plus, you get higher artistic creativity and freedom.”

The pandemic has allowed people to retrospect their decisions of living in big cities. Based on the housing data from 2020, CNBC reported that the number of apartments listed for rent in Manhattan reached record levels amid the coronavirus pandemic as renters left the city. More than 10,000 apartments were listed on the market in June 2020, an increase of 85 per cent over June 2019, reported the news outlet. “The official vacancy rate hit a record 3.67 per cent but is far higher in many buildings, according to brokers,” noted CNBC.

‘People are critical of mass consumption culture’

Anna is a 26-year-old German national who recently graduated from the London School of Economics. She spent her childhood in Speyer, a city in South-west Germany with approximately 50,000 inhabitants, where it was all about living close to nature and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds.

While Anna is aware of increasingly more people leaving metropolises for suburban areas, she says it will be wrong to attribute it to the pandemic. “This shift was happening before as well. Covid might have accelerated this trend,” she says. “I believe more and more people are becoming critical of the glittering lifestyle offered by big cities and urban centres. They want to disconnect from the outer world and search for their inner core,” says Anna.

She is able to visualise a future where people would probably have dual residencies: metropolises for diverse employment opportunities and suburbs for serenity. “We could share the apartments among our friends to split the cost and alternatively decide to stay there,” she suggests.

The arrangement she foresees is possibly best reflected in the emergence of co-living rural spaces, popularised by digital nomads during the pandemic. Think of a community that provides shared housing for people with common interests and goals — like, for example, Sende, a co-living and working space in a little village in northern Spain, bordering Portugal.

Safety is one of the biggest driving factors

Individual perceptions about safety and school quality can influence one’s notion of what 
separates a city from its suburbs, just as 
physical boundaries traditionally made that distinction, according to a study, co-authored by Shelley M Kimelberg, director of the Social 
Sciences Interdisciplinary Degree Program at the University of Buffalo, and Chase M Billingham, assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University.

“When people think about their community, they don’t pull out a map to determine whether it’s urban or suburban — they’re thinking about the lived experience,” noted the paper.

Echoes Tanya Talwar, a 32-year-old PhD student at the University of Visual History in Berlin. “Safety is a big concern in big cities,” Talwar tells Khaleej Times, adding that majority of densely-populated cities across the world have a high crime rate. “The more expensive the city gets, the higher the crimes committed,” she said.

Before shifting to Berlin earlier this year, Tanya was staying in Belgium’s Ghent city for over a year. She says that she was surprised to find that most of the working people she knew were willing make the Ghent to Brussels (the capital city) journey daily — a roughly 40-minute drive.

“They don’t relocate to Brussels because they prefer less crowded places and the rent is considerably cheaper compared to Brussels,” feels Tanya. She also observes that unmarried young couples opt for suburbs partly because their families support the decision.

Tanya is reasonably happy staying in the heart of Berlin amidst all the hustle and bustle for now. “But if I ever buy a house in Germany, I would like a quiet place,” she signs off.

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