Reopening and repopulating public spaces during and after COVID-19 might provide difficult:
Yet can you reopen a society — particularly a republic built on openness and public interaction — without its physical institutions at full capacity, without public spaces available for congregation?…
Something else unites these places. In each, the woman on the next bench, the man ahead in the checkout line, the family down the pew are suddenly potential vectors — or potential victims. So we’re assessing the public realm in the way we assess a salad bar when we walk into a restaurant…
“Democracy depends to a surprising extent on the availability of physical, public space, even in our allegedly digital world,” John R. Parkinson writes in “Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance.”…
“How do you define the ‘public realm’ when an enormous percentage of the American public spends the majority of its day in its pajamas?” Stilgoe says.
This piece raises great questions for a COVID-19 world. The emphasis on how architecture and design shapes public behavior as well as how others in those spaces can be trusted or not is right on. At the same time, there are several elements I would add to this analysis:
1. The definitions of “institution” and “spaces” are pretty broad. Some of the listed locations, like shopping malls, colleges, and grocery stores, are not public spaces. They are owned by private groups that can and do dictate how the space can be used. Some of the other locations, like parks and squares, are public spaces. Government buildings are generally more open to all. Americans privilege private space even though we need some of the private spaces – grocery stores, workplaces – to survive. But, the same rules or expectations do not apply in each of these spaces. We saw this in the Occupy Wall Street protests where gatherings in what looked like public spaces could be ended when they spaces were actually owned by private groups or the government pushed people out. We actually do not have that many public spaces where people regularly gather; many of our “public spaces” are actually privately owned and this matters. The private public spaces require both private groups and the public to cooperate – and they may not always do so.
2. Even before COVID-19, it is not clear that many Americans value public spaces or use them regularly. As noted in #1, Americans like their private spaces. Homes may be less attractive when you are trapped in them but we have a society where success is owning your own suburban single-family home. Add to this declining trust in numerous institutions and it may be hard to make the case that we should put more resources and effort into creating and maintaining public spaces.
3. More broadly, many would argue a thriving society and democracy depends on regular interaction between people. And face-to-face interaction provides benefits that online communication does not regarding communicating clearly and building relationships. Yet, again, this has been on a decline for a while now. Twitter is not a good approximation of public conversation nor a good medium (at least as currently constructed or experienced) for public conversation. Telecommuting may provide efficiencies and allow people more private lives but something will be lost. See my earlier thoughts on sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People where he takes up these issues (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four).
Americans generally like private single-family homes but are the homes Americans have now designed well for confinement and sheltering in place?
Homes, whatever their size or their layout, are constructed to be part of an ecosystem. They make assumptions about the way their eventual residents will interact with the affordances, and the economies, of the outside world. They assume, generally speaking, that people will commute to work (hence, in suburbs and rural areas, the abundance of driveways and garages). They assume that people will live much of their life outside the home. And they assume that the home’s residents will, as a consequence, have access to goods produced elsewhere: groceries, games, cleaning supplies. (American refrigerators are the size they are because their designers made informed bets about how often their owners would visit a grocery store.)
Apartments in cities make similar assumptions, but in reverse: They assume that the city itself is a meaningful extension of whatever square footage a dwelling might offer. They treat the home as what it often will be, for the resident: one place among many in the rhythms of a day…
Neither scenario accounts for what many Americans are experiencing right now: home as the only place. Home as the everything. The confinement can pose, for some, a direct danger. Jacoba Urist, writing about the “tiny apartment” trend in 2013, noted that large amounts of time spent in enclosed spaces, particularly if those spaces have several occupants, can be a source of stress—especially for kids. A child-protective-services worker recently sent ProPublica a list of worries she has about the people in her care: “that my families will literally run out of food, formula, diapers. That some of them may die for lack of treatment. That some children may be injured or harmed through inadequate supervision as their desperate parents try to work. That stress may lead to more child abuse.” Gwyn Kaitis, the policy coordinator for the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, noted in the same piece that “violence increases when you have circumstances such as unemployment and isolation.”…
“In general, it’s wonderful,” Susanka said of the open-concept approach to living spaces. “But when it’s done to an extreme, it makes it very difficult to live in the house, because your noise, whatever you’re doing, goes everywhere.” When the home involves kids, that borderlessness becomes even more acute. A child might need to be entertained or fed while her mom is on a conference call. An older sibling might be playing video games or watching a movie while her dad is trying to cook dinner. Another sibling might need a retreat from his co-quarantiners, and have no place to go. In an open space, one person’s activity becomes every person’s activity. Alone together, all the time: For many, that is the current state of things. The “See Also” section of Wikipedia’s “open plan” article cites only one related page: “panopticon.”
There is a lot to think through here. A few thoughts on what this might mean for homes in the future:
- I have seen the suggestion from a few places that more Americans will seek out homes in the future that have dedicated office spaces at home. Without a room that can be closed off and relatively quiet, it can be hard to work from home when everyone else is also home.
- Will this push more Americans to seek out more square footage in their dwellings? The argument can go like this: you never know when you might need that extra space (such as during a pandemic). An extra room or two could be converted to office space or classroom space or food/toilet paper storage when residents need to stock up. Additionally, does this experience limit how many people will be willing to bet on a tiny house?
- A push toward further integration of technology into houses. If people are working from home and spending all of their time there, imagine dwellings with screens and speakers in every space, effective wi-fi everywhere, and both ample space for sitting and standing (with the need to stand and work to vary it up and move around). Carrying a laptop, a tablet, or a phone around to every interior space may not cut it.
- Earlier evidence suggested people congregate around the kitchen while other parts of the house go relatively unused. The kitchen might still be a gathering space but perhaps more attention and innovation will come to other spaces that in earlier times would be relatively ignored. When a bedroom has to serve more purposes, perhaps this means there will be different furniture or amenities there.
The 2000 book Suburban Nation is a New Urbanist declaration. It includes this argument regarding the public and private realms in the United States:
Americans may have the finest private realm in the developed world, but our public realm is brutal. (41)
This comes amidst a discussion of the suburban single-family home, one of the most attractive features of suburbia for Americans. American homes are large, providing plenty of space for occupants, a range of activities, and vehicles. They can be filled with all sorts of consumer goods, from electronics to clothes to media to equipment for hobbies. Through the Internet and other connected devices, occupants can access all sorts of information, videos, music, and other parts of the world. The homes can be the single largest investment for many. They are often separated from other dwellings (or at most share a wall or two). For decades, Americans have promoted, built, and purchased such homes.
All of this may be good for many Americans but what do these private realms feel like when the occupants cannot leave? It is one thing to choose these private spaces; it is another to be pushed by outside forces to stay in them. With the spread of COVID-19, people are being encouraged to stay home. Does “the finest private realm” become confining when one cannot easily leave?
We are about to find out. Even if Americans might prefer their private realms, some might miss the public realm or the easy opportunities to visit other private realms (such as stores and shopping malls). This may not lead to a revival of public spaces but it might remind some homeowners that the private realm has limitations.
Watching reactions to the coronavirus in recent weeks presents a paradox connected to American social life and addressing contagious diseases: the country has pushed sprawl and private homes for decades and public life and community life is said to be in decline; yet, there are numerous spaces, public and private, where Americans regularly come together. And under the threat of disease, shutting down locations and/or quarantining large numbers of people would change social life dramatically even in an individualized, spread out society.
A few examples illustrate this well. One essential private space is the grocery store. Even in the age of the Internet deliveries and eating out, many Americans need to acquire food and other supplies for daily life. The experience of going to Walmart or another grocery chain is not necessarily a public experience – direct interaction with people there is likely limited – but the number of people who can cycle through a major store on a daily basis is high. Another semi-private space is churches. By choice, Americans attend religious services at a higher rate than most industrialized countries. Once there is a congregation of one hundred people or more, this brings together people who participate in a wide range of activities and go to a wide number of places.
An example of public spaces that would change dramatically are mass transit lines and transportation hubs. In a country where relatively few people take mass transit on a daily basis, there are a good number of Americans dependent on buses, trains, and subways and people who use multiple forms on a regular basis. Plus, the United States has relatively busy airports. A second example involves schools. Americans tend to think education is the secret to success and getting ahead and students from preschool to post-graduate settings gather in buildings to attend class and do related activities. For these students, school is about learning and social life, classrooms and lunchrooms, eating areas, and play or recreation areas. Schools and colleges can draw people from a broad set of backgrounds and locations.
Our public life may not be at the same level as it is in Italy; instead of sidewalk cafes, Americans can go through the drive-through of Starbucks. Perhaps this means it will be relatively easy for some Americans to quarantine or keep their social distance: many live in their private homes and have limited social interactions anyhow. At the same time, significant public health measures would change social life in ways that are noticeable and that some might miss. Indeed, could a national reminder of the social ties Americans do have lead to a revival in social interactions in times of more stability?
The geographic and social distancing of home and work is a feature of modern, urbanized society. And it even matters when working from home:
Where you actually set up shop is entirely up to you. Maybe you have a dedicated office space with a desktop and a view. Sounds nice. If you don’t, that’s also fine; I usually work on my laptop at a kitchen counter. The point here is to clearly define the part of your house where work happens. That makes it more likely that you’ll actually get things done when you’re there, but just as importantly might help you disconnect when you’re not. Remember that when you work from home you’re always at home—but you’re also always at work. At all costs, you should avoid turning your entire house or apartment into an amorphous space where you’re always on the clock but also kind of not. It’s no way to live. (Full-time remote workers take note: You can also write off a few hundred square feet of in-home office space on your tax return.)…
Every few days I spend at least a few hours at a coffee shop. It’s a change of scenery, a good excuse to get some fresh air, and provides a tiny bit of human interaction that Slack conversations and Zoom meetings do not. Should that no longer be feasible for coronavirus reasons, at the very least see if you can walk around the block a couple of times a day. There’s no water cooler when you work from home, no snack table, no meetings down the block. It’s easy to stay locked in position all day. Don’t do it! Sitting is terrible for your health, and mind-numbing when you’re staring at the same wall or window all day…
I think what I miss the most about working in an office is the commute (I realize this may sound unhinged). Yes, traffic is terrible and subways are crowded and the weather is unpredictable. But it seems nice to have a clear separation between when you’re at work and when you’re not, and some time to decompress in between. That doesn’t exist when you work from home. It’s all on the same continuum.
I don’t have a great solution for this. Quitting out of Slack—or whatever your workplace uses—is probably a good start. People are less likely to ping you if your circle’s not green. Or maybe find a gym class or extracurricular that you have to leave the house for at a certain time every day and let that be your stopping point? In some ways it’s like figuring out how to ditch your shadow.
These tips hint at problems connected to the home-work divide Americans regularly encounter. A few examples from the paragraphs above:
- Creating a clear boundary between home and work is often seen as desirable or needed. This is harder to do when the same physical spaces do double duty.
- The need for interaction with coworkers or others is hard when working from home or even just with a clear work-home divide. There is a need for third places (and the coffee shop suggestion is a common, if problematic, solution). And with declining community life elsewhere, feeling disconnected from work might be a big loss.
- The Internet and other means that make it easier to connect to work or other workers from afar also threatens to pull people into never-ending work.
- Physical spaces actually matter for productivity, social interaction, and well-being. Simply being untethered from an office and the spaces there does not automatically lead to better outcomes. Single-family homes (or apartments, condos, townhomes, etc.) in the United States often emphasize private family space which may or may not be conducive to the kinds of work people do today.
All together, I am not convinced that people working from home or away from the office solves many of the problem of contemporary work places and social life. There are deeper issues at stake including how we design places (within buildings and across land uses), how we think about home and work (and additional places), and community and social life and what we desire for them to be.
More communities are putting together networks of cameras that show what is happening in public spaces. Some of this comes at the municipal level, often in the name of preventing or solving crimes, and is increasing happening at the private level as homeowners add cameras to monitor around their home.
If people are concerned about the rise of cameras and analysis (particularly through algorithms and predictive software), will this change their behavior? The United States already has a tendency in recent decades toward private spaces. Scholars and commentators lament the decline of public spaces, the shift toward privatized settings between work and home (think Starbucks or shopping malls), and the primacy of single-family homes. Imagine a society where people are fearful of cameras and decide to curtail their public activity. A variety of technologies could help them limit the time they spend outside their residences: think working from home, grocery and food delivery, and the delivery of all sorts of goods and services to an address.
If this comes to pass, the public realm might be even more impoverished. Will the often think social life and outside activity of suburban neighborhoods continue to dry up? Where will people of different backgrounds and interests interact? What will happen to the thrill of being around crowds and dynamic activity? Would this simply lead to more suspicion and calls for even more cameras and surveillance to figure out who would be so bold to go out (or to turn the surveillance into more private spaces)?
This all may sound pretty dystopian. When I walk down the street in my neighborhood or my community (regular activities for me), I rarely think about the cameras that might be watching. I try to be observant and I do not notice too many surveillance devices. My neighbors may indeed be watching (or able to watch) but it does not feel like a threat. But, sometime soon, just the threat of being watched, let alone different actors using the video and data, may influence the feeling of community.
(Of course, it may not be the cameras that truly could limit public life. Perhaps the true threat comes from the smartphones we all carry and that track us.)
Some neighborhoods and communities are fed up with people cutting through on their streets. A Denver suburb considers putting up gates:
The town of about 800 is now proposing gates at two main entrance/exit points, blocking access during the morning and evening rush…
“The traffic has become increasingly problematic both in volume and speeding. The Town does not have sidewalks and it is dangerous for residents to walk,” said Lisa Jones, mayor of the Town of Foxfield.
While two gate locations are recommended, there are still about a half dozen other entrances to Foxfield that would not be gated. The gates will be paid for by the Town of Foxfield.
I can imagine a driving landscape in a decade or so where only certain vehicles are allowed down certain streets. Imagine a large city banning Uber and/or Lyft during certain hours of the day. A wealthy suburb restricting access to delivery trucks in the early morning. Another community not wanting commuters to go through residential neighborhoods. A neighborhood not allowing certain size vehicles (like oversized pickup trucks).
All of these might help local residents feel better but they fail to help with the bigger problem: traffic is a regional issue. Communities should be working together on these issues, not walling themselves off. Creating more private space will only serve to make the problem worse for everyone.
I am not sure who exactly would have any sway in these matters. In the case above, it sounds like other communities could lodge objections and emergency services could require that the gates allow them access. Should state transportation agencies look into this? Can a legislature suggest restrictions cannot be put on public roads? Could a coalition of local and regional governments make a pact not to do this to each other? Perhaps this is not needed yet as few communities have gone too far down this road. But, it might come sooner than we think.
Along my regular running routes in the suburb in which I reside, I have seen something interesting in several backyards: a private basketball court. Here is one of them:
I can see how these might be appealing:
1. The basketball hoop is always available for use by the people who live in the home.
2. Players do not have to go to a park or facility to play; it is convenient and easier to monitor.
3. The court can be used for other sports with a little bit of work (such as hanging a net).
4. It eliminates some grass from the backyard that would otherwise require mowing.
5. An addition like this to the lot could be viewed as good for property values in the long run.
On the other hand, this turns basketball (and other sports) into private activities. It removes the players from interactions with others in a park or more public space. It turns a leisure activity with the potential to bring people together into yet another activity Americans have taken to private spaces.
Couple the addition of private courts to backyards with a wariness about constructing basketball courts in public parks (or the addition of strange courts) and basketball – like many other sports – may be more of a private or organized activity in many suburbs rather than a spontaneous and creative activity.
Why do Americans have the largest houses in the world? A lengthy list of reasons:
- Americans like private homes. This often means they desire detached single-family homes in the suburbs. So why not have a lot of private space? Similarly, Americans place a lower priority on pleasant public spaces or spending time in public.
- The trend toward larger homes really took off in the postwar suburban era. At the time, this could be linked to growing family size with the Baby Boomer generation. (Interestingly, as household sizes decreased in recent years, homes continued to get bigger.)
- Americans like to consume. With relatively large amounts of disposable income, Americans need space to store their stuff, ranging from clothes to media to new technological devices to cars. The answer is not to get rid of stuff but rather to have a big house to store bulk goods. Garages are important parts of homes since driving is so important.
- Americans have increasingly viewed housing as an investment rather than just a place to live and enjoy. If the goal is to get a big financial windfall later in selling the home, it could pay off now to buy as much as possible.
- Compared to some countries, Americans have a lot of land to build and sprawl. Americans have also made different land use decisions to prioritize lower densities and sprawl.
- There are regional differences regarding large homes. McMansions are everywhere in the United States but more culturally acceptable in Dallas than in New York City. Many metropolitan regions have housing prices that make having a big house possible (compared to New York, San Francisco, LA, and Seattle).
- Developers and builders are less interested in constructing starter houses as there are more profits in bigger homes.
- A number of communities will only allow homes of a certain size in order to maintain their character and status.
- The government has provided funding and support for mortgages, suburbanization, and driving over the last century.
- Americans have a bigger is better mentality as well as believe that growth is good. This applies to population growth and also applies to houses.
- McMansions are popular with some but America has plenty of large homes that would not qualify as McMansions. From large urban condos and homes to large rural properties, Americans can find plenty of big homes to purchase.
- The space in homes does not have to be used to be desirable. For some owners, the space itself is just worth having.
(This post was inspired by this recent article. Also, see this earlier post “Explaining why Americans desire larger homes.”)
In a recent documentary, Michael Pollan discusses the American lawn:
“The conceit of the American suburb is that we’re all in a great park together,” Pollan says in the film. “The lawn symbolizes that continuity.” And yet, Pollan explains, despite the fact that lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country, Americans tend to avoid spending time on them.
“Pollan raises this question in the film about what our relationship with our front lawn says about our relationship with our neighbors,” Fabrizio told The Atlantic. “I find that really interesting. We don’t go out on our front lawn; we hunker down in the back where no one can see us. I wonder what that says about us and how we all get along these days.”
The lawn of the single-family American home often serves two purposes:
1. A supposed connection to nature. It is evidence that suburbanites want to be away from the city and all its pollution, concrete, and density and instead want to connect with nature. This has a long history in American suburbs dating back to the mid-1800s ideas that suburban homes should be cottages in the woods. The fact that well-manicured lawns do not occur “naturally” in nature does not matter much here.
2. The lawn is a showpiece that is intended to both enhance the impression and value of the home as well as indicate how much the property owner cars about their investment. Regular care and maintenance, usually aimed at producing a green, lush, and relatively low-cut lawn free of weeds and edged by attractive bushes and flowers, broadcasts a message about the class status of the owner.
As Pollan suggests, the front lawn is then not really for use, either by the community (like a park) or the homeowners (who would prefer to limit their outdoor activities to the more private space in back). Indeed, certain activities in the front would be quite odd, such as grilling in the front of the house or placing a swings set in the front lawn.