The suburban lawn and patio as protection against COVID-19

If people gather for Thanksgiving, experts are advising they meet and eat outside. Here is one example:

How much safer is an outdoor meal than an indoor meal?

Much, much safer. Almost all transmission of this virus happens indoors.

Even if people are close together?

Eating outdoors doesn’t mean you’re invincible. Still try to stay six feet apart. If you huddle together around a cramped table and have close, face-to-face conversations with the people next to you, you could absolutely infect them.

This is time for the patio or lawn, found in millions of single-family homes and in many suburbs, to shine. The lawn does not just have to be a status symbol; it can confer health benefits by allowing people to spread out.

This is not the first time that the suburban lawn was said to boost health. In the gathering urbanization of the nineteenth century, suburban lawns provided space away from polluted and noisy cities. Listening to the radio the other day, I again heard mentioned how River Forest, Illinois was intentionally built with features meant to highlight nature.

Before COVID-19, the suburban lawn was also said to aid good health. It helps people get outside to work and move around (canceled out by the use of gas-powered equipment?). It encourages kids to play in a safe space. Depending on the season and/or weather, the patio and yard can act as an outdoor extension of private living space.

Now, the lawn and patio can be a private spot away from COVID-19. Outsiders are not welcome. The fresh air, breeze, and distance can limit transmission. Nature, or “nature” in many suburban settings, can serve as an oasis. All that lawn and patio maintenance can be put to use. And, hopefully, people can stay COVID free.

Why studying multiple suburbs is helpful compared to studying suburbia or a single suburb

As I prepare to present research tonight on suburbs and race, specifically in Wheaton, Illinois, I reflected on my methodological approach. In sociology and the social sciences, we often seek data that is both generalizable and detailed. In my research, I have largely worked to study suburbs through comparisons with other suburbs. I believe this has some distinct advantages, even as it also presents limitations.

One approach to studying suburbs would consider them as a whole: suburbia. Even though there are thousands of suburbs, they share common characteristics. Suburbs are distinct from other settings and their geography, density, physical arrangements, and social and cultural life separate them from big cities and rural areas.

Instead of focusing on the whole, a study could go another direction: focus on one specific suburban community. Perhaps it is a suburb that exemplifies suburbs as a whole, perhaps it is a more unusual suburb. Studying the history and particulars in depth could provide rich details about suburban communities and life.

My research thus far has tried to take a middle approach. This involves finding a small set of suburban cases to compare and contrast. I studied each of these cases in a good amount of detail. The comparison between cases helps me assess whether patterns in one community are unusual or not. The detail I have about each community helps me know whether these suburbs fit broader patterns.

Urban Affairs Review article

Selecting the right suburban cases can be difficult. Among all the suburbs, it is better to choose ones that share certain traits or better to find more different ones? All the detail about specific places may not be that useful if the cases cannot relate to suburbs.

Another downside of the historical/comparative method is the amount of time it requires. Gathering details on specific suburbs can take time. Going through the data and finding patterns can take time.

And, the study of American suburbs benefits from all of the approaches I mentioned above: broad patterns in all suburbs, case studies of particular communities, and historical/comparative work among sets of suburbs. Even as my initial study of suburbs took this middle approach, I have also written in the other veins considering suburbs as a whole and focusing in more on a specific community. With complex suburbia and many suburbs to consider, there is plenty to study from multiple angles.

Co-presenting at the Wheaton Public Library on Race in Illinois: From Southern Counties to Northern Suburbs

With DePaul professor Dr. Caroline Kisiel, I will be presenting via Zoom tomorrow night at the Wheaton Public Library:

Wheaton Public Library on Instagram

Register ahead of time for the Zoom webinar here.

My presentation will largely draw on the 2019 article I co-authored with David Malone titled “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race.

Suburban shift: 49-45 for Trump in 2016, 51-48 in 2020 for Biden

In 2020, the tight suburban vote swung opposite of 2016 and slightly in favor of Joe Biden:

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While there was much attention paid to late-counted mail ballots in urban areas that put Biden over the top in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the bigger shift was in the suburbs. In fact, there’s evidence that Trump actually improved his lot slightly in urban areas, which made the suburbs crucial for Biden.

In 2016 exit polls, Trump won the suburbs by four points, 49 to 45. This time, Biden won them 51 to 48 — a seven-point shift in the margin. Biden also joins Obama as the only Democratic presidential candidate to carry the suburbs since 1992, if the exit polls don’t shift from now. The New York Times has a great visualization of the shift from 2016.

Democrats’ suburban edge was also slightly bigger than in the 2018 election in which they won the House, when those areas split about evenly. And given that the suburbs account for about half the votes these days — and growing — Democrats will want to keep that going.

The only problem for them — and it’s a big split between the presidential race and down-ballot — was that this performance didn’t stretch to the conservative-leaning suburban seats Democrats were hoping to take from Republicans. So Democrats need to ask themselves whether this is really about the new reality or whether it was just about Trump, who underperformed his party in many ways, but particularly in these areas.

Two takeaways from these four paragraphs:

  1. The suburbs will continue to be a battleground in presidential, congressional, state, and local races.
  2. There appears to be a shift in 2020 compared to 2016 but this was a relatively minor shift. What happens in subsequent elections will help indicate whether a suburban shift is longer-lasting.

In other words, expect more of the same in 2022 and 2024 with campaigns and pundits focused on suburban locations in the swing states of the 2016 and 2020 elections as well as some other possible locations (like Texas). And county level analysis will be helpful but more fine-grained study will reveal where some of the important divides or pockets of different voters are in sprawling geographic areas.

Getting the categories right in continued urban/rural-plus-suburbs-and-exurbs-in-the-middle divide

Numerous outlets have commented on the continued presence of an urban/rural divide in 2020 voting. Here is another example:

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Rather than flipping more Obama-Trump counties, Biden instead exceeded previous Democratic win margins in Wisconsin’s two biggest cities, Milwaukee and Madison.

That pattern extended to Michigan and other battleground states, with Biden building upon Democrats’ dominance in urban and suburban jurisdictions but Trump leaving most of exurban and rural America awash in red.

The urban-rural divide illustrates the pronounced polarization evident in preliminary 2020 election results. The split underscores fundamental disagreements among Americans about how to control the coronavirus pandemic or whether to even try; how to revitalize the economy and restore jobs; how to combat climate change or whether it is an emergency at all; and the roles of morality, empathy and the rule of law in the body politic.

Four thoughts in reaction to this.

  1. The urban/rural divide is described in an interesting way above: it is cities and suburbs for Democrats and exurbs and rural areas for Republicans. This matches the patterns of this and recent elections. However, is separating the suburbs and exurbs worthwhile? Here is where county level analysis may not be fine-grained enough to see the patterns. Another way to put it might be this: there is a gradient in voting by party as the distance from the big city increases. Does it shade over to Republicans only in exurbs – which are suburbs on the outer edges? Is the 50/50 split a little before exurbs? A concentric circles approach could help though there still could be pockets that break with the overall pattern.
  2. Suburbs might just be too broad of a term to be useful in such analysis. The exurb/suburb split it one way to put it. Might it help to also think of different types of suburbs (wealthier bedroom communities, ethnoburbs/majority-minority communities, working-class suburbs, industrial suburbs, etc.)?
  3. Explaining the differences as urban/rural has a nice short ring to it and it fits the data. Introducing more categories in the middle is interesting to campaigns, pundits, and researchers but is harder to quickly describe. Perhaps the urban/suburban versus exurban/rural divide?
  4. Is the urban/rural divide one of the most fundamental aspects of polarization? Or, is it a symptom? In this story, the divide leads off the discussion of polarization on a number of fronts. But, what leads to these spatial patterns in the first place? While the geography is helpful to think about, are the real issues behind the urban/rural divide about race/ethnicity and class? Given residential segregation patterns in the United States, using the spatial patterns as an explanation covers up a lot of important social forces that led to those patterns in the first place.

First exit poll I have seen on suburban voters

In reporting exit polls yesterday, the New York Times included votes for Biden or Trump by location:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/03/us/elections/exit-polls-president.html

The 2020 election, according to many pundits, was going to be decided by suburban voters.

The data above appears to follow the patterns from the last few elections. Cities go for Democrats. Rural areas and exurbs go for Republicans. The suburbs are contested ground. The splits are bigger in the table above: 9% advantage for Trump in small city or rural areas, 23% advantage for Biden in cities. And the suburbs are close with just a 3% gap.

Going even further, the suburbs of the true battleground states may be home to the truly important voters. In this election, the residents outside Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Phoenix and more might have just decided the election. That national 3% difference might not seem like much but it could matter a lot when state races are tight.

I am sure there will be more fine-grained analysis of the suburban vote by itself as well in comparisons to other demographic factors that influenced vote totals. But, this early data seems to suggest suburban voters will continue to be important in coming elections.

Four hidden costs of moving to the suburbs

A financial adviser warns people moving from the city to the suburbs about several costs they might not consider:

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A larger house equals larger monthly bills…

More space requires more furniture…

You may need a car…

It’s more expensive to commute to work.

A few thoughts on each of these:

  1. The larger monthly bills could vary quite a bit across suburban homes depending on the size of the home, the costs in each municipality, and whether the home is updated (think insulation, efficient appliances, etc.). Best to check on these costs in each possible residence.
  2. There are multiple ways to get cheaper furniture to reduce costs. Not all rooms have to be fully furnished (perhaps less entertaining during COVID-19 helps with this). Rather than focusing on furniture, why not buy a smaller house? Wait, Americans need somewhere to put all their stuff (including furtniture)…
  3. Yes, most suburban living will require a car unless living within walking distance of needs and work or living in an inner-ring suburb with great public transportation. Cars are not cheap once you add up car payments, insurance, gas, and maintenance. And cars need parking and storage space with many desiring a garage on their property for that, adding to property costs. But, Americans like their driving in the suburbs.
  4. Commuting can be financially costly as well as stressful. The time might not be as much of an issue (though certain routes in certain locations certainly add up) as the inability to do much else while driving.

Thinking more broadly about suburban costs, I wonder if presenting potential suburban residents the full array of problems with suburbs – financial costs, exclusion, limited cultural amenities, moral minimalism – would change people’s minds. The suburbs have a certain appeal in American life and the suburban single-family home is a strong draw to many.

How are suburban apartments designed with COVID-19 in mind different?

A proposed apartment building in downtown Glen Ellyn, Illinois includes several features in response to COVID-19:

The latest iteration creates dedicated, work-from-home spaces inside apartments. South Bend, Indiana-based Holladay Properties is looking at installing voice-activated elevators to limit touch points. The project also would incorporate small conference rooms and phone booths where residents could take a call or prepare for a presentation.

“It’s hard to ignore the global pandemic,” Holladay Vice President T. Drew Mitchell said. “It’s in front of us everywhere, so some of the things that we’re doing inside of the units is sort of a reaction to that.”…

“What we’ve encountered in our product in suburban Chicago is overwhelming demand,” said Mitchell, who’s based in the firm’s LaGrange office. “We have a waitlist right now at Burlington Station in downtown Downers Grove, and what we’re seeing unfortunately for Chicago is people are returning to the suburbs.”

In Glen Ellyn, rents would range from about $1,400 to nearly $3,000. Glenwood Station amenities would target young professionals working in the city, empty nesters seeking a lower-maintenance lifestyle and other demographic groups.

From the picture provided, this looks like a fairly typical apartment building for a wealthy suburban downtown. The building is not too tall; height is a problem in many suburbs as residents do not want structures to dwarf other buildings, particularly houses). There is room on the sidewalk for pedestrians with streetlights and plantings. While there is some variation to the exterior, the design is not too crazy for a bedroom suburb. The building is not too large; there are just 86 units. There are American flags flying at the street corner.

The changes, according to the article, seem to focus on interior spaces. If you live in an apartment, how do you find space to separate home and work? This may be easier in large homes. What additional spaces could an apartment building or complex contain that gives residents some variety without having to leave? The suggestion above is to provide private spaces elsewhere in the building. It will be interesting to see how apartment developers and owners will in the future modify public spaces – gyms, pools, gardens, dog areas, party rooms, etc. – when restrictions may not allow apartment dwellers to use them in the same way.

What is missing from the COVID-19 apartment approach? Given the economic insecurity and the housing pressures many feel, will apartments be cheaper? These are not cheap apartments according to the story. Will this bring different kinds of people to Glen Ellyn than who might have typically moved there? The amenities are said to be geared toward the types of people suburbs often want to attract as opposed to affordable housing that would better serve those who truly need decent housing.

In other words, suburban development continues in fairly normal ways: the developer gets TIF financing, the city gets a building that fits its character and aesthetic, and suburban downtowns become a little denser.

Changes in “countrypolitan,” exurban counties more than just political

The analysis of the 2020 election includes many analyses of suburban voters. But, there is more at stake here than just voting patterns as this look at Union County, North Carolina suggests:

Google Maps – Union County, North Carolina

Union County is what one scholar terms a “countrypolitan” place: Under federal government designations, it lies within a metropolitan area, but it also has a strong rural and agricultural history. For the most part, it doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter suburb, nor is it impoverished. In fact, Union is North Carolina’s wealthiest county, according to the Census Bureau. There are places like it around the United States. They are distinct from rural areas, which are mostly Republican, and cities, which are heavily Democratic; many voters in these places are neither die-hard Trump fans nor urban liberals. That makes them pivotal counties, in 2020 and in the future.

Everyone agrees that Union County is changing. The question is how it’s changing, and how fast. There’s no doubt that Republicans will carry the county up and down the ticket this year—Carter, ensconced at East Frank, was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win here, back in 1980—but the GOP’s overall success in the state will hinge largely on how big a margin it is able to run up in exurban counties such as this one. Democrats’ control of inner-ring suburbs continues to strengthen, and the future of the Republican Party nationally depends on keeping firm control over places like Union County…

The reason Union County is changing is simple math. When Helms was born, about 4,000 people lived in Monroe. Today, nearly 36,000 do. Since 1990, the overall county population has almost tripled, from about 84,000 to roughly 240,000. As I traveled around the county, I began to notice something peculiar: Virtually everyone I talked with was a transplant. Some of them had moved only recently, and others had been around for 10 years, or 20…

“Union County when Jesse was in the Senate was a very rural county,” Wrenn says. “Now it’s got a big chunk of suburban in it. If the long-term trends continue, the Republicans are going to have to find a way to compete in the suburbs. It can be done, but you just have to change your whole way of thinking.”

The temptation in such stories about suburban voters is to look at counties and communities and just see political change. And it sounds like Union County has had its share comparing before the Civil Rights Era, after, and today.

The basic explanation for this recent change is new residents. The population has grown and new residents, not as familiar with the ways of Union County, have moved in. What was once a small population with low density is now much larger and in bigger cities and towns.

But, is this all that has changed: new people moved in and they came with some new political views? I suspect there is more going on here that both contributes to the political change and also exists outside of it. Here are a few possible factors at play:

  1. The suburbs and the spread of metropolitan areas are not just about increasing populations and higher population densities. The suburbs come with a particular way of life. People who seek out such locations want single-family homes, middle-class opportunities and peace for their family, responsive local government, and the ability to live in a place they chose with people who look more like them. This is different than a more rural or working-class character in communities. This desire for the American suburbs does not easily line up with either political party on all the issues but it certainly is a different way of life.
  2. The decline of agriculture, particularly family-owned farms and opportunities, could be at play here. As farming becomes more difficult or less desirable for subsequent generations, the land can be sold off and be turned into subdivisions. This is a significant change in land use as well as who lives there: farmers and those connected to agriculture versus middle-class suburbanites.
  3. Connected to #2, the economic landscape has changed tremendously in the last half-century or so, moving away not just from agriculture but also manufacturing and moving more toward retail, services, and a knowledge economy. Union County and many other locations in the United States are still trying to adapt to these large shifts that affect employment, tax bases, and local businesses.
  4. Numerous local institutions have likely had to adjust in light of growing populations. Schools need more space for kids. Local governments need to provide more services (and they might now have larger tax bases to draw on) and local officials are addressing new issues. Established churches now compete with new congregations. In sum, the civic and social institutions that may have existed for decades in roughly the same form now need to adapt. This can present challenges in any community.

In sum, this is not just about politics. A shift toward a suburban lifestyle in Union County has many consequences and politics may just be one of them.

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

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

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

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