The generation gap of development

I attended on Wednesday morning the monthly meeting of the Business, Government and Education Allliance (BGEA) committee of the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce.  The topic was the Grand Forks Blue Ribbon Commission on Housing, which meets Wednesday evening to discuss its final report.

Co-chairs Dana Sande and Mike Bergeron discussed many impediments to housing development in Grand Forks including infrastructure costs, lack of available land, and depressed salaries in the area particular within the professional occupations.  One can learn more at under the Blue Ribbon Commission on Housing category.

An exchange close to the end of the meeting struck me as interesting because it seemed to highlight what many regard as a generational divide of urban development philosophy.  One attendee, a member of the baby boom generation, expressed concerns that Grand Forks was in danger of becoming the 7th or 8th largest community in North Dakota (it is currently the 3rd most populous City in the state). Western North Dakota continues to grow from the oil boom, while Grand Forks has not seen such exponential increases.  Then, a younger group member (both for anonymity and safety concerns, I’ll put this person somewhere between the Gen-X and Millennial demographic) thought that growth in western cities such as Minot was generally unattractive and unplanned.  In short, this person did not want to experience, much less seek, what was perceived as sprawled, generic, and largely uncontrolled growth.

After the meeting, I caught a few exchanges that reinforced these competing views.  Generally, older folks, who grew up in an industrial, auto-centric era, espoused the view that growth is good.  If you’re not growing, you’re dying.  This demographic generally extolled the virtues of limited government.  But, they also held that government had a role in facilitating development when the private market had not been fully adequate.  And, they thought that the younger committee member(s) was content with remaining stagnant, and thus was not interested in change.

By contrast, younger persons were more concerned about livability issues such as commute time, infrastructure costs, and cultural and recreational opportunities.  They saw the “old” model of development as boring, ugly, and sometimes wasteful.  Younger generations generally seem more apt to support the Strong Towns view that our financial and environmental models can no longer support large-scale developments with massive infrastructure investments (read: subsidies), “McMansion”-style housing, and box-store commercial areas.

Like most issues, every situation is unique. And, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.  Typically, I caution against generalizing based on anecdotes.  this is no exception.  I am interested to see the final recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission.  And, I am especially curious to see in the coming years and decades whether or not our development patterns change with new generations taking the helm.  Will development become more “sustainable?”  Or, will these younger leaders “grow up” to take after the previous generation?