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How City Planning Can Cause Greater Generational Divides

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The holiday season is now long behind us and it may be a while before many of us get into dinner table arguments with relatives we rarely see, and whose ideas, opinions and lifestyle seem unfamiliar at best, and retrograde at worst.

An absence of multigenerational interaction may seem like a blessing to some, but it has those in city planning concerned. Just as our neighbourhoods have traditionally been segregated by race, ethnicity, income and culture, today they're also increasingly split by age.

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All across North America, there is a geography emerging of younger and older cities, with younger and older neighbourhoods. Cities with larger shares of young adults, tend to be better off economically and feature natural amenities, arts and cultural scenes, nightlife and urban cores defined by condo development.

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To attract itinerant young people, planners and developers are increasingly creating spaces custom-made to suit. It's driving a new wedge between us.

Our gut reaction is to think of this phenomenon as gentrification. But gentrification only happens when more affluent residents replace less affluent ones. That's not exactly happening with the generational split in our cities as downtowns in cities like Toronto and New York have undergone "youthification." This means an increasing spatial segregation of young adults from the rest of the population. And here's where the conflict at the holiday dinner table spills into the streets.

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The potential for conflict intensifies if someone is, or perceives it to be, systematically disadvantaged. The research on Millennials provides evidence that young adults today do indeed have lower incomes, higher debt loads, and face higher housing affordability challenges than their counterparts did 30 or 40 years ago. Young people are increasingly feeling disadvantaged, fuelling the potential for conflict among generations.

The image that is now often portrayed is one of wealthy Baby Boomers, stuck in traffic, on their way to their suburban single-family homes. The Millennials are trying not to get hit by cars as they walk, bike or take transit to work from their small downtown condo, that is if they even have a condo, or even a job. Millennials blame Boomers for taking apart the system that allowed them to excel, while Boomers argue Millennials are just not working hard enough.

While some of the hardships are certainly real, the depiction of these issues as one generation's "fault" is mostly just unhelpful stereotyping. Hardship aside, Millennials are seeing historically low interest rates, higher educational attainment, and in some instances are, or will be, on the receiving end of a transfer of home equity from their aging Boomer parents.

But like racism, sexism and classism, we should probably start adding generationalism to our list of distressing prejudices. Similar to ageism, generationalism discriminates against someone based on age or generation.

Millennials are lazy and entitled, or all Baby Boomers are wealthy -- these kinds of stereotypes mask individual differences. It might result in Millennials not getting jobs simply because they are young, Millennials not receiving housing assistance because we think they are too entitled, or it might mean less social assistance targeted at Boomers because we assume all of them area wealthy.

We can generalize but not if it results in prejudice and inequalities. The problem is that the new inner city spaces we've created arguably provide fewer opportunities to see for ourselves the challenges other generations face as young and old live in different parts of the city. Young neighborhoods in particular are remaining seemingly "forever young" as people move out when they age, and new young people move in.

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A first step that planners, city-builders and politicians can take is to consider how we can increase multigenerational contact in our cities. Integrating daycare spaces into senior homes, senior's residences near university campuses, or planning for different housing types, and owned and rental housing in the same neighbourhood are ways to start addressing this issue.

Or we can plan public spaces that aim to bring together people of all ages. For instance, why not turn some green spaces on university campuses into skateboard parks, playgrounds, lawn bowling, trendy cafés with Wi-Fi access, basketball courts, and walking trails within view from benches and picnic areas so that they become used by a broader segment of the population?

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Just like planners have advocated for the benefits of greater social mix in terms of income, social class, race and ethnicity, there is a need to think about how we can make our neighborhoods more diverse along the generational dimension.

To find out more about our research on these issues, or to contribute to our research by completing a survey, visit our website.

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