ULI’s 2015 Spring Meeting in Houston, open only to full members, exceeded our most optimistic expectations for participation, engagement, networking, and knowledge sharing. The May 12–14 event set a Spring Meeting record for sponsorships ($1.3 million), and drew a near record number of attendees (3,500-plus, second only to our 2013 Spring Meeting in San Diego). Many came early for the highly popular mobile tours and stayed late: the meeting concluded with a standing room–only general session featuring leadership tips and insights from honorary meeting chairman and ULI life trustee Gerald Hines and his fellow Houstonian, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III.
The meeting marked the first time since 1992 that ULI has held a major event in Houston. Throughout the week, attendees experienced a city described by Mayor Annise Parker as one that has matured from a place that “really did not care how it was viewed by the rest of the world” into a magnet for culture, recreation, and entertainment that is attracting new businesses and residents from around the globe. Indeed, this transformation is a major reason Houston is ranked as this year’s U.S. top market for investment and development by Emerging Trends in Real Estate® 2015.
What’s happening in Houston is happening in globally competitive markets around the world—an urban evolution fueled by changes in demographics, economic drivers, housing and workplace preferences, technology, and urbanization. Although the shift began before the Great Recession, it has gained substantial traction following the downturn as more cities seek to gain an edge by positioning themselves as vibrant, energetic places to live and work that provide amenities appealing to different generations.
This people-first approach to city creation involves an emphasis on building for health and wellness, a trend ULI is continuing to track through its Building Healthy Places initiative. (A digital version of our Building Healthy Places Toolkit, bhptoolkit.uli.org, debuted at the Spring Meeting). As this movement gains momentum, we are seeing a link between building for health and building for resilience—that as cities become more livable, they become more resilient, not just to economic cycles, but to natural disasters as well. The social cohesion that comes with a high quality of life is a powerful catalyst for the investment needed to grow during good times and recover during the bad.
This urban evolution holds much promise, provided that what is being done to enhance livability is available to all residents. However, two new ULI reports suggest this is not the case, at least not in the United States. America in 2015 finds that the community attributes most valued by Americans— including safe places for outdoor physical activity, access to biking and walking trails, and healthy food options—tend to be less available to millennials than to generation X, baby boomers, or the silent generation. Gen Y and Housing: What They Want and Where They Want It finds that most millennials are not living the high life in the downtowns of large cities, but rather are living in less centrally located but more affordable neighborhoods, making ends meet with jobs for which many feel overqualified and living with parents or roommates to save money.
Both reports serve as an important wakeup call about who is—or is not—benefiting from this heightened focus on community livability. Contrary to the widely held assumption that most millennials are living comfortably with easy access to urban amenities, the reality is that more of them are not than are. They cannot afford to do so.
Millennials make up the largest, most diverse generation in U.S. history. Numbering more than 80 million, they are entering the housing and jobs market in force, and how and where they live— whether by necessity or choice—will be enormously influential in how urban areas grow in the 21st century. As cities seek to expand their economic base, increase their multigenerational appeal, and improve their global competitiveness, they must consider how declining housing affordability is affecting the higher quality of life they seek to provide for all residents, including those in this powerful demographic.
More than any generation before them, millennials are steadfast in their preferences to live in neighborhoods with urban characteristics, such as a high degree of walkability, transportation alternatives, and easy access to shopping, entertainment, and places to hang out. The progress cities are making to become more livable will be limited if it results in places that price out the key group they are trying to attract as residents, workers, and community stakeholders.
To keep the momentum going, affordability must be factored in as a key part of livability. This means placing as much emphasis on providing housing for a mix of incomes and generations as is placed on measures to reduce dependence on cars and become more pedestrian friendly. While we have made significant improvements in the quality of life in our urban areas, we can do better. Social equity plays an important role as a determinant of a community’s overall prosperity. Making communities more affordable will make them more inclusive, and ultimately more successful.