Written by Anna Waggener. Follow her at @AnnaWaggener.
Since 2008, I’ve lived in five different states—not to mention a summer spent teaching in Phuket, Thailand. My partner, a fellow millennial, has a similar experience: together our paths dot the map like the looping path of a distracted bumblebee.
The truth, though, is that we’re far from unusual. Almost 80% of millennials have moved at some point in their lives—not including moves to attend college—and more than 30% have moved at least three times (1). In a recent poll, 44% said they plan to move again within the next year (2). Many move for work; for romantic relationships; for new experiences; for lower cost of living; or for law, med, or grad school.
Mobility comes with its own set of challenges: it’s harder to develop community and put down roots, especially if you plan to move again after one or two lease renewals. The same transient lifestyle that may drive my generation to be more flexible and globally aware can also lull us into believing our footprints are only temporary wherever we go. We can see ourselves as perpetual tourists, or as strangers passing through.
Except we aren't. Strong communities rely on active citizens who think long term—about schools, infrastructure, and gentrification. Being apathetic about the civic life of a new place—or worse, making decisions based on your own short-term interests—can have a lasting negative impact on the people whose backs these places are built on. One prominent example in the national dialogue is the San Francisco Bay Area, which saw a population spike of nearly 500,000 people between 2010 and 2015 (3). This sudden growth strained its aging public transit system and sent housing prices skyrocketing. Neighborhoods rapidly gentrified, social services couldn’t keep up, and tensions continue to run high on questions of taxes and housing policy. I know: I lived there for 2.5 years during the height of the boom.
It’s easy to feel apathetic about voting when I feel like an outsider. As a near-perpetual short timer, I’ve personally struggled with wanting to side with self-interest (*cough*lower income taxes*cough*) instead of what may benefit neighborhoods I temporarily inhabit (see: a renovated community center I’ll never get to use). That doesn’t mean it’s right.
Over my multiple moves, I’ve built a repertoire of ways to settle into a new city. These help me get to know a new place, build a sense of belonging, and take ownership of my impact on my new community.
1. Tap your network
If you’re new to a place, the best way to learn about it is to talk with someone who’s lived there longer than you. Each time I move to a new place, I send an update to those who probably care about me (family, friends, former coworkers, etc.), letting them know about my move. Without fail, I get introduced to great people, many of whom are happy to meet for coffee. I’ve made wonderful friends this way, and it also gives me the chance to learn about the core issues my new community grapples with every day.
2. Explore neighborhoods—and not just ones with trendy brunch spots
I recommend picking one or two neighborhoods a month and spending a full day or weekend exploring them. Reach them by foot or public transit if at all possible: this will give you a better sense of local infrastructure. Check out local stores, including parks and places to buy groceries. Eat at local neighborhood restaurants and take the time to people watch.
3. Announce your newness
Every time you move, you enter a world that was already chugging along without you. For the most part, people love sharing small tidbits of their lives and neighborhoods. When you wander into a store and the shopkeeper says hello, take the opportunity to mention that you just moved to the area. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation for you to learn about the best bakery in town or about someone’s personal experience growing up in—or moving to—the place you now share.
4. Consume local news
Get a feel for both the successes and challenges faced by your new neighborhood or city through getting your news from local TV channels, papers, or public radio stations. Notice trends and realize that since you live there, it impacts you and people you’ll encounter every single day.
5. Learn about nearby nonprofits—and maybe volunteer
An area’s nonprofits will tell you a lot about the needs and interests of a community. Find some near you on greatnonprofits.org and learn about how they serve your community. If one resonates with you, take the time to donate or volunteer. Lower your blood pressure (4) by playing with cats, reading to kids, or building a home—and in the process become closer to your new community.
6. Be a joiner
No matter what you're interested in, finding a local group that shares your interest is a great way to meet people with similar passions. Maybe it’s a book club, pick-up soccer league, or a network for young professionals in your field. If you’re really at a loss, activities like Tea With Strangers are great avenues to meet new people who also want to meet new people.
7. Vote (You knew it was coming)
I’m a believer that the process of voting—ideally prefaced by a base level of research into candidates and issues—makes you feel more invested. It’s a fast-track way to learn about the questions occupying your community, and taking a stand on those issues forces you to get some skin in the game. You should follow your own beliefs, of course, but I also recommend talking to locals or reading opinion sections or pro/con platforms to get a more nuanced perspective on key issues, especially if you’re just getting to know a place.
For me, settling into a new city means getting to know the lay of the land, building community, and feeling the heartbeat that existed long before I arrived and that will continue after I leave. I hope these tips give you a framework for doing the same, and maybe in the process help you feel less like a houseguest in your new home.