The pandemic has turned things upside down. In the face of the most disruptive event of our generation, we try to imagine what and when a new equilibrium might be reached. It portends the reshaping of many aspects of our civilization going forward, potentially at a very rapid pace, similar to how disruption in the field of technology has continuously revolutionized many aspects of our daily lives. Will the disruption of the pandemic lead us to dislodge inequities, embrace healthy and sustainable lifestyles, and cause us to refocus on matters of substance?
Virtually every aspect of our lives has been impacted. There have also been demographic shifts, including an increase in urban flight to the suburbs. This has reignited the debate regarding the urban vs. suburban divide. This topic has been recirculating for at least the last century. It was only a few years ago that many real estate forums were focused on Death of the Suburbs. Large urban centers have enjoyed a renaissance over the past few decades, with a large uptick in residential construction as well as related amenities. Many urban centers have participated in this revival, and cities have experienced population growth after years of decline. The pandemic has not only put the brakes on this upswing, it may have started to reverse it. There have been many reports of individuals and corporations leaving the city in favor of less dense suburban locations. Urban Flight is a familiar pattern, but is it different this time?
As it turns out, the current trend started prior to COVID-19 and is now accelerating. In a report issued in July by Cushman & Wakefield, referred to as a “Suburban Boom,” numerous factors for this are cited. Much of the recent resurgence of interest in the suburbs has been tied to longer-term demographic trends, with millennials now purchasing their own homes and taking a more serious interest in the quality of their school district and also becoming fatigued with various challenges of urban living. At the same time, it is reported that this generation also has a very low tolerance for commute time and wants to live near their jobs, with walkability being an important criterion. Layer on the impact of the pandemic with a desire for a lower density environment to these dynamics, and suddenly the suburbs have become more attractive.
The suburbs are a multi-faceted reality, with an extremely wide range of expressions of development. There are numerous images and stereotypes as to what constitutes the suburbs, many of them derogatory. Past suburban development has been automobile-centric, consumed farmland and forests at an alarming rate, and seemed to ignore aesthetics. Much of the growth resulted in inadequate utility and road infrastructure with an accompanying lack of connectivity (think no sidewalks in residential neighborhoods!). Historically, our entrepreneurial spirit has also resisted regional planning. But, have you been to the suburbs lately? The development climate today is very different from when earlier generation suburbs were created. A significant trend is the densification and diversification of the suburbs. Walkable mixed-use communities are replacing isolated developments. Rails to trails have created an extensive network used both for recreation and commuting. The housing mix and the population are much more diverse than ever before.
Social distancing does not have to mean staying isolated in a home located in the center of a 1-acre lot. There is a way to balance density and convenience with this new era of health considerations. As this development pressure continues, there is an accompanying mandate for our public officials, the development community, and architects and planners, to embrace effective regional planning and development practices that create a sustainable future. This will not be the death of cities as it will also not be the death of the office. Adjustments will be made and we will adapt. Instead of endless sprawl, there are likely to be new walkable ring cities; smaller scale, mixed use, less dense than urban centers, with extensive outdoor public spaces. This is an opportunity to embrace the disruption and harness this wave of demand to create a new and healthier future.
Let’s get it right this time!