"[a] further consequence is that two generations have grown up and matured in America without experiencing what it is like to live in a human habitat of quality. We have lost so much culture in the sense of how to build things well. ..."Although this statement might have been true enough at the time of the book's publication in 1993, since then there have been several changes in the experiences of Generation Y. One of the most notable of these has been a dramatic increase in participation in study abroad programs, almost all of them located in countries and cities where students have firsthand exposure to a car-free life in traditional urban environments.
In the 1993-1994 academic year, only 76,302 American students studied abroad, a number that had climbed only slightly since the mid-1980s. By 2008-2009, the number had risen to 260,327, with the result that somewhere around 2,000,000 members of the age group currently in their early 20s to early 30s have spent a substantial amount of time living abroad, most frequently in countries such as Britain, France, Spain, Italy and China. Many thousands more leave for work or travel. This is still only a fraction of all Americans in that age bracket, but the number is no longer insignificant and continues to rise.
Mirroring this trend is the widely-reported movement of young people to urban areas in the United States, which many (other than Joel Kotkin) have taken to represent a generational shift. A semester's experience in Barcelona, Tokyo or Buenos Aires helps make the transition a natural one.
The greatest exposure to something resembling a traditional urban environment is much closer to home, however. The American college campus itself remains a rare example of a community type where an attentiveness to aesthetics and something resembling formal urban design has persisted without interruption, due in large part to the fact that, except in the case of some commuter campuses, the environment is designed to favor users who will be getting around by foot or bicycle. The notion that college students are entitled to super-convenient car access, steps from the dormitory, in most places has simply not caught on.
Although the stereotypical American campus with grassy quad and red brick buildings scattered among winding footpaths owes much more to English pastoralism and the design of places like Oxford than to the dense urbanism of, say, the University of Bologna, the campus environment has remained a walkable one, if not entirely car-free, both in urban and rural settings.
As an example, Dartmouth College, located in a small town of around 6,000 non-student residents with an overall density of only 229 people per square mile, has a population density of roughly 3,500 per square mile within the inner green circle shown below, representing a the area within a five-minute walk of the center of campus (the outer circle shows a 10-minute walk):
Although this density is generally associated with suburban areas, an almost complete reliance on foot and bicycle travel means that there is a steady volume of walkers and bikers on paths and sidewalks. Students are allowed to bring cars onto campus, but they must be stored at a single lot, visible in the upper right hand corner of the image, that is beyond a ten-minute walk from the center. This insures that the only car trips taken will be those for which a car is absolutely necessary – generally weekend excursions or shopping trips to nearby towns.
Strangely, the significance of this arrangement, in terms of quality of life it offers, seems to escape many students. Speaking recently with a friend who now swears by his car, I asked whether he'd had one during his undergraduate years. No, he said, only access to his friend's. Did he ever use that one? Less than once a month, for shopping runs. Was there any inconvenience from all this? No – quality of life was outstanding, better than he had now. And yet, he'd hardly given a thought to the fact that he, who couldn't imagine being without his car, had lived an essentially car-free life for four full years. The design of the campus was so self evidently well suited to walking that, as with many others, it simply hadn't crossed his mind.
Colleges, despite being lately infatuated with "sustainability," do not typically praise the virtues of this lifestyle in their promotional materials, websites critique schools for inconvenient parking, and campus design remains driven by administration planning officials rather than an Oregon Experiment approach, so it's perhaps not all that surprising that few students dwell on this subject and its implications.
Now, if a college campus seems an unrealistic model for urban planning or even urban inspiration, recall that, from Nathan Lewis' studies of Tokyo suburbs, within the smaller green circle above it is possible to accommodate over 25,000 people entirely in single-family detached homes, a number which can support mass transit. Attach houses together and the number could rise to 35,000 or 40,000. Attention to design, to attractive architecture and to public spaces does the rest. Banishing cars to peripheral lots is a technique which has been successfully implemented in some places, such as Vauban, outside Freiburg, but which is for the most part untested in the United States – outside a few colleges and universities, where it appears to work effectively and without controversy.
Overall, the notion that American youth do not have exposure to traditional or car-free living environments seems to run counter to the evidence, regardless of whether students are consciously aware of this fact or not. Whether this will lead to substantial changes in how the Americans think about density, walkability and the urban environment still remains to be seen.