Ian T. Brown
Managing Consultant, Morris Strategy Group
This blog post is a response to the Dear 2015 group blogging event prompt: The year is 2050. Write a letter to the people of 2015 describing what your city is like, and give them advice on the next 35 years. For more responses, see the Dear 2015 Event Page.
To the leaders of 2015 – there’s a class of men and women who are drawn to the world’s most dynamic cities. They are not the kind who “roam the world at will,” as Robert Service famously versed. These are the steady, the innovative, the transformative. In the United States, we talk about the Millennial generation and the profound impact that Millennials are having on the urban landscape. Recent U.S. census numbers show a mass migration of residents from the outer suburban strata back into the inner urban core at a scale not seen for generations. Americans are trading in cul-de-sacs, cars, and long commutes for condos, public transport, and a density of entertainment options. Some of the more forward-looking cities are responding by building art museums, mixed-use developments, and light rail to attract new residents. And several of those cities, once rusting Rust Belt heaps, are again flourishing.
Still others of this class are rethinking and reshaping what it means to live in the suburbs. In countries such as China, India, and Brazil, cities that were once among the most density populated in history are now depopulating. In the early 1950s, only ten of the world’s largest cities were losing residents; today, over 100 are. Cities are taking many of the lessons learned from the West and re-envisioning what a vibrant suburb can be. It’s true that some cities are building suburban neighborhoods to look like mirror images of famous American places, such as Orange County in China, but these are merely novelties. Other cities are looking to avoid the pitfall of cookie-cutter compounds devoid of personality and instead are trying to interweave the residential with the commercial. And it’s not just the developing world – U.S. census numbers may show mass migration to cities, but overall there’s still greater outward migration. This migration is presumably still going into suburbs.
What is this class of men and women? Who are they, if not strictly defined as Millennials and hipsters trying to shake off the boredom of their suburban upbringing and revitalize the American city? Who are they, if not strictly labeled by their desire to shed the stifling density found in many cities around the world to instead find more comfort, more privacy, and more space in the suburbs?
Dear leaders of 2015, they are the urban class. They are a class of residents who are brave and true in seeking to bring investment and entrepreneurship back into once-struggling, post-industrial cities across the United States. Globally, they are a class that’s reshaping the urban-suburban relationship, not because of highways or social tensions or zoning rules, but because mass affluence means that men and women in the developing world don’t have to live on top of each other. And in rethinking the urban-suburban relationship, rather than seeing the two as diametrically opposed, cities must explore new ways to weave suburban amenities into the urban core.
So what drives this urban class and attracts them to the world’s dynamic cities? It’s not art museums and light rail alone. For one, the urban class is attracted to the great variety of jobs that a city can provide. Technology may make distance seem meaningless, but it’s the ability for men and women to physically cluster together and share ideas that spur innovation. The most dynamic cities also offer an equitable range of living and educational opportunities that maintain diversity while offering social mobility. The upwardly mobile Millennial is just as much a member of the urban class as the family of four that seeks 21st century urban neighborhoods with a little more space and comfort.
The urban class is a class of city-dwellers in their prime, leading boldly an urban and suburban revolution. It is a class whose ideas and innovations will transform our 21st century. It is a class that fits in. And it’s you, dear leaders of 2015, who can attract their interest and talent to your cities, and ultimately win.
About The Author: Ian Brown is Managing Consultant at the Morris Strategy Group where he leads the firms policy and research engagement efforts. He is an expert in international economic development and foreign affairs.