Another claim that COVID-19 will push people to the suburbs

I have seen a version of this argument several times already and here is the most recent one: according to the New York Times, more New Yorkers are moving to the suburbs.

Cooped up and concerned about the post-Covid future, renters and owners are making moves to leave the city, not for short-term stays in weekend houses, as was common when the pandemic first arrived, but more permanently in the suburbs.

While some of the fresh transplants are accelerating plans that had been simmering on the back burner, others are doing what once seemed unthinkable, opting for a split-level on a cul-de-sac after decades of apartment living. Others seem to have acquired a taste for country life after sheltering with parents in places with big lawns or in log cabins.

But there’s also a sense that in today’s era of social distancing, one-person-at-a-time elevator rides to get home and looping routes to avoid passers-by on city streets has fundamentally changed New York City…

For starters, people seem to be packing their bags. Between March 15 and April 28, moves from New York to Connecticut increased 74 percent over the period a year ago, according to FlatRate Moving. Moves to New Jersey saw a 38 percent jump, while Long Island was up 48 percent.

Also, suburban towns not really known for their rental stock have had huge spikes in activity, which is being driven in part by escaping New Yorkers, according to brokers in those areas.

There is both a short-term and long-term view of this possible trend:

1. COVID-19 might lead to a sudden change in New York City and possibly other locations that are very dense (which does not necessarily apply to Los Angeles). For example, one report suggests denser cities and places with lower levels of educational attainment will struggle to recover.

2. The population of the big three cities – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – had already plateaued or started decreasing. COVID-19 may just be accelerating what was already happening.

Only time will tell which is more correct. In moments like these, it is easy to suggest cities will decline or people will have long-term fears – and I have seen these pieces as well – but Americans have preferred suburbs for decades. In the meantime, it is probably safe to say that life in cities has changed. What is often attractive in cities is the street life, the culture, the opportunities all within a short distance. COVID-19 is a unique problem in that it limits social interaction, the lifeblood of numerous city neighborhoods and gathering places. In contrast, the suburbs prize private spaces like homes and privilege driving. When people need to isolate, they are already used to it to some degree in suburbs.

A third option might end up being closer to reality: New York City, with all of its COVID-19 cases and its unique features, might suffer more from the pandemic than anywhere else in the United States. At the same time, this leading city will still have a lot going for it after COVID-19 fades and it will continue to be attractive to many.

Fitting COVID-19 into the cycles of American cities

Derek Thompson writes about how COVID-19’s effect on retail and restaurants will affect American cities:

The song of American urbanization plays on an accordion. Americans compressed themselves into urban areas in the early 20th century. By mid-century, many white families were fanning out into the suburbs. Then, in the early 21st century, young people rushed back into downtown areas. But in the past few years, American cities have begun to exhale many residents, who have moved to smaller metros and southern suburbs. As with so many other trends, the pandemic will accelerate that exodus. Empty storefronts will beget empty apartments on the floors above them.

The American cities waiting on the other side of this crisis will not be the same. They will be “safer” in almost every respect—healthier, blander, and more boring, with fewer tourists, less exciting food, and a desiccated nightlife. The urban obsession with well-being will extend from cycling and salads to mask design and social distancing. Many thousands of young people who might have giddily flocked to the most expensive downtown areas may assess the collapse in living standards and amenities and decide it’s not worth it. Census figures will show that the urban exodus went into hyperdrive in the COVID years. There will be headlines exclaiming the decline of the American city or, more punchy, “Americans to New York: ‘Drop Dead.’”

Then something interesting will happen. The accordion will constrict again and American cities will have a renaissance of affordability…

But the near death of the American city will also be its rebirth. When rents fall, mom-and-pop stores will rise again—America will need them. Immigrants will return in full force when a sensible administration recognizes that America needs them, too. Cheaper empty spaces will be incubators for stores that serve up ancient pleasures, like coffee and books, and novel combinations of health tech, fitness, and apparel. Eccentric chefs will return, and Americans will remember, if they ever forgot, the sacred joys of a private plate in a place that buzzes with strangers. From the ashes, something new will grow, and something better, too, if we build it right.

Several thoughts in response:

1. Thompson hints at one of the vital pieces that makes cities work: the density of people and activity. Restaurants and retailers are not just functional entities that provide jobs and revenue; they bring in extra people who want to visit, eat, browse, be around other people who are doing similar things. The kinds of everyday activity that make urban neighborhoods unique and attractive are difficult to maintain during COVID-19 when restrictions limit contact and social interaction.

2. After just reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities with one of my classes, I wonder: what would Jane Jacobs do in times of global pandemics?

3. Thompson describes populations moving in and out of American cities as conditions change. From a broader perspective, I am not sure I would agree with the accordion example: the longer-term trend in the United States since the early 1900s has been toward suburban growth and development. The percent of Americans living in cities has stayed relatively stable since the beginning of the postwar era while government policy, cultural ideology, and population shifts have swelled suburban populations. If American cities can gain and lose residents, it is a relatively small accordion compared to the tremendous suburban growth over the last century.

4. A problem with predicting future urban trends is that the patterns of the past may not happen again in the future. COVID-19 is the sort of event that is difficult to know the effects of, particularly years down the road. Will life return to normal or will the effects of a significant economic shutdown and shelter-in-place for many people change future behaviors? We do not know. At the same time, I do not think Thompson’s predictions are unreasonable. How exactly the affordability of land plays out could be an arduous process; land that was relatively overvalued before COVID-19 may not quickly become affordable and it may take time to clear significant debts or mortgages for numerous urban properties.

Wealthier Americans looking for homes away from urban COVID-19 cases

With the spread of COVID-19 within major metropolitan areas, particularly New York City, some residents might be looking for new homes outside the big city:

At the same time, well-off suburbs in areas like Greenwich, Connecticut, and Westchester County in New York, which had been relatively sluggish in recent years, quietly recorded strong performances in the first quarter, with few signs of slowing down…

For prospective buyers reacting specifically to the threat of coronavirus in New York City, suburban infrastructure may also hold a stronger appeal than what’s available in a typical vacation town.

“The general consensus is once this is over, you’re going to see a big surge in sales,” Mr. Pruner said. “But a lot of the traditional vacation spots may not necessarily see that. One of the issues is that they don’t necessarily have good medical facilities—even if you own a big house there, they don’t have the hospital or the resources”to go with it.

Though tastes have been trending toward smaller homes in recent years, buyers coming off the experience of their home suddenly becoming their entire family’s office, gym, school and recreation area are unsurprisingly now coming to their searches with a heightened appreciation for space, a fact that could bode well for suburban markets.

A few thoughts in response:

  1. This likely applies to a small segment of the real estate market: people with the resources and jobs to move during the COVID-19 crisis. Plus, the analysis here seems mostly geared toward higher-end homes. Could be worth keeping an eye on for the near future: how many well-off Americans make real estate decisions within the next few months?
  2. Conventional wisdom suggests potential homebuyers care about high quality school districts (for their kids’ education and the effect on property values). How many buyers going forward will also consider medical facilities? And what is the correlation between high-performing suburban school districts and nearby high-quality medical facilities?
  3. Given the moves in vacation spots – like the Hamptons or in the state of Michigan – to try to limit travel to second homes, might there be any long-lasting consequences? The influx of vacationers can already cause tensions but they can also be a very important source of business and income.
  4. The flip side of this analysis is the development of urban residences that emphasize health in different ways. It is not about providing a gym or a pool (which are not helpful during social distancing guidelines); it is about having buildings and residences with lower likelihoods of contracting illnesses. Imagine all antimicrobial resistant surfaces, units on their own air systems, separate entrances and hallways that limit contact with others, particular cleaning protocols, and other possibilities.

Publication in Soc of Religion: “Religious Freedom and Local Conflict: Religious Buildings and Zoning Issues in the New York City Region,1992-2017”

Sociology of Religion today published online my article referenced in the title to the post:

ReligiousFreedomandLocalConflictWeb

I came to this article through wanting to analyze the connection between religion and place. Having seen at least a few stories of religious zoning conflict in the Chicago area (see an earlier study here), I wondered whether these patterns held across different metropolitan regions (and all the variations that could exist there), a longer time period, and within different communities within metropolitan regions. As the abstract suggests, there are some similarities – for example, locations near residences or requests from Muslim groups receive more attention – and differences – including what religious groups are in each region (with a larger population of Orthodox Jewish residents in the New York City region).

More broadly, zoning is a powerful tool communities have. As they set their land use guidelines, they are making decisions about what they envision their community looking like. This applies both to the physical structure or spaces as well as who might reside or work in the community. Americans tend to like local government, in part because it exercises control over what might locate near their homes or residences. But, this impulse to protect homes and property values can come up against other interests a community might have, such as affordable housing or medical facilities.

Argument: New York City getting little sympathy from the rest of the country

Dahlia Lithwick compares the responses to New York City after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the spread of COVID-19 in the city:

In the hours and days after planes hijacked by terrorists slammed into the twin towers, America recalled with a ferocious tenderness how desperately it loved New York. America loved the gritty, multicultural melting pot that was New York; it loved the way New Yorkers pulled together, demonstrating heroic selflessness and service. America loved its burly firefighters and cops and rescue workers. And America loved that New York bustled on, that New York pledged to rebuild. The city and the twin towers became the national locus of grieving, sometimes in ways that elbowed out the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the other scenes of 9/11 attacks…

Fast forward to the pandemic of 2020, which has, in its earliest days at least, walloped New York harder than anyplace else in the country. As of this writing, New York City has seen more than 1,500 people dead and more than 57,000 cases diagnosed. But this time, New York City has not received an outpouring of national love and support. Instead, it has been shunned and shamed…

It was always a fairy tale, but it was surely a nice one. Columbine’s tragedy was America’s tragedy. Las Vegas happened to all of us. Parkland, Florida, was everyone’s worst national nightmare. Regional differences were downplayed so we could grieve together. But Donald Trump came along to remind us that Puerto Rico is not really America, and Detroit is not really America, and California is definitively not America. It was an easy myth to puncture, and he has deftly and rapidly ensured that no city or state will ever be America’s battered sweetheart again. We are all on our own.

New York almost makes it too easy. The city has long been associated with unbounded greed and wealth, cultural elitism, and ethnic diversity. That encompasses Ted Cruz’s sneering dog whistle about “New York values” in 2016, and Trump’s newfound loathing of the city he called home for his entire life—a city he was maligning long before the coronavirus came along. Despite the country’s love affair with New York in the wake of 9/11 or even Hurricane Sandy in 2012, it’s also always been the case that the city coexists uncomfortably with the fantasy of rugged cowboys, wide-open spaces, and manly white men dominating nature, an American story Trump and his acolytes seem to love above all things.

I would add to this in a few ways:

  1. This hints at America’s complicated relationships with big cities from the beginning of the nation. Should the United States be a rural, agrarian society or a urban, cosmopolitan one? Our “compromise” is that slightly over half of the population lives in suburbs, places that can hint at both open spaces and nature alongside easy access to urban centers and amenities. Across a range of urban crises, mobilizing American sentiment for cities and the issues facing them can be a tough sell.
  2. As noted by Lithwick, New York City, out of all the cities, is a unique case. It is the leading city in the United States in terms of population and influence. It is regularly recognized as the leading global city of the world. It is an economic, entertainment, and cultural center. Yet, it is not the capital (which gives Washington, D.C. a particular status). It is not necessarily the place many Americans would aspire to live in. It is anchored in one part of the country and associated with particular values. Across the full city (and not just focusing on lower and midtown Manhattan which tend to get an outsized amount of attention), it may be a great microcosm of the United States but there are numerous alternative visions.
  3. Lithwick highlights differences in the two cases and there are plenty to tease out. One I would say more about involves the threat – terrorism versus a pandemic – affects a relatively small number of locations versus potentially affecting everyone, respectively. In 9/11, a majority of attention could go to New York and the scale of tragedy there. With COVID-19, all American cities (and surrounding regions) are at risk. Is it possibly to rally around one city, even the leading city, when everyone is nervous and defensive? Creating enduring solidarity in this case may look less like pulling for other places and bonding around the common issue all locations face (even as this differs in magnitude).

The geographical improbability of Ferris Bueller and a limited view of Chicago

Ferris Bueller and friends see a lot of the Chicago region in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but their journey is improbable:

Chicago is a big city. Like, really, really big. The makers obviously looked at what they wanted Ferris to do and decided to leave geographic and timeline reality in the dust as Ferris and friends drove away in a red Ferrari GT California Spyder.

Case in point: Ferris begins his day on the far upper side of Chicago, in one of those fancy North Shore neighborhoods past Northwestern University. He convinces friend Cameron—who lives in a different fancy neighborhood—to borrow his dad’s Ferrari, pull the subterfuge with his girlfriend at the school and then drive into the city. The clock is already ticking!

But then! A longish discussion with the parking garage attendants. Sightseeing at the then-Sears Tower. Lunch (impersonating Sausage King Abe Froman). More sightseeing at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A Cubs game! (Games typically last 3 hours, by the way.) Then more sightseeing back downtown at the Art Institute, followed by an epic parade crash. By this time, it must be nearly midnight! But no, it’s back up to the northern suburbs (presumably during rush hour) followed by an emotional discussion about life and love with friends, a ridiculously long footrace home and… Ferris is back in his bed by the time the folks walk in. By our math, those shenanigans would’ve taken roughly, oh, two days! Or at least 26 hours.

This would not be the first time a movie took liberties with geography (see another Chicago example here). It is easy to think why a film would do this: they want to have characters move in places that are well known, they do not necessarily have to adhere to rules of space and time, and the point of this film is about teenagers having a crazy day in and around the big city.

At the same time, films (and TV shows that follow similar logics) present a distorted view of cities. I could see this working out in two ways in Ferris Bueller. First, they visit the most well-known sites of the city. These can be fun locations, full of people, recognizable around the world. Ferris and friends have fun there. But, this reinforces only certain parts of Chicago and the surrounding region, missing out on a lot of other interesting sites. Second, their visits are quick in and out trips. They drop in, see the most important parts, and leave. In other words, not only do they primarily visit tourist sites, they are the ultimate tourists: they consume and move on and then return to mundane daily life.

These issues are on top of the time and space concerns of the film. Perhaps most viewers do not care about any of these; Chicago looks like a fun place in a time when the city (and other big cities) faced major issues. But, if viewers see enough films and TV shows that do this, they take in a limited perspective of cities and urban life.

New York City, Los Angeles on different COVID-19 trajectories

To this point, COVID-19 has had different effects in the two most populous cities in the United States:

Public health officials are keeping a wary eye and warning that LA could end up being as hard hit as New York in coming weeks, in part because a planned increase in testing may uncover a dramatic surge in cases. Testing in Los Angeles County is expected to increase from 500 per day to 5,000 by the end of the week…

In both cities, schools have been canceled, many businesses shuttered and employees who can have been ordered to work from home. New York City, with roughly 8.5 million residents, had nearly 45,000 cases and at least 366 deaths as of Friday, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Los Angeles County, which contains its namesake city of 4 million people plus an additional 6 million residents, had nearly 1,500 cases and 26 deaths.

Health experts don’t know why there is such a big difference in the number of cases, but believe several things could be at play, such as urban density, differences in the use of mass transportation and slightly earlier moves by authorities to enact social distancing policies. A difference in the speed and amount of tests could also be factors, as officials warn that many people who get COVID-19 don’t necessarily have symptoms…

While a shortage of tests in California during the early weeks of the crisis is one reason for a much lower number of cases, it doesn’t alone explain the difference. New York has tested about three times as many patients, but it has 10 times as many cases as all of California.

There are a lot of possible moving parts (and combinations of these) that could explain the differences. I’m guessing there will be a lot of interesting research that comes out eventually that examines the interaction between place (and all the factors associated with that) and both the spread and consequences of COVID-19. The virus may spread to all areas eventually but the early stages suggest some differences across places.

Let’s say future research finds some differences between locations not just related to policies but to fundamental features of physical space such as density, mass transit use, and levels of social interaction. Will places be willing to change their behavior for the potential of a pandemic? In a world where locations brand themselves and look to attract residents and businesses (recent example), could traits that mean less exposure to infectious diseases represent a selling point?

One factor that I do not see mentioned in this article is the rate of travel in and out of each of these cities. Both are very important places located on coasts that experience a lot of travel in and out as well as much mobility across the region. But, does New York’s location in the the Northeast corridor matter and does New York City have significantly higher rates of global interaction and trade?

Pictures of empty urban public spaces are jarring – but cannot compare with being there and feeling the emptiness

The Associated Press ran a series of photos of empty urban public spaces around the world. They are stark photos, recognizable sites in major centers that are typically full of residents and visitors. From the end of the accompanying text:

These are places meant for people, though. And the people will — we suspect, we think, we hope — return before too long.

But when?

Yet, the photos can only reveal so much. What makes these spaces – as well as many other urban spaces around the world – unique is the mix of people, the sounds of voices, the walking paths of people among a crowd with some getting to home or work or leisure while others linger, the collective activity. Times Square can look like a spectacle even without people but it is not the same. The Eiffel Tower looms over the surrounding space but is less interesting without the people around it. The structures can still impress but they are missing something when the people are gone. These spaces and settings are what can make cities so distinctive and alluring.

And, this activity is not confined to well-known or tourist spaces. Jane Jacobs famously discussed the lively street life in Greenwich Village, New York. Many urban neighborhoods around the world have a level of pedestrian and street activity that is lively, or at least consistent. People are coming and going, there are eyes on the street, stuff is happening.

With people confined inside, that outside life – even if it is just anonymous passing by others doing their own thing – disappears. Pictures show the lack of people but cannot easily capture the lost social interaction and activity.

 

Infectious diseases in urban and suburban life

Americans already have a predilection for suburban life; might a global pandemic push even more people out of cities and to the edges of metropolitan regions? One take regarding safety in suburban life:

As maps like this show, major metropolitan areas are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 infections spreading across North America. And that makes sense: Though there’s no way to know for sure how the virus arrived, it almost certainly came by way of an international flight to a major airport (or several of them). But while infectious disease spreads faster where people are more densely clustered — hence the strategy of social distancing to contain the coronavirus — that doesn’t necessarily make suburban or rural areas safer, health experts say…

That is not to say that cities aren’t Petri dishes — they are. Relative to rural areas, urban centers do provide stronger chains of viral transmission, with higher rates of contact and larger numbers of infection-prone people. And historically, urbanites paid a price for this vulnerability…

Modern transportation networks have made the population shield that rural areas once provided much more porous. Now that humans and freight can travel from, say, Hong Kong to Los Angeles in less than 13 hours — and arrive by vehicle to somewhere sparsely populated hours after that — outbreaks can happen just about anywhere. New pathogens tend to arrive sooner in global hubs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t quickly reach rural locales and proliferate from there, says Benjamin Dalziel, a professor of mathematics at Oregon State University who studies population dynamics…

But while the CDC recommends decreasing social contact to limit the spread of the virus, that’s just as doable in a downtown apartment as a countryside manor. Says Viboud: “If you’re staying at home and limiting outside contact, you’d achieve the same purpose.”

Three thoughts come to mind:

  1. This highlights the connectedness of cities and suburbs today, even if there is significant physical distance separating communities. The rate at which people travel around the world, to other regions, and throughout regions is high compared to all of human history and is relatively easy to do. Cities and suburbs are not separate places; they are parts of interdependent regions that are highly connected to other places.
  2. Safety and health was a part of creating the suburbs in the United States but it is hard to know how this might matter in the future. Given all the reasons people now settle in the suburbs, would avoiding communicable diseases be a top factor? I would think not, particularly compared to factors like housing prices or amenities (schools, quality of life, etc.), or demographics.
  3. If particular places are not that much safer, does the sprawl of American life then limit the response to any illness? Imagine the Chicago region with dozens of hospitals that need to be equipped spread throughout the region as opposed to that same number of people packed into a smaller area where it is easier to get supplies and people to medical facilities. Or, the need to supply grocery stores throughout a huge region.

Does being named one of the unhappiest cities lead to more unhappiness in that place?

WalletHub has a new ranking of the happiest cities in the United States. Here are the top ranked and lowest ranked cities:

Fremont, Calif., took the top spot with Plano, Texas; San Jose, Calif.; Irvine, Calif., and Madison, Wis., rounding out the top five…

The unhappiest city on the list? That’d be Detroit, Mich., the report said, followed by Charleston, W. Va.; Toledo, Ohio; Huntington, W. Va., and Cleveland, Ohio.

While it is easy to get bogged down in how the rankings were made – and WalletHub describes their methodology – I have a different question this time. Not all rankings of places include the worst places or less desirable places. What is the purpose or outcome of showing all the locations?

One reason could be simply wanting to share all the data. If you calculate all the rankings, why not publish all the results? To see how the rankings worked out, people might expect to see everything. Contrast this with the approach of Money where they show the top 100 places to live. On this list, many places are left out while only the best are highlighted.

In terms of outcomes, what does this list do the cities at the bottom of the list? Three of the cities are in the Rust Belt and two others are in West Virginia which faces similar issues. I am not sure these rankings would be a surprise to the leaders of these cities but it still could be demoralizing.

Realistically, are there ways that cities toward the bottom of the list could enact changes that would significantly change the rankings over a short period? A rankings list could motivate places, leaders, and residents. Yet, it is difficult to make it up rankings list and turn around reputations that are well established.

I wonder if such lists simply serve to add to the shame or negative reputations of the places at the bottom. The data may be more complete but how does this help Detroit or the others at the bottom?