The suburbs are mistakenly having a moment as cities have become the patsy for the COVID-19 pandemic. Lazy, surface level views of the pandemic have duped cities as the enemy while some are even making major life changes as a result.
Yes, cities represent areas of greater density and population. Cities also represent commerce, economic prosperity, cultural and social wellbeing. Many, including myself, have first-hand experience of the disparity of living the suburban lifestyle. We understand the health and standards of living that are associated with living long distances between where they dwell and where they learn, work and play. As I wrote about nearly a decade ago in Quantifying the effects of suburban living, the long commutes to and from work put a toll on my family. I saw my wife and newborn daughter less every day and found myself spending far too much money on fast food and other ways to make up for lost time driving.
Understandably, the world and how we experience life will be different on the other side of the pandemic. I believe that less time will be spent in the conventional office setting with the past two decades of discussion about telecommuting will become closer to a reality. Yes, this may mean that living further from the office will become easier, but how do we maintain our social wellbeing in the mono-cultural settings of suburban development? Is living in single use, isolated places really going to make one safer from diseases, or will it actually make it worst?
In Colorado, the pandemic’s spread was not rooted in a large city. It was in fact in a ski resort. In Colorado Springs, the spread began with friendly card (Bridge) tournament. In my hometown of Grand Island, Nebraska, it was in a meat packing plant. Does this mean that we should blame skiing, playing cards or industrial businesses? Absolutely not! So why is it that we point the finger at cities and suggest that we shift our dependence even deeper to suburban living and the automobile?
The discussion shouldn’t be about cities versus suburbs. This notion is dangerous and naive as it assumes that where there is greater density, everyone just lives together, sharing bathrooms, kitchens, etc. The discussion really should be more about the concentration of people, funneled into using shared doors, buttons, keypads, etc. We need to consider scale and concentration first. We need solutions that don’t depend on shared buttons.
The City vs. Suburban narrative ignores the fact that suburban living actually concentrates the services for the suburban dwellers to mega big boxes, mega churches, mega gas stations, mega nursing homes etc. where thousands of people drive to regional commercial centers where thousands share grocery carts, gas pumps, cafeterias, offering plates, communion bread and grape juice. Cities provide smaller scale restaurants, shops, markets, churches, etc. with less concentration of users. This is where Cities and Town Planning needs to evolve. We need to design our places to be more integrated with a greater focus of more, but smaller.
This does not preclude suburban living, I believe that will always have its place in the United States, but my hope is that suburban development looks deeper into more scalable, integrated opportunities. New development will hopefully include a mixture of housing types and prices and provide opportunities for walkable, integrated restaurants, retail, schools, technological and office settings.
Let’s learn from Covid-19, because if we are naive to the fact that another coronavirus or other disease will follow in the future, we will continue to suffer economic and social hardships. Let’s take this lesson and create places that can sustain our communities.