Young People and CNU

August 23, 2018

This is our eighth dispatch from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which took place in Savannah, Georgia in May. Chuck Marohn attended CNU and hosted a series of in-depth podcast conversations about some of the most pressing topics for cities today, with leaders, thinkers, and activists in a whole range of fields. Now we're bringing those podcasts to your ears throughout the summer.

In this episode, Chuck interviews four attendees of CNU who are under 30 about their motivations for being a part of the gathering, their aspirations for their communities and for their own work, and the challenges of making a difference and being taken seriously as ambitious younger people in their respective fields. The guests for this conversation are:

  • Dan Baisden, the Executive Director of Main Street Van Wert in Van Wert, Ohio. (Baisden has since taken a city planning position in nearby Fort Wayne, Indiana.)
  • Sophie Hicks, an architecture student at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario.
  • Andrew Rodriguez, a city councilman in Walnut, CA.
  • Mason Wallace, a small-scale developer in Charlotte, NC. 

Plenty of luminaries in architecture, planning, and related fields attend CNU, and there's a certain star-struck attitude that would be easy for a younger attendee beginning their career to adopt. Chuck turns that mindset on its head for the panelists, asking each of them, "Suppose I'm star-struck to meet you here. What's fresh, exciting thing you're working on that you think it's important to share with the world?"

For Baisden, this thing is Rust Belt revitalization—reimagining and repurposing places that have the excess infrastructure and capacity to take in new residents and new ideas. For Wallace, it's spreading the message of incremental change in a booming city where that approach has not been the norm. Hicks is passionate about community engagement: changing the public's perception of an area like her hometown of Windsor and what might be possible there. Rodriguez has worked to correct mistaken ideas about renters and apartment housing in his Los Angeles suburb, in order to help the city chart a more sustainable future.

When Chuck was 25, he tells the panelists, he struggled to have people take him seriously in professional settings. "You don't have grey hair," he'd be told. How do you deal with the challenge of working professionally with people a generation or two older than you?

The answer, says Rodriguez, is to work extra hard to make sure he knows what he's talking about. If you're clearly well-informed and thoughtful, people will respect that. Engaging with people on a very personal level is also important for bridging generational and other divides, says Baisden—in dealing with members of the public who are of a different generation, frame your work in terms of stories they can relate to.

Moving up in your field means being willing to be thrown into doing things that are beyond your pay grade, but not beyond your competence. You build upon what you know bit by bit, says Wallace. Over time, you form a coherent personal idea of what can and can't be done, and the ability to communicate it to others and sell them on your vision.

One thing uniting this group of young urbanists is their recognition of the importance of place. All four are deeply interested in giving back to the places that made them who they are. The conversation turns to millennial activism and how it's often misunderstood—this generation works hard to change the world, but in different ways than their predecessors may have. 

Is it natural for each generation to be frustrated by the one preceding them, and baffled by the one that follows them? Chuck poses the question. Belying the stereotype that millennials tweet about events but don't vote or get involved, Baisden says he works with many volunteers and most of them are in their 20s and 30s. Millennials are entering adulthood with a different set of challenges—student loan debt and a housing affordability crisis—but also with a set of strengths. Those who have come of age with social media are natural storytellers and brand experts, flexible and accustomed to teamwork.

How do we get this generation involved in dramatic, even revolutionary change in the way things are done in our cities and towns? How will the millennial generation push the future of the suburbs in different directions than their parents did? Listen to the podcast for these and more thoughts on the generational divide at CNU.

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