Skip to main content

Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham, and Allison Williams in Girls.JOJO WHILDEN

Wanting to define the millennial generation and the way those 20-year-olds are changing the face of Canada's big cities, Lisa Rochon asked the pioneering pollster Michael Adams and Environics Analytics to dig into the values of young people living in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. Here's the national exclusive on why millennial urbanites are attracted to beauty and back-lane urban grit, not the museums and wind-swept modernist plazas their baby boomer parents helped to build.

Big-city dwellers, get used to this scenario: One thousand people, mostly in their 20s, crowded in a gritty parking lot behind Honest Ed's in downtown Toronto. They were gathered to support an anti-poverty, anti-hunger fundraiser organized by the west-end community advocate The Stop and to taste culinary delights steeped in foodie irony – BBQ pig tail served from a round, pig-shaped cart and snow cones served from a mound of slowly melting dry ice. The food trucks were not your hygienic factory-made variety endorsed by the City of Toronto. They were created by Toronto's sophisticated millennials, an urban class that values cultural fusion and originality. Naturally, the Brothers Dressler had designed a sweet hybrid: a recycled wood cart supported on a bicycle-wheel chassis with offerings of "son-in-law" eggs laced with chili jam.

It's no wonder The Stop's Night Market, which sold out fast last summer, is doubling to two nights this summer. It's exactly what the millennial generation in Big City Canada craves.

Expanded sidewalks, not expanded art galleries, are what appeal to millennials and what civic leaders should be obsessing over. Art needs to come out of the neat confines of the institution and bleed into the streets so that it can be experienced like a chance operation. They're well-educated and well-travelled, so public space that hints at the low-lit night markets of Bangkok will resonate with this crowd. Want to communicate the Impressionists? Project images of Monet's Water Lilies on the sides of garbage dumpsters.

Baby boomer parents may be out in over-scaled homes in the suburbs, but their urban kids prefer smaller encounters in informal piazzas: back lanes with brick walls covered in graffiti or parking lots behind art galleries and department stores, spaces that have hosted cultural night markets behind the Winnipeg Art Gallery or down the middle of Robson Street in Vancouver, where people were inspired to lounge on a landscape of giant white bean bags by Matthew Soules Architecture.

Millennials by the numbers

Nearly two million people born between 1980 and 2000 live in Canada's major cities and inner suburbs. Many of them are still living at home. Many are new immigrants staking out new identities in the suburbs. Across Canada, there are 10-million millennials. As more of them move out of their family homes and become income earners over the next decade, their influence will be felt, especially as second-generation immigrants employ what Michael Adams calls "code-switching skills."

The work-life balance matters. More than other urbanites, millennials like to unplug from their workaday life. City planners need to protect the authentic, secret zones of the city and require intimate courtyards and back lanes accessible to all at the foot of even the most banal condominium towers. "It's not just about going away on a vacation. It could be a very short time out. They may want to head off to a tucked-away café to have a coffee, or take a stroll down Philosopher's Walk because it's beautiful," says Rupen Seoni of Environics Analytics.

In profound ways, the Millennials differ from their parents' generation. The baby boomers felt empowered strutting through Miesian towers of commerce with their monolithic, minimal plazas. In sharp contrast, the Millennial seeks out spaces with the patina of an undiscovered treasure. New York's High Line embodies the millennial zeitgeist because of its declasse past as an abandoned, elevated rail corridor in the Meatpacking District. And now the relic has enjoyed a full-blown makeover with high-design chaise longues and cherry trees as sumptuous in the spring as the stained glass coloured dark and lurid like the Hudson River and embedded, of course, into a brick warehouse wall.

Downtown is their natural environment

This generation's attachment to nature is, according to Environics' values-based data, ambivalent. So don't expect many millennials to turn up at the opening this summer of the big, flood-protected Don River Park in Toronto's east end. What would fire up their Facebook and Twitter accounts would be the much-anticipated, much-delayed reinvention of John Street in Toronto's entertainment district. The master plan by the Planning Partnership promises rolled-down curbs so that roads blur easily to become a linear plaza. Section 37 funding from surrounding developments are being set aside to remake John Street but, so far, the city refuses to fund the project directly. Based on current demographics, that's an obvious mistake that no city can afford to make – at least not if they want to seduce the young to stay.

Because the millennials are fiercely independent, they'll live alone and wait rather than start up a family the way their parents did when they were in their 20s. Living in smaller spaces is fine by them, especially if it's designed in an interesting way and uses materials that go easy on the environment. And their unit, whether it be in Leslieville, Toronto or Hillhurst, Calgary, must be surrounded by a vibrant, life-giving urbanity.

Cities with bike lanes and densely configured, well-designed housing will attract young urbanites for the long-term. It's expensive to live in Paris, but there's gold raining down on the streets: despite protests from drivers, the city of luminous light has closed large sections of its two-lane motorways that run on either side of the Seine River to create ribbons of urban beauty – even the possibility of floating botanic gardens – for pedestrians and cyclists. Cities plodding along according to post-war principles of planning that privileged roadways for cars – not people – do so at their peril.

That's a global phenomenon. "What we're seeing is a shift in the function of a road from merely a line between one destination and the next to more of a habitat for people," says Rolf Pendall, director of the Washington-based Urban Institute. "Since urban real estate is getting more expensive, having and using roads as public space with pop ups and pedestrian lounges is becoming more important. You have this smudging of the private and public realm."

More than any other urban group, millennials living in big-city downtowns are able to absorb complexity in life. They're more sexually permissive. They're believers in cultural fusion and equality of the sexes. It's only in the interest of city builders to welcome them, eyes wide open.

For more on cities with Millennial Generation appeal, follow Lisa Rochon's blog,

Monday, April 22, 5-6:30 p.m.: The Millennials in Cities: The Coming Change in Urban Demographics and Civic Values Speaker: Rolf Pendall, Director, The Urban Institute. Moderator: Lisa Rochon, Globe and Mail Architecture Critic.