What redevelopment will suburbs pursue with COVID-19 induced vacancies?

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating a number of trends already troubling many communities: struggling brick-and-mortar retailers, filling vacant office and commercial properties, and budget uncertainties. What might this lead to as suburbs consider redevelopment? A few possible directions.

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  1. Desirable suburban communities – those with wealthier residents, more white-collar and professional workers, higher quality of life, and stronger economic bases – will do better at attracting and following through on redevelopment.
  2. The “easiest” answer in many suburbs might be to redevelop office or commercial properties for residential units. Given the needs for affordable housing or cheaper housing in many metropolitan areas, many suburbs could fill residential units. They may not want to for several reasons: residences do not bring in sales tax money and services are different for residences, including having more students in local schools. Plus, “affordable housing” implies certain things about the residents and the units that might not be palatable to some communities. But, if the primary goal is to put property to use, this might be the way to go.
  3. Mixed-use redevelopment that combines residential and retail or office space will continue to be attractive. However, these opportunities might be limited to already-advantages suburbs or particular properties that have certain advantages (large enough to create a self-contained community, access to highways and other transportation options, etc.).
  4. Certain properties may just present particular problems. Three come to mind quickly: shopping malls, empty big box stores, and sizable office parks or campuses. A number of communities have tried to tackle each of these (as one example among many, see this shopping mall post here) but the size of the property and their particular configuration present problems. There may a glut of new kinds of suburban properties that present their own issues: restaurants (both sit-down and fast food), strip malls, and movie theaters. Again, the ways the space was initially configured for these specific uses can make it difficult to pursue retrofitting.
  5. Converting private spaces into more public spaces. Imagine the shopping mall to public skating rink or office campus to park. These may have very positive long-term benefits including spaces for civic engagement, leisure, and interaction with nature. Yet, given the state of municipal budgets with COVID-19, it might be very hard to find money to purchase or use what was once private property.

If there are numerous vacant properties in suburban areas post-COVID-19, this will present a challenge for communities. Are there enough uses for these properties? How willing are suburbs to convert land from one use to another as they consider the “best use” for the community?

When I see “study” in a news story, I (wrongly) assume it is a peer-reviewed analysis

In the last week, I have run into two potentially interesting news stories that cite studies. Yet, when I looked into what kind of studies these were, they were not what I expected.

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First, the Chicago Tribune online headline: “Why are Chicagoans moving away during the pandemic? As study suggests outbound migration is spiking, we asked them.” The opening to the story:

Chicago’s population has been on the decline for years, with the metropolitan area suffering some of the greatest losses of any major U.S. city. But new research suggests that the pandemic might be exacerbating the exodus.

For the first time in four years, moving concierge app Updater has helped more people move out of Chicago than to it, the company said. The catch-all moving service estimates that it takes part in one-third of all U.S. moves, providing unique, real-time insight into pandemic-driven trends, said Jenna Weinerman, Updater’s vice president of marketing.

“All these macro conditions — job insecurity, remote work, people wanting to gain more space — are coming together to create these patterns,” Weinerman said.

The Chicago figures are based on approximately 39,000 moves within city limits from March 1 to Sept. 30. Compared to 2019, this year saw more moving activity in general, with an 8% jump in moves into the city — but a 19% increase in the number of people leaving.

The second article involved a study at Cafe Storage and the headline “Average Home Size in the US: New Homes Bigger than 10 Years Ago but Apartments Trail Behind” (also cited in the Chicago Tribune) From the story:

According to the latest available US Census data, the average size of single family homes built in the US was trending upwards from 2010 until 2017, when sizes hit a peak of 2,643 square feet. Since then, single family homes began decreasing in size, with homes built in 2019 averaging 2,611 square feet…

Location matters when it comes to average home size. Some urban hotspots follow the national trend, while others move in the opposite direction. Here’s how single family home and apartment sizes look in the country’s top 20 largest cities, based on Yardi Matrix, Property Shark and Point2Homes data.

As an academic, here is what I expect when I hear the word study:

  1. Peer-reviewed work published in an academic outlet.
  2. Rigorous methodology and trusted data sources.

These steps do not guarantee research free from error but it does impose standards and steps intended to reduce errors.

In both cases, this analysis does not meet those standards. Instead, they utilize more proprietary data and serve the companies or websites publicizing the findings. This does not necessarily mean the findings are untrue. It does, however, make it much more difficult for journalists or the public to know how the study was conducted, what the findings are, and what it all means.

Use of the term study is related to a larger phenomena: many organizations, businesses, and individuals have potentially interesting data to contribute to public discussions and policy making. For example, without official data about the number of people moving out of cities, we are left searching for other data sources. How reliable are they? What data is anecdotal and what can be trusted? Why don’t academics and journalists find better data?

If we use the word “study” to refer to any data analysis, we risk making it even harder for people to discern what is a trustworthy study and what is not. Call it an analysis, call it a set of findings. Make clear who conducted the research, how the analysis was conducted, and with what data. (These three steps would be good for any coverage of an academic study.) Help readers and interested parties put the findings in the context of other findings and ongoing conversations. Just do not suggest that this is a study in the same way that other analyses are studies.

American population change by the second

In searching for housing data this week, I came across a small animated widget on the Census website:

I like this presentation for three reasons.

First, a static image does not do this graphic justice. The different bars, all four of them, moved in time with the passage of time. It is one thing to read that something happens every few seconds or minutes; it is another to see it count down or up next to other markers.

Second, while a larger presentation might help display the gravity of the population changes – imagine a map filling with new people – this is a pint-sized graphic with lots of information going into it. Population losses and gains can be complicated with lots of different inputs. This graphic boils it down to three major demographic factors: births, deaths, and immigration.

Third, this highlights the large American population and its growth. Given all the social, cultural, and political issues of recent years, I have wondered what role the size of the US population plays. Addressing any major issue might be more difficult given all of the people groups and experiences, regional differences, and more.

Of course, any graphic aims to simplify and this graphic does as well. At the same time, in a world awash in information, simple yet well-design presentations can go a long way to conveying helpful information.

Online real estate shift during COVID-19 reinforces the private nature of American homes

The ways in which COVID-19 has pushed more real estate activity online – virtual tours, making offers without physically seeing a home – doubles down on the private dimensions of residences in the United States. Here is my argument:

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Already, Americans tend to see their homes as castles, refuges from the outside world, spaces where they can do what they want, settings in which they tend to their immediate family and consume a lot of media, financial investments for their future. Add this to suburbs devoted to homeownership and driving and the home is truly a private place.

The downside is this: there is often limited community and civic engagement. Neighbors get along by pleasantly or passively leaving each other alone. Private spaces are very distinct from public spaces and public spaces where a true diversity of people might actually mix, whether a shopping mall or a library, are relatively rare. Trust in institutions is low and participation in community groups has declined.

Putting homes for sale on the Internet just further reduces the community or neighborhood element of a residence. If you look at enough real estate pictures, you see some patterns: lots of interior shots but limited images of how the residence interacts with surrounding spaces or what may be just down the street. For example, you may get a shot of a backyard but it is often facing the rear of the house, not out into the neighborhood. Or, you might get a pleasant image of the downtown of a community or a local park or a common room within an apartment building without much sense of how those spaces are used.

This is similar to how HGTV often shows homes. There may be sweeping shots of a neighborhood or location but the focus is always on the single housing unit. The interior and its features are the focus. The neighborhood or surroundings do not matter unless it has to do with proximity to work or family or to note the character of surrounding buildings (which is often connected to property values and the perceived niceness of the location).

There are some tools that could help potential homebuyers check out the neighborhood and community. A virtual house tour could be followed by a Google Street View drive through the nearby blocks. Instead of just relying on walkability and school scores on real estate websites, a potential buyer could go to local websites or message boards to try to get a sense of community life. Yet, any of these Internet attempts pale to talking to people in the community and experiencing the surrounding area. People should make some efforts to get to know their community before they consider moving there.

Seeing homes and residences as commodities that can be evaluated solely through the Internet downplays civic life or at least pushes it into the background. Divorcing a home from its surroundings can be done but it is impoverishing in the long run for property owners and communities. When we emerge from a COVID-19 pandemic, I hope the online aspect of real estate does not hamper efforts to rebuild community and social life when such work is sorely needed.

So you want to live in an affordable big city – that is a suburb

Looking to live a big suburb that is affordable? Zillow and Yelp have you covered:

https://www.zillow.com/research/zillow-yelp-suburbs-cities-2020-28058/

Increased opportunities to work remotely are pushing more Americans to rethink how and where they want to live. But even if there’s less of a need to live as close to urban job centers, traditional urban amenities — think restaurants, nightlife, museums and sports venues — remain a big draw and demand for city living remains high. As a result, many buyers may seek places that balance the space and affordability of the suburbs, while still maintaining that big-city feel.

A new “Cityness Index” created by Zillow and Yelp Inc. helps identify the U.S. suburbs that best strike that balance. Key metrics include housing affordability compared to the nearest big cities and to the country at large, housing availability, the mix and diversity of businesses — including restaurants, nightlife and the arts — and consumer reviews and check-ins…

There were four individual Yelp indicators evaluated for each suburb to determine its cityness.

1. A mix of businesses similar to major cities

2. A diversity of restaurant and nightlife businesses

3. A diversity of arts businesses

4. A high level of consumer activity

This is an interesting suburban niche to highlight: communities for those who do not want to live in a big city but want more affordable housing and want to have some urban amenities. Of course, people could find this in less affordable suburbs or suburbs near the big city or other suburbs that have these more urban amenities. Is there something inherently more appealing in being in one of these big suburbs?

The reason I ask is that many Americans equate suburbs with small town life. The appeal of suburbs for Americans involves features often associated with smaller communities including lots of single-family homes (as opposed to denser concentrations of residences) and local control. Big suburbs often have a lot of jobs and can be significant jobs centers within a region. Furthermore, they could offer a mix of more dense housing as well as single-family homes. But, these big suburbs are also close in size to legitimate small big cities including Providence, Rhode Island, Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Akron, Ohio.

Perhaps if you live in a large metropolitan area, it matters less if you live in a particular suburb and more if you live near your work and desirable amenities within a certain budget. If this is the case, perhaps living in a suburb of over 150,000 people does not matter much. It is still more suburban than the big city but you are not at the edges of sprawl and the price is right.

Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

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Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.

Patterns in political yard signs

A new book by three political scientists look at how Americans have deployed and reacted to yard signs in recent election cycles:

We just started being puzzled about it. We did things like code the amount of traffic on a given street, and we thought maybe people on a street with high traffic would be more likely to put up signs. But you find out that those people wanted to let other people know where they stand- that it wasn’t just about catching the eye of passing traffic [to try to get out the vote for a candidate]. We found out that there’s a combination of expressive and communicative motives…

One of the things that was really clear from our studies is that signs are really important to people who display them. They’re emotionally invested in these dynamics and are more likely than people who don’t put up signs to say that it’s a good thing, or a reasonable thing, for neighborhoods to be doing.

I also think this is why we hear about these stories of theft and vandalism-people going to extremes around signs. At least seemingly, in news reports, it can accelerate fast, from people putting up signs to some kind of an altercation, a police report, a fight on the street. I think it’s because people view it as a real affront when someone messes with their expression of self…

You really notice, when you’re walking around, those places where signs are battling one another. But when we did spatial analysis to look at the clustering of signs systematically, in a way that would cut through those strong anecdotal impressions, we found that, really, there wasn’t much evidence of the intermingling of signs-the famous Sign Wars, where there’s a Biden sign at one house and a Trump sign next to it. Really, it was more about like-minded clustering: pockets of Biden supporters signaling to one another, pockets of Trump supporters signaling to one another. More solidarity than outright conflict.

I appreciate the systematic approach for a phenomenon that lends itself to anecdotes. This is how social science can be really helpful: many people have experiences with or have seen yard signs but unless researchers approach the issue in a rigorous way, it is hard to know what exactly is going on.

For example, I regularly walk in two different places in my suburb and I have been keeping an eye on yard signs. At least in the areas I walk, the signs are primarily in favor of one party in the national election while local election signs are more varied. Furthermore, the number of people who have signs is still pretty limited even in a heated political climate. But, just based on my walks, I do not know if what I am seeing match my suburb as a whole let alone communities across the United States. And unless I interact in some way with the people with (and without) yard signs, I have little idea of what is motivating them.

I wonder how the behavior of putting out political yard signs relates to other political behavior. If a political yard sign is expressive, how much does this carry over to other parts of life? Are these the people who are most active in local political activity? Are they the most partisan? Are they the ones always bringing up politics at family gatherings or among friends?

I would also be curious to how this relates to social class and particular neighborhoods. Lawns, in some places, are sacred: they should be green, free of weeds and leaves. Property values are important in many places. Political signs might mess up particular aesthetics or introduce the idea of conflict when suburbanites just want to leave each other alone.

Three Soc 101 concepts illustrated on Big Brother

Many television shows could (and have) been mined for sociological content. Big Brother is no different. Here are three concepts:

https://www.cbs.com/shows/big_brother/
  1. Houseguests talk about having “a social game.” This roughly means having good interactions with everyone. A more sociological term for this might be looking to accrue social capital. With so many players at the beginning, this might be hard: simply making connections, talking to a variety of people, discussing strategy, contribute positively to house life. But, this social capital can pay off as the numbers dwindle, people show their different capabilities, and the competition heats up. It could also be described as the ability to manipulate or coerce people without others hating you, particularly when it comes down to the jury selecting the winner among the final two.
  2. Connected to the importance of social capital are the numerous social networks that develop quickly and can carry players to the end. The social networks can be larger or smaller (ranging from two people up to 6 or more), some people are in multiple networks (more central) while others may be in just one or none (less central), and the ties within networks can be very strong or relatively weak. At some point in a season, the overlapping or competing networks come into conflict and houseguests have to make decisions about which network commitments to honor – or reject.
  3. There are plenty of instances where race, class, and gender and other social markers matter. A typical season has a mix of people. Relationships and alliances/networks can be built along certain lines. Competitions can highlight differences between people. The everyday interactions – or lack of interaction between certain people – can lead to harmony or tension. Some people may be more open about their backgrounds outside the house, others are quieter. With viewers selecting America’s Favorite Houseguest, there is also an opportunity to appeal to the public.

There is more that could be said here and in more depth. Indeed, a quick search of Google Scholar suggests a number of academics have studied the show. Yet, television shows are accessible to many and applying sociological concepts can be a good exercise for building up a sociological perspective. Even if the world does not operate like “Big Brother,” this does not mean that aspects of the show do not mirror social realities.

Is the definition of suburbs really in doubt or are the suburbs simply multi-dimensional?

One writer suggests the definition of suburbs is unclear because the federal government does not offer an official definition:

The term has practically been rendered a semantic argument. Some have a location-based definition: that it’s a smaller community on the outskirts of a larger city, while others define it visually, by cul-de-sacs upon cul-de-sacs of similarly developed homes. Both could be correct, since there’s no existing federal definition for suburbia.

Existing HUD definitions of American areas include “urban” and “rural,” but there is no such “suburban” category.

A 2013 Harvard University study found that there is “no consensus to what exactly constitutes a suburb.” It added that suburbs have been defined over the years by any number of metrics from physical proximity to cities, to modes of transportation, to general appearance…

The Census Bureau and HUD are currently working toward building out proper definitions and statistical areas based on 2020 census data. 

As a scholar who studies suburbs, I find this conversation a little odd. Here is why.

The Census Bureau has tracked the suburban population for decades. For example, the 2002 publication “Demographic Trends in the 20th Century” clearly shows the growth of suburban populations.

https://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/censr-4.pdf

As this table suggests, within metropolitan areas there are central cities and suburbs. The area outside central cities and with enough connections to the city and metropolitan region (as delineated by counties) counts toward the suburban population.

On the other hand, the definition of suburbs is multi-faceted and incorporates location relative to a big city and density. But, it also includes the feel and experience of an area. This is where the boundaries are more blurred; you could have neighborhoods in big cities that are full of single-family homes and lots of driving or pockets of more dense rural areas with connections to big cities. There are also a variety of suburban communities ranging from bedroom suburbs to industrial suburbs to ethnoburbs to working-class communities to edge cities and more. The kinds of suburbs might differ but there are common features of suburban life that Americans like.

Across the multiple measures noted in this story, they coalesce around a similar range of Americans living in the suburbs, whether the Census Bureau is measuring or people are self-reporting: roughly 50-55% of Americans live in suburbs.

Complex suburbia might be hard to fully encompass and it has changed over time. However, it hangs together enough to differentiate from big cities and rural areas. A new definition from the Census might help establish geographic and conceptual boundaries but these are always in flux as communities and metropolitan areas change.

Constructing a New Urbanist movie town outside of Atlanta

Going up around a one-stop movie filming and production facility outside of Atlanta is a New Urbanist community named Trilith.

Google Maps

When the British film studio company Pinewood opened a production facility outside Atlanta in 2014, it framed the venture as a one-stop-shop alternative to the mature but spatially fragmented system in Hollywood. With a high-tech media center, soundstages, offices, prop houses, and set builders all colocated, Pinewood Atlanta was a turnkey space for filming. An early relationship with Marvel Studios led to a steady stream of big-budget superhero movies such as Ant Man and Captain America: Civil War, and Pinewood Atlanta quickly became a contender in the film business.

But some of its local investors wanted it to be more than just a production facility. They wanted the entire business to have a place at the studios, with development of new shows happening where they’d eventually be filmed, and local workers able to easily commute to jobs on the site, about 20 miles south of Atlanta. So they decided to build a town…

Pinewood recently left the project, amiably, and the studio and town are now fully in the hands of local founders, who have accelerated Trilith’s development, which broke ground two years ago. Planned with New Urbanist design principles, Trilith is a dense, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use village, with a commercial town center, more than half of its area dedicated to green space and forest, and room for an eventual population of 5,000. About 500 people are currently living in the town, which is planned to have a total of 1,400 townhomes, apartments, cohousing units, and 500-square-foot “microhomes.” Housing is available to rent or buy, and Trilith’s developers say it’s luring residents from within the film industry as well as people from other walks of life…

Parker says the town was inspired by Seaside, a New Urbanist community in Florida famous for its use as the setting of The Truman Show. Trilith was designed by the Atlanta-based planning firm Lew Oliver, with homes designed and built by companies such as 1023 Construction and Brightwater Homes. Parker says the design was intended to appeal to young creatives, with an emphasis on wellness and access to the outdoors, but with the kinds of amenities people want in a town. The first of the town’s restaurants recently opened, and 11 more are in the works. A 60,000-square-foot fitness studio was recently completed, and a K-12 school is already open.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. It will be interesting to see how the relationship between the film industry and the town continues. On one hand, it could create a regular level of business and residents. On the other hand, not everyone in the community will be involved and interests could collide. Will this be like other suburbs and communities that rely heavily on one industry or sector (with both the advantages and disadvantages that come with this)?
  2. Later portions of the article discuss the diversity of residents in the community. Seaside looks good on film but has been more of a wealthy community than one that lives up to its New Urbanist principles of having mixed-income housing and residents. Will the desirability of such a community drive up housing costs? Will the connection to the film industry make it more difficult to others to move in?
  3. Does this provide a new model for numerous industries? For example, prior to COVID-19 big tech firms had constructed large, all-encompassing headquarters intended in part to help keep workers close. Or, large office buildings in central areas help consolidate workers and multiple sectors. But, perhaps this New Urbanist vision provides an alternative: more space in the suburbs, film facilities, other opportunities in the town outside of film.