I’m too young to remember Field of Dreams, having been born two years after its release, which puts me in a perfect position to speak to the issue of youth exodus from New Hampshire. Part of the problem is cultural, part of it political and part of it is architectural. While these three elements are intertwined, I would like to speak mostly to the architectural because it is maybe the least considered piece of this discussion.
What do millennials want? This question is oftentimes phrased in a derogatory manner. We’re too obsessed with the latest tech gadgets, we want “handouts” and we’re too “sensitive.” Rather, our aspirations are as disparate as they are similar. I will not pretend to be a voice for my generation when one of our greatest strengths is our eagerness to talk about identity (race, gender, sexuality, class, etc.). I think the real answers to the question of what millennials want is much more universal than the critics’ claims: we want access to culture, a vibrant and diverse sense of community, meaningful jobs and affordable housing. This is not to say that we are exactly the same as the Boomers or Gen X; there is a reason that automobile manufacturers are in a panic over our stubbornly walkable lifestyles. One major difference that has design ramifications is our shifting social structures which are less immediately dependent on forging a nuclear family after college. We are getting engaged later, staying engaged longer and don’t necessarily hate the idea of living with roommates through our 30s. When/if we do settle down, we don’t always want standalone homes with white picket fences.
I think our housing stock needs to get leaner and meaner which requires a shift in the way we think about zoning and scale. Micro-housing is a trend that is catching on because it can efficiently and even beautifully shelter people who want to live where they work without having to make six figures. In my opinion, we need to explore alternative models as well: cohousing provides a start. The principle behind cohousing is that private home ownership does not require families to live cloistered lives; communal facilities are created through shared resources where it makes sense. Playgrounds, common houses, shared laundry facilities and childcare centers enrich the public life of the community. While there might be oodles of rad full-on communes/housing collectives in places like Oakland, cohousing could provide a model for affordable, urban apartment buildings with a fulfilling public life in New Hampshire. Think dorm life with more privacy and less cheap beer. For a model like this to become competitive, there has to be a conscious political will to commit portions of our downtown cities to something other than hotels/convention centers and luxury condominiums. Some of this won’t even require new construction; we can think about subdividing the existing housing stock and allowing for secondary suites on lots with existing single family homes.
With greater density comes greater potential for connections to the outside world. From what I’ve read, rail-based mass transit really only makes sense once a certain density is reached: 30 dwelling units/acre according to Vishan Chakrabarti in his excellent book A Country of Cities. Chakrabarti argues that if we want economic success and environmental responsibility in the 21st century, we need to consciously urbanize. No, this does not mean I think we need to become a dystopian postindustrial wasteland where everything is inhumanly gigantic and gray. It means I think we need to responsibly foster the growth of the small cities that we know and love in the Granite State: Nashua, Manchester, Concord, Rochester, Dover and Portsmouth. Among other things, greater density would allow for more investment to transform cities into truly walkable, pleasant and green places to be.
In my opinion, if New Hampshire wants to forge a more diverse and creative economy in the 21st century and avoid a demographic crisis, the state needs to listen to the voices of young people and follow through with making our lifestyles possible. To me, this means access to housing in vibrant urban communities and cheap public transportation to connect with the rest of the world. And yes, something must also be done about the lack of decent Sunday brunch and bottomless mimosa combos in our great state.