Recent events in the Arab States, Turkey, Brazil, India, Romania, and other parts of the world reveal that there is a distinct lack of dialogue between established government institutions and the young populace, especially when it comes to issues around governance, representation, and the environment. Their newly discovered voice has taken leaders by surprise and raises questions on the applicability of old-style policy and decision-making processes. Tomorrow’s cities will be driven by the energy of the millennials; a generation with different expectations and values than the one currently governing our cities and urban centers. Most important of all, these millenials will enjoy the advantage of unprecedented access to technology and the internet, which completely changes the way they perceive and approach communication and engagement. Urbego believes that civic, political, and economic participation of this generation is crucial to address the challenges of our urban future.

Urbego asks:
What can cities do to encourage young people to act as catalysts for urban change?

Ramon Marrades answers:
According to forecasts, the current generation of young European adults will be the first to earn less than their parents on average. Yet while that may be true from a purely financial perspective, consumption patterns as well as the sheer richness of intangible benefits undermine this assertion.

These millennials are also the ever first generation to pursue – and achieve – a decent standard of living with middling, or even low incomes. Our way of life is characterized by the consumption of cultural and tech goods, temporary stints abroad, and a diverse and multicultural personal and professional life. A lifestyle that is ultimately based on three pillars: mobility, self-actualization, and flexibility.

This can be achieved on a modest budget thanks to the resurgence of non-material or non-consumptive leisure activities, lowered prices of some goods (clothes, tech, and airline tickets), and – most of all – due to the removal of some bigger ticket items from the equation that used to be purchased by young families: buying a car and home. Our relatively insecure financial situation prevents us from making such big investments, and this in turn presents us with unprecedented lifestyle options.

Most of the factors governing our goals and aspirations hinge on the availability and perception of participatory scope and space beyond the traditional framework of political involvement, including social and economic aspects.

Civic participation is encouraged by the availability of spaces, both symbolic and physical, where people can connect. Moreover, it involves taking active advantage of these connections to act or create together. Such relational spaces encourage the exchange of knowledge and ideas to foster transformation. In a way, they resemble what urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg called a ‘third place’: neutral non-specialized spaces beyond homes or offices that level the playing field of backgrounds and interests. Examples include your local post office, busy streets, beer gardens, or any other location where the community comes together. Here, conversation is one of the main activities and the mood is playful; these places are easily accessible, cost-effective, and home to a number of regulars who help to shape their tone and flavor. As hubs of a highly mobile generation that alternates self-employment with project-based jobs and encourages frequent overlaps of private and professional spheres, these spaces serve as intersections where vital networking takes place. Civic participation is intrinsically linked to creativity as long as it involves rethinking, transforming, and using vacant and obsolete spaces (from idle offices to empty parking lots) or improving traditional public space via new uses and activities.

For young urban dwellers ‘using the city’ remains the most powerful tool of public participation. Our generation wants to start new businesses, attend postgraduate colleges, develop ideas, and find job opportunities; at the same time, urban improvement is not only about facilitating encounters, but also about where to locate projects, studios, and offices. Affordable commercial space and empty industrial real estate (from Berlin to Belgrade) encourages economic participation when transformed and used for new economic activities.

Economic participation can also be boosted through appropriate business regulations – the easier to do business the better – and by fostering investments in the market sectors where businesses and initiatives are led by the young, from culture to technology. Take access to big cultural venues like museums or music halls: This is an important indicator of economic participation as it reflects a society that is forward-looking. Economic participation helps to create vibrant cities and anchors business in the community.

The factors described above are closely entwined with urban mobility, the housing market, and local climate. A good public transport system and good bike facilities are essential to a generation that does not buy many cars. A bustling and affordable rental market affects the choice of locations. And finally: A pleasant climate improves the likelihood of public space utilization and affects our quality of life.

Generally, an attractive city for young adults is a city that allows things to happen: This requires affordable space to meet, live, do business, and have fun (cheap beer and food always helps!).

All photos, incl. the header image, by Andrea Serra