The difficulties for public institutions and spaces after COVID-19

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).

The factors leading to the states with the largest homes

New American single-family homes are the largest in the world. Here is how they rank in size by state, starting with the largest:

Utah has the highest average home size in the United States, at 2,305 square feet. Utah also boasts a whopping median of four bedrooms for the typical real estate listing. Despite the impressive average home size, the median home price in the state is a reasonable $219,900…

Near the top of the crop, Colorado has an average house size of 2,126 square feet, among the largest in the nation. From 1910 to 2020, the size of the average home in Colorado grew 67 percent. Several factors have contributed to the trend toward bigger homes across the nation, the foremost of which may be 20th century government policies that fueled the growth of suburbs…

The average home size in Wyoming is 2,052 square feet, the third largest average in the nation. The ample home sizes may well have something to do with the fact that Wyoming is the least populated state in the nation, which gives people plenty of room to spread out. As in most states, however, the median number of bedrooms is three…

The median size for homes within Bozeman city limits is about 1,790 square feet, just a bit over the national average, and a typical home includes three bedrooms and 2.5 baths. The statewide average, however, is much larger, reaching 2,040 square feet, which means Montana comes in fourth in home size among U.S. states. The median price for a Montana home is around $250,000.

Based on the rankings here and the states at the top, here are factors that likely influence home size across states:

1. The era of development. States in the West and Sunbelt have more recent development compared to the Northeast and Midwest.

2. Prices in local housing markets. People can build and buy bigger homes when prices are lower.

3. The size of land allows for bigger houses. Places with more open land for development have an edge compared to regions and communities that are already built up.

4. A local ethos that emphasizes home and lot size as opposed to other desirable traits (living in a denser neighborhood, access to mass transit and other amenities, etc.). This could come through buying preferences and local regulations.

Not surprisingly, Hawaii has the smallest homes. But, there are a bunch of states in the middle. Additionally, as is noted in the description for each state, the average home size can vary widely between contexts within states.

Recommended read: A Field Guide to American Houses

I was sad to read about the recent passing of Virginia Savage McAlester. I highly recommend the book A Field Guide to American Houses that occupied much of her attention.

There are many ways to describe McAlester. She was an author, a preservationist, an architectural historian, an activist, the founder and leader of multiple non-profits, and a loyal and dedicated daughter, sister, and mother. McAlester is perhaps best known for her monumental A Field Guide to American Houses, which, after it first appeared in 1984, did nothing less than anoint McAlester as the “Queen of Historic Preservation.” The book has topped architectural best seller lists for so long that, in 2019, Curbed called her the “most popular architecture writer in America.”…

McAlester’s book appeared at a time when, as architectural historian William Seale told the New York Times, developers charged like “wild bulls” over the city’s old neighborhoods…

McAlester set about creating such a survey. The book that emerged from her efforts is a hefty tome that has been referred to as “The Bible,” by preservationists. The Field Guide is more than a catalog of home styles and types. To write it, McAlester said she had to learn a whole new architectural vocabulary, in part because the common features of so many American homes didn’t rise into the architecture lexicon at Harvard…

For example, in a 2014 update to the Field Guide, she coined two new phrases to describe two emerging architectural styles: “21st century modern” for the sleek, angular, uncluttered structures that dominate the pages of contemporary shelter magazines; and “millennium mansions” for the thrown-up ex-urban behemoths more commonly derided as “McMansions.” For McAlester, it was important to understand the highs and lows of design because both architectural visions shape our experience and conception of American communities.

I have used this book both in scholarly projects and read it for enjoyment. I have it on the shelf in my office and occasionally will pull it down to reference some feature of homes or to look through the numerous examples McAlester provided.

A few additional thoughts on the text:

  1. The book highlights both the broad categories of homes as well as the numerous variations within each type. Based on the distinctive features of each style which the book clearly points out, you can usually easily find the broad category a home fits into. At the same time, you can also revel in the many types within each category.
  2. The numerous photographs in each style are very helpful. McAlester collected photographs from numerous locations throughout the United States. For example, the section on “millennium mansions” includes multiple photographs from Naperville, Illinois.
  3. I also appreciate the sections of the book about particular features of homes, ranging from roofs to windows to how homes are structurally supported. This book is not just about the external appearance; there are things to be learned about houses are put together.

Designing homes to be “everything all at once” for times when everyone is home all the time

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Americans like their private single-family homes – but maybe less if forced to be 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.

Paper suggesting Americans adopt sufficiency limits for the size of homes

A new study looks at what amount of space might be sufficient for American single-family homes:

Social scientists have extensively documented the strategies used over the past century to purposefully upsize the preferences of consumers in high-income countries (Collins 2000; Nickles 2002; Cohen 2003; Horowitz 2004; Clarke 2007; Jacobs 2015). These practices became increasingly prevalent during the years following World War II and have been revamped and augmented to encompass an ever-expanding array of products. The most notable example of this phenomenon – abetted by builders, architects, realtors, mortgage bankers, public-policy makers, and numerous others is housing which in particular has in the United States, Canada, and Australia approximately tripled in size in just a half-century. This process of residential upsizing is understandable as individuals and organizations were for the most part responding to prevalent social and economic incentives and investing a portion of the gains accruing from increasing productivity and rising incomes into more spacious accommodation. While the trend contributed to unambiguous improvements in standards of living, evidence is now emerging that the process of residential upsizing is not contributing to gains in “house satisfaction” (Bellet 2019).

However, the contemporary era, characterized by climate change, economic inequality, and deep social divisions, requires new priorities. Rather than looking to enlargement as a panacea for all manner of problems, the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development require high-income countries to pursue a sustainable consumption transition. The downscaling of home size, because of the substantial volumes of resources required to meet residential needs, will be a critical part of this undertaking. While the methodology to formulate a minimum social floor and a maximum biophysical ceiling is necessarily provisional, it provides a place from which to begin to consider this important issue.

And from a summary of the article:

In the U.S., average floor space per person would need to be reduced from 754 square feet to 215 square feet, which perhaps surprisingly, is roughly comparable to the amount of space available during the baby boom of the 1950s.

While Cohen acknowledges the myriad political, commercial and cultural challenges of imparting such a sufficiency ceiling on current housing practices, he highlights five examples that he asserts point to shifting sensibilities: the tiny-house movement in the United States; the niche market for substantially smaller houses and apartments in the Nordic countries; the construction of accessory dwelling units in west coast cities of North America; the growing popularity of micro-apartments in New York City and San Francisco; and the emergence of co-living/co-working facilities in Europe.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. There are a lot of factors pushing Americans toward bigger houses in recent decades. Pushing against these factors would require a lot of time and energy. For example, reducing consumption might help people think about smaller spaces.
  2. Given the local nature of building and real estate, I have a hard time imagining this happening top-down. On the other hand, I could imagine some locales adopting such guidelines and then it spreading to similar locations or even the whole country. At the least, it could be popular in expensive real estate markets – think Bay Area or Seattle – though it would be interesting to see how wealthier homeowners deal with such guidelines. Perhaps if it was instituted for a housing units going forward, there would still be a supply of big homes for those that want them.
  3. Related to #2, I would guess more Americans would be motivated to pursue smaller homes because of cost and lifestyle preferences, not because of environmentalism and realizing that single-family homes make significant contributions to carbon emissions and require a lot of resources.
  4. How much of this is dependent on building a better public realm? People might be more willing to give up private space if they saw attractive alternatives like coffee shops, libraries, and other public settings where they could live their lives. Americans do not have developed public living spaces or many do not have regular patterns of spending important hours away from their private homes.

Seeing the nuclear family in a suburban single-family home as a historical blip

David Brooks argues the idealized American family in the suburbs is a historical anomaly:

For a time, it all seemed to work. From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose, and the American nuclear family seemed to be in wonderful shape. And most people seemed prosperous and happy. In these years, a kind of cult formed around this type of family—what McCall’s, the leading women’s magazine of the day, called “togetherness.” Healthy people lived in two-parent families. In a 1957 survey, more than half of the respondents said that unmarried people were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.”

During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal. When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.

Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.

In a sweeping historical perspective, Brooks is right (nor is he the first to make this argument): the American arrangement of small nuclear families in large private homes is unusual. It is even relatively unusual among contemporary living arrangements throughout the world. Fifty years from now, will this period look even more like a historical blip?
And yet, the idea has a strong hold on American life. This particular lifestyle became a significant part of the American Dream, supported by the federal government, promoted by films and television, and defining much of popular twentieth century sprawling suburbs. To move away from this ideal will take some work, even if there are reasons pushing Americans away from this life. Brooks proposes some different alternatives, from multigenerational dwellings to cohousing, but each will take time to develop. It is hard enough to get politicians to talk about housing, let alone discuss all the social arrangements and family life attached to it.
At the least, this is a reminder of how social arrangements can come together through a  confluence of forces and come to seem like normal – until things have changed.