Remember the suburban voters in 2020

As COVID-19 and police brutality pushed the 2020 presidential election off the front pages for months, recent poll data suggests suburban voters are breaking one way in national polls:

And while Trump has an edge with rural voters, Biden crushes him in the suburbs – which often decide how swing states swing.

Fifty per cent of suburban registered voters told the pollster they planned to vote for Biden, while 36 per cent said they’d vote for Trump.

And in Texas metropolitan areas:

A Quinnipiac University survey released last week found Trump leading Biden by 1 point in Texas. Trump leads by 2.2 points in the RealClearPolitics average.

Texas Republicans are primarily worried about their standing in the suburbs, where women and independents have steadily gravitated away from the GOP since Trump took office.

Republican support has eroded in the areas surrounding Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, four of the nation’s largest and fastest growing metro areas. Democrats defeated longtime GOP incumbents in Houston and Dallas in 2018.

More background on trying to find a suburban “silent majority”:

The suburbs — not the red, but sparsely populated rural areas of the country most often associated with Trump — are where Trump found the majority of his support in 2016. Yet it was in the suburbs that Democrats built their House majority two years ago in a dramatic midterm repudiation of the Republican president.

Now, Trump’s approach to the violence and unrest that have gripped the nation’s big cities seems calibrated toward winning back those places, in the hopes that voters will recoil at the current images of chaos and looting — as they did in the late 1960s — and look to the White House for stability…

Five months before the general election, according to national polls, the political landscape for Trump is bleak. But there is a clear window of opportunity: Trump remains popular in rural America, and he won the suburbs by 4 percentage points in 2016 — largely on the backs of non-college-educated whites.

There are millions more potential voters where those came from — people who fit in Trump’s demographic sweet spot but did not vote. They live in rural and exurban areas, but also in working class suburbs like Macomb County, outside Detroit. They are who Republicans are referring to when they talk about a new “silent majority” — the kind of potential voters who, even if disgusted by police violence, are not joining in protest.

This probably bears repeating: the American suburbs of today are not solely populated by wealthy, white, conservative voters. This is the era of complex suburbia where different racial and ethnic groups as well as varied social classes live throughout metropolitan regions.

Relatively little media coverage has examined how COVID-19 or police brutality has affected suburbs or how suburbanites feel about all the change. While just over 50% of Americans live in suburbs, coverage emphasized urban areas. And what do suburbanites think when they see these images of urban life, policing, and protest that they may or not understand on an experiential or deeper level?

“The Great Reshuffling,” “extension cords” to suburban living

New terms are arising to describe the possibility of more people moving to the suburbs with remote work becoming more popular:

green rectangular corded machine on grey wall during daytime

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Zillow Chief Executive Rich Barton has coined the coming changes in where and how workers live their lives “the great reshuffling.” Redfin’s lead economist Taylor Marr says his company is registering stronger demand in terms of homes under contract in places like Seattle and Austin, Texas, where there has been spillover from bigger cities. These are tech hubs where a lot of remote work was already happening and they have been more insulated in terms of layoffs, he said.

Zillow’s chief economist, Svenja Gudell, says she doesn’t expect residents to cut the cord entirely from their cities, but that they may opt for an “extension cord” into the suburbs where they can get more space, more outdoor areas and, of course, a home office.

To be honest, I’m not sure I like either term that much. “The Great Reshuffling” could apply to all sorts of population changes. Suburbs as “extension cord” implies that suburbs could not exist without cities; this has some truth to it but is also open to some scholarly debate.

All of this is fairly speculative at this point. Yet, given the tendencies of Americans toward the suburbs, it may not take much to push people out of cities and to more property for their money. Cities appeal to many Americans but the suburbs are the places many default to.

It is also interesting to consider what cities might benefit the most from people fleeing high prices in particular places. If the residents of Manhattan or the Bay Area or Seattle could go anywhere, where would they go? Would other locations in those metro areas prove attractive (people get to maintain their connections, access culture and familiar places) or would they leave for cheaper housing markets, family elsewhere, or locations with other kinds of amenities (warm weather, access to nature, etc.)? The ultimate winner here might the ever-expanding Sunbelt.

Connecting urban planning and coping with COVID-19

McMansions might provide a lot of space for sheltering in space but an urban planner in Australia says neighborhoods of McMansions did not do as well during COVID-19:

bird s eye view of town

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McMansion-dwellers in suburbs far from jobs and services and uninviting to pedestrians fared badly during shutdowns, says a prominent Perth urban planner; meanwhile, residents in self-sufficient neighbourhoods with compact homes were much better equipped…

“Those in low-density neighbourhoods find it easier to stay at home, but they are forced to leave regularly in their cars for essential services and goods,” he said…

“For just $80,000, a home owner can build a 40-square-metre micro-workspace or granny flat that could assist a business to start up, or house essential workers – nurses, teachers or police – who often cannot afford to live in a McMansion,” he said…

Communities needed well-connected, shaded, pedestrian-friendly streets, front porches facilitating casual social exchanges while allowing social distancing, and walkable town centres with offices, restaurants, beach facilities and apartments.

It is interesting to compare this assessment to discussions in the United States. In places like New York City and San Francisco, journalists have reported on the move of wealthier residents away from density and to the suburbs. In these narratives, suburban homes and communities provide larger residences and more distance from others.

Yet, in the argument above, it sounds like the urban planner is arguing for New Urbanist-style suburbs as the middle ground: walkable places that offer some density and local community are better for dealing with COVID-19 that either really dense places or isolated suburban communities.

This might depend on what the highest priority is during COVID-19. If the goal is avoiding other people, public places, and mass transit all together so as not to catch the coronavirus, then neighborhoods of suburban McMansions could make sense. People today can have all sorts of goods delivered. And if suburban life is about moral minimalism, McMansions allow everyone lots of space. If the goal is to balance interacting with people and society alongside practicing social distancing, traditionally-designed suburbs could make more sense. Isolation takes a toll on people, COVID-19 or not.

Arguments like the one above are common among some urban planners, architects, and urbanists: neighborhoods full of suburban tract homes do not provide for community life and social interaction, depend on cars and limit opportunities for other forms of transportation, and waste resources. Whether COVID-19 helps advance this perspective remains to be seen.

 

When America’s unofficial third place closes 400 locations

If Starbucks is an important third place for Americans to gather and interact, what happens when the company closes 400 stores because of COVID-19 and to focus more on drive-through and carry-out business?

business cafe coffee dark

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Starbucks announced on Wednesday that it will close 400 of its roughly 10,000 locations in the U.S. and Canada over the next 18 months as the company projects to lose up to $3.2 billion in sales this quarter due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It’s not exactly a retrenchment. The company plans to end this year with 300 more stores than when it started, even accounting for the closures—but that’s half of what the chain had originally been planning. About 40 to 50 of the new locations will only offer pickup or drive-through.

Starbucks typically closes about 100 stores every year due to leases expiring and market conditions. The decision to up that number signals that Starbucks expects the recovery from the current recession to extend far into the new year. The company did not list which locations it plans to shutter, though it did say that they would be in “high-social gathering locations” like campuses and malls. Shares for the company fell by 4 percent in midday trading as the news broke. “As we navigate through the COVID-19 crisis, we are accelerating our store transformation plans to address the realities of the current situation, while still providing a safe, familiar and convenient experience for our customers,” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said in a press release.

While nearly all of the company’s cafés have reopened in limited capacities without in-store seating, the twin health and economic crises continue to discourage consumers from spending and venturing out to public spaces. The shock to Starbuck’s business model has reportedly accelerated its shift to focusing on takeaway service, which it had already been planning to do before the pandemic. In November, the company opened its first Starbucks Pickup store at Penn Plaza in New York City, where customers order and pay through their phones. While Starbucks locations have long served as a “third place” where people could meet and relax, customers in recent years have been placing more and more orders for takeout, perhaps due to the company’s recent focus on mobile ordering. The company estimates that 80 percent of its orders at company-owned stores in the U.S. are to-go. Now that the virus has made people even less likely to dawdle at cafés for an extended period of time, Starbucks expects that percentage to rise.

The new stores will emphasize the use of Starbucks’ ordering app, Uber Eats, walk-up windows, and curbside pickup to facilitate social distancing. Some store layouts will also begin including pickup counters that exclusively cater to mobile orders and food delivery services. The company hopes that large U.S. cities will eventually host a mix of cafés and pickup locations that are located within walking distance of one another in order to reduce crowding.

For a long time, the presence of a Starbucks has denoted a particular status for an area or community. Will the loss of a Starbucks or even the shift from a place one can sit and gather to one that sends food and drinks out the doors and windows harm communities?

Even without COVID-19, this hints at the limited public realm Americans have where fast-food places are some of the popular places people can or will gather. Starbucks presented this possibility though as a private business they still aim to make money and will restrict certain behavior. As the article notes, this shift may have already been underway; I noted the busy Starbucks drive-through early this year on a rare work session at a local store.

More on the wealthy leaving cities, San Francisco edition

The flight of some out of New York City amid COVID-19 has attracted attention. This may also be happening in San Francisco:

city skyline during golden hour

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Amid the depths of a global pandemic and financial downturn, the demand for real estate is unexpectedly rocketing in wealthy regions outside San Francisco, reports Bloomberg. Agents say that demand is soaring in affluent areas around the Bay Area such as Napa, Marin and further afield in Carmel, as people who have the means look to get away from the city. Meanwhile, the market in San Francisco and Alameda County is still well below where it was last year.

Elsewhere, Lake Tahoe has also seen a surge in real estate interest. The prospect of living out of the city on an alpine lake while maintaining a career is appealing for a new generation of young buyers, as many tech companies have signaled that remote work may be the new norm for a long time…

Meanwhile, the rental market in San Francisco has dropped significantly, with rates for one-bedroom apartments in the city dropping by 9.2% since June 2019, and hitting a three-year low.

However, buying a new home in an isolated haven in a nearby bucolic county is not an option for lower-income San Francisco residents, and some believe the trend is only exacerbating the wealth divide.

And, as noted in the final paragraph of the story, it is hard to know whether this is a long-term trend. But, this is one of the advantage of wealth and resources: residential options during times when many others are limited in where they can live. And this is not just limited to where they can live; it includes being able to travel back and forth easily, owning or renting multiple properties at the same time, and having all the resources for working from home.

More broadly, the evidence cited above is interesting in that people moving out of the city are not said to be moving very far. They are still within a drive of San Francisco/the Bay Area/Silicon Valley. Are people in the Bay Area more willing to stay close by or do they have to due to work (a need for at least some in the tech industry to be at meetings, see people and products, etc.)? Does this differ from New York City where many of those moving ended up in the suburbs while others left the metro region all together? Staying in driving distance changes the moving experience.

I am also imagining the possibility of a more significant migration than some wealthy people heading for the suburbs or other cool metro areas. What if Facebook said they want to get out of the petri dish of Silicon Valley, be a different kind of tech company that really wants to connect people, and picks up for Omaha or St. Louis or another smaller big city in the middle of the country? Clusters of organizations have particular synergies and efficiencies but if more workers are going to be at home, is there still the same need to locate near everyone else?

Related earlier post: the evidence for this happening in Washington D.C. may not be as strong.

Of the urban residents fleeing for suburbs, how many of them are living in dreaded McMansions?

McMansions have attracted the criticism of many (examples here and here). However, what if some of the wealthy urban dwellers fleeing COVID-19 hotspots end up in a suburban McMansion?

Wealthy New Yorkers, who once looked down on anyone quitting the vibrant city for a McMansion and manicured lawn, are doing exactly that.

Egads! The horror! Even worse, what if those urbanites in suburban McMansions decide to stay for a while and come to enjoy parts of their new suburban lives?

high angle shot of suburban neighborhood

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It is easy here to connect the critiques of McMansions to the broader concerns about suburbs expressed by numerous critics since the early twentieth century. McMansions have multiple issues of their own but suburbs are connected to conformity, ticky-tacky houses, provincialness, middle-class lifestyles, unnecessary consumption, and more. For some urbanites, the suburbs represent the opposite of dynamic, diverse, cosmopolitan, and engaging cities or urban neighborhoods.

Another way to think about this is to consider how much of city life city-dwellers pre-COVID-19 might bring to suburbs. Are the suburbs such a totalizing place that any vestiges of life in New York City disappear? And vice versa: if these residents end up back in New York City, will they bring suburban expectations and values to the city? How many McMansions are there in s the numerous single-family home neighborhoods in many American cities?

The same writer thinks the move to the suburbs is relatively short-lived as the city has many advantages:

The old trade-offs involved in moving to the exurbs or suburbs aren’t going to disappear overnight. France’s Gilets Jaunes stormed Paris precisely to protest the decaying quality of life outside cities. The typical U.S. city resident lives near almost three times as many jobs as a typical suburbanite, according to the Brookings Institution. Those jobs pay better, too, with average wages per worker in urban areas some 46% higher than lower-density suburbs. So it’s likely that making the move will mean trading subway rides for car commutes. And when journeys get longer, there’s generally less inclination to travel to enjoy the fun stuff — the so-called “friction of distance.”

And make no mistake, the fun stuff will be around as long as cities can keep attracting people, money and ideas. In the 1980s and 1990s, metropolises like London and New York reversed decades of decline by focusing on services such as finance and leisure rather than factories. While it’s true that excessive property speculation turned them into playgrounds for the rich, threatening their draw as diverse and creative melting pots, things could change for the better. The next reinvention, according to urbanism expert Laurent Chalard, will be about making cities less dense and more livable: More cycling, fewer cars, bigger homes. Outside the city, life may end up less green and less convenient.

Given the long-term preferences many Americans have for suburban life, this may continue to be a hard sell.

Adapting “What Do People Do All Day?” for COVID-19

Spotted on Facebook the other day: an alternative version of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All D Richard Scaarry’s What Do People Do All Day?

It is relatively easy to focus on the big-picture issues with COVID-19 without thinking too much about how so many daily routines have changed. Kids tend to like routine and children’s books help explain what kids and everyone else do.

Additionally, Richard Scarry’s original connected daily activities to a number of larger schemes including how people make money, various modes of travel, the construction of roads and houses, and the production of food, water, energy, and wood.

Maybe this is part of why I am a sociologist: these quotidian activities all add to something as well as reflect larger social forces at work. If culture is “patterns of meaning-making” as sociologists of culture argue, then even the mundane things are worth something. When these daily patterns change, they might signal something momentous, whether it is through personal maturation or changed life circumstances or global pandemics. Similarly, a big question coming out of COVID-19 is how much the disruptions from several months of shelter-in-place stick with people. For example, will people want to commute as much? Return to an office for work? Consume as much? And children who have new routines may carry these changes through many years and subsequent experiences.

Returning to a traffic-filled world – or moving to reduce traffic in the future

With activity picking back up, traffic and driving is trending up. Will people go back to accepting the typical commute at just over 27 minutes one way? Or, will people get behind options that might reduce traffic?

Here are a few alternatives:

  1. More working from home would reduce traffic. This seems popular and limits the need for commuting. (Bonus: no one is changing roadways like some of the below options.)
  2. Closing streets to allow more space in cities could extend further. Indeed, cities have already tried this in small doses before COVID-19.
  3. Road diets try to limit the lanes available to drivers. Fewer lanes means more congestion which could discourage driving.
  4. Continuing to close major highways in urban areas (like Seoul and Seattle) and instead devoting the land to pedestrians, bicyclists, and local users.
  5. Promoting more mass transit options and/or coverage throughout regions.
  6. Providing more opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists – or at least trying to keep them safe.
  7. Providing more housing close to jobs so that commutes do not have to be so long.

Americans like driving yet COVID-19 does provide an opportunity to rethink how much driving Americans do on a daily basis. Is this the system people want or is it more of what happened given American interests in suburbs and single-family homes?

The start to social distancing summer

As the weather warms up, people want to get back to summer activities: going to the beach, taking vacations, outdoor gatherings with family and friends, barbequing, outdoor festivals and performances, and more. How much of this is possible? A few thoughts connected to recent posts:

  1. If consumption is indeed down, this will be disastrous for many communities. Already, local finances are in trouble but without infusions of cash from tourists, many places will struggle.
  2. Americans like to drive; is the summer road trip possible in many parts of the United States?
  3. Certain outdoor activities will be okay in many places. But, this is reliant on either having large spaces where people can spread out or in private spaces with fewer people. Large beaches will be okay, smaller settings (thinking of some of Chicago’s smaller beaches) may be more problematic. Having a cookout in a backyard is fine while having a bunch of people in a confined space for a concert will cause more issues. Walking and biking are made easier with warmer weather.
  1. Does warmer weather increase sociability? This is when physical distancing might be a more appropriate term than social distancing as people seek to be outside more and inevitably interact with more people.
  2. With disparities in COVID-19 cases across locations and groups, will some groups have a more typical summer while others will face heavier restrictions?
  3. A summer without sports is hard to imagine. How will people get around this or seek alternatives?

With Memorial Day almost here, we will see what happens.

What if Americans stop buying things they do not need?

COVID-19 has helped slow retail sales and one writer suggests this could be a tipping point toward a society where fewer Americans feel the compulsion to consume:

We’re trained to buy often, buy cheap, and buy a lot. And I’m not just talking about food, which everyone has to acquire in some capacity, or clothes. I mean all the other small purchases of daily life: a new face lotion, a houseplant holder, a wine glass name trinket, an office supply organizer, a vegetable spiralizer, a cute set of hand towels, a pair of nicer sunglasses, a pair of sports sunglasses, a pair of throwaway sunglasses. The stuff, in other words, that you don’t even know that you want until it somehow finds its way to your cart at Target or T.J. Maxx.

In post–World War II America, the vast majority of things we buy are often not what we actually need. But they’re indisputably things we want: manifestations of personal and collective abundance. We buy because we’re bored, or because planned obsolescence forces us to replace items we can’t fix. We buy to accumulate objects meant to communicate our class and what sort of person we are. We buy because we want to feel something or change something, and purchasing something is the quickest way to do so. When that doesn’t work, we buy “an experience,” whether it’s a night at Color Me Mine or a weekend bachelorette trip to Nashville. We buy because, from the Great Depression onward, how we consume has become deeply intertwined with how we think of ourselves as citizens…

And yet we keep spending: As of 2018, the average household expenditure was $61,224. That’s rent and groceries, but also nonessential items: entertainment, vacation, clothes, plus all that other random stuff that ends up in your shopping cart.

That kind of spending is what our current economic model is based on: Americans of all class levels buying things and always wanting to buy more, regardless of their actual means. But when a society-throttling, economy-decimating pandemic comes along, what happens when that ability — and, just importantly, that desire — goes away? In April, retail sales fell an astonishing 16.4%, far more than the 12.3% economists had predicted. Clothing store purchases went down by 78.8%; furniture and home furnishings plummeted 58.7%. If you feel like you’re buying far less than at any point in recent history, you’re very much not alone. But will American identities and habits actually change, or will we just figure out a new and COVID-19–compatible way to consume at the same rate as before?

The argument makes some sense: many people in the United States have now had a few months where they could not consume in the same ways. And there have been plenty of people in recent decades asking Americans to slow their consumption or change their habits, ranging from sociologist Juliet Schor discussing downsizing or tiny houses or the popularity of Marie Kondo.

Yet, here are a few obstacles to a slow down in consumerism:

  1. As noted in the article, decades of messaging from politicians, advertisers, companies, and residents that consumption is good and acquiring items is a key marker of living the good life. The American Dream is partly about having a lot of stuff.
  2. The interest Americans still have in buying houses. And since the supply is not great, prices may stay high.
  3. The ever-increasing prices of new vehicles and the Americans who want to endlessly purchase pickup trucks and SUVs.
  4. New technology items will continue to emerge, particularly smartphones. But also think about new video game consoles, virtual reality units, home camera systems, electric cars, and so on.
  5. The large houses Americans have compared to the rest of the world. They need to fill all that space with something!
  6. Online ordering makes it very convenient to consume items without much effort. If retailers disappear in large numbers or shopping malls fade away (except for the wealthiest ones),

Absent many more months of staying at home or a large collapse of the American economy, it will be hard to transition away from consumption as Americans have known it to another system.