Fitting COVID-19 into the cycles of American cities

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

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

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

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

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

Several thoughts in response:

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

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

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

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

The relatively narrow sidewalks in both cities and suburbs

With fewer cars on the roads, Tom Vanderbilt considers the possible size and role of sidewalks:

Even in a place such as New York City, sidewalks, as the architect John Massengale documented, have been shrunk over the years to make more space for cars. In my own neighborhood, many stretches of sidewalk are the bare minimum of five feet wide. This, per long-standing research, accommodates two pedestrians at once, but begins to fall apart at anything beyond that: two pedestrians encountering one walking in the opposite direction; a kid on a scooter; people stopping to chat. Making matters worse are sidewalk-shrinking obstructions such as trees, light poles, or, most egregious, traffic signs. That same street meanwhile, will dedicate more than 10 feet to an active vehicle-travel lane, as well as two additional lanes of parked vehicles—each larger than the sidewalk itself.

The larger question that Vanderbilt and others address is this: are cities made for cars or people? Is the goal of urban planning to move as many cars as efficiently as possible or to encourage a vibrant streetlife and pedestrian activity?

This also applies to the many residential and suburban areas of the United States. In recent weeks, I have thought about this in my residential neighborhood. There is little room for multiple people. The difference is starker when comparing the sidewalk to the nearby roadway, which easily accommodates two cars passing at 30 mph. And with the size of the residential sidewalk, this forces walkers, runners, and bicyclists either into the grass or, more recently with COVID-19, into the street so that everyone has enough space.

SidewalkResidential

I am guessing various actors would throw up some roadblocks regarding wider sidewalks in residential neighborhoods: they would be more costly to put down, they would take away land from yards, a wider sidewalk is less necessary in normal times (and the rate of sidewalk use does seem up in my locale). But, the way to counter this might be to suggest the sidewalk could expand while the street could shrink. Do we really need such wide residential streets? Would we rather make our neighborhoods more pleasant for cars or people? The American suburbs are tied up with cars and driving but this does not have to always require sacrifice from those who want to walk, run, and bike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few thoughts in response:

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

Home all day, hear the noise of daily work around your residence

With more people at home during the day, they can hear more of what goes on during a typical day. And they may not like it:

Cities, towns and villages in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere in the country have created bans or sought voluntary cuts in the use of leaf blowers in suburban neighborhoods. Town leaders noted that with everyone sheltering in home, the constant din was an added nuisance…

The municipal actions are a departure in the ongoing saga of leaf blowers, one marked, in many towns, by equal parts irritation and inaction. Everyone hates hearing them down the block, but no one complains about the swift and eye-pleasing work they accomplish on their own lawns. And so a silent majority has carried on, under the whine of the motor.

Some residents have apparently questioned whether the machines could be spreading the coronavirus. The village of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. raised the same worry on Twitter this week…

In Westfield, N.J., Mayor Shelley Brindle, in a statement, asked homeowners and landscapers to keep the blowers locked away until at least noon ever day.

This comes amid broader discussions about banning gas leaf blowers and other gas-powered outdoor equipment. Compared to electric or battery-powered equipment, they produce more noise and exhaust. This could be an interesting time to nudge people toward different equipment – in the name of noise, environmental concerns – though asking them to do so in the midst of a crisis will make it more difficult.

I wonder how much the perception of the noise problem is also due to the time of year. I wrote two years ago about common summer noises that can interrupt tranquility: air conditioners, lawnmowers, construction, etc. Once the weather starts warming up, more people are outside and more people are doing work outside. The person in one house who wants to sit on their deck and enjoy some peace and quiet competes with the person next door who enjoys keeping their yard neat and green. And both of them may dislike the municipal road project that reconstructs the next street over and produces noise for weeks. If the COVID-19 induced lockdown started in November, would people have the same noises to complain about?

At the same time, dealing with noise is tricky among neighbors and within a community. People generally know that certain locations are noisier than others and adjust accordingly. Some people even live right under runway paths. Businesses also have a stake in this; as is noted at the end of the article cited above, not using certain yard equipment is possible but raking and pruning by hand will take more time and cost more money. Keeping everyone happy regarding noise is likely to be difficult.

Chicago suburb feared COVID-19 facility in empty hotel

Building on earlier posts on COVID-19 NIMBYism and COVID-19 in suburbs, I return to a particular suburban case: many residents in the Chicago suburb of Itasca opposed a 2019 proposal for a drug rehab facility in an empty hotel. In recent days, concern mounted as the community thought that same hotel could become a facility to treat COVID-19:

The fate of a shuttered hotel in Itasca took another strange turn this week when local officials briefly thought it might be used to quarantine COVID-19 patients suffering mild symptoms or those at heightened risk from the virus.

It turned out to be a false rumor, but its circulation illustrates the opaque process through which government officials are trying to line up buildings for use in the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency has asked its county-level counterparts to create “an alternative housing plan” to assist at least 25 people. The federal government would reimburse counties for sheltering those who have been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19 but don’t require hospitalization, and “asymptomatic high-risk individuals needing social distancing as a precautionary measure.”

Some counties, though, aren’t saying much about their searches. Asked for specifics, a spokesman for the DuPage County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said only that “we are working with our municipal agencies to identify needs as well as identifying potential community partners for potential housing.”

Read on for more details of official letters from the mayor to the medical company and back, bureaucratic vagueness, sharing theories on a local Facebook group, and the official denial.

Given how this played out, is it a wonder that some officials might follow an “opaque process”? If a county or state feels they need a facility as it has particular advantages, opposition from local residents could make it very difficult to move forward.

According to the DuPage County Department of Health COVID-19 Dashboard (as of 4/10/20), Itasca had seven cases of COVID-19. This is where the typical NIMBY concerns – reduced property values, a threat to an existing way of life or the character of the community – makes less sense: COVID-19 is present in Itasca. Granted, it is less present there than in other DuPage County communities. But, a facility in Itasca could be helpful for local residents. The same question arose with the proposed drug treatment facility; is drug rehab an issue in Itasca, surrounding suburbs, and DuPage County or is it only an issue that occurs elsewhere? In both of these cases, the medical conditions can affect people across all sorts of communities.

More on COVID-19 in suburbs

While much of the COVID-19 attention has been on cities, it is also present in suburban locations. Yesterday, I looked at cases in DuPage County west of Chicago. Today, a little digging around for other suburban locations:

Westchester County, New York

The New York region leads the United States in number of cases and deaths. Westchester County is a wealthy county just north of the city. Early on, an outbreak in New Rochelle received attention. According to figures for the county as of a few days ago, it looks like COVID-19 is in a number of community in sizable numbers.

Nassau and Suffolk Counties, New York

These Long Island suburban counties have thousands of cases and as of April 9 are being watched by officials:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said health officials “watching” Nassau and Suffolk counties as the number of deaths related to novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is on the rise.

There have now been 18,548 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nassau County – up 1,938 from the day before, while Suffolk County has reached 15,844 cases, an increase of 291…

“We’ve been watching Rockland County, Nassau County, Suffolk County closely,” he said. “We’re looking at the concentric circles around New York City, and the natural spread circles are toward the suburbs. Westchester has already had trouble, now we’re seeing new hotspots on Long Island and the other suburbs.

Seattle area, Washington

King County, Washington is home both to Seattle and over a million suburban residents and two surrounding counties, Snohomish and Pierce, have more suburban residents. An update on the cases and deaths as of last night:

King County has been struck the hardest with Covid-19 with 3,688 cases and 244 deaths. Snohomish County reports 1,695 cases and 63 deaths. Pierce County reports 795 cases and 16 deaths.

From mid-March, a story of how the Seattle suburb of Kirkland responded in early March:

Within hours, Kirkland, an affluent mid-sized suburb that until two weeks ago was best known outside of Washington as the namesake for Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand, became the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak.

More than 60 Kirkland residents, including people staying there temporarily, have died from or been hospitalized with the virus. Nearly all of them were associated with Life Care Center. Many patients with symptoms are at EvergreenHealth, a Kirkland hospital, which has seen nearly 100 confirmed cases and 24 deaths.

Kirkland’s response to the crisis is being watched around the country, and other cities are looking to them for guidance as infections spread.

New Orleans area

An update from yesterday shows numerous cases in and around New Orleans:

Orleans and Jefferson parishes continue to lead all other parishes with their coronavirus cases. According to Thursday’s update, New Orleans has 5,242 cases while Jefferson Parish is reporting 4,480 cases…

Other parishes seeing high case numbers include East Baton Rouge, Caddo and St. Tammany. Health officials continue to monitor St. John the Baptist, Ascension and Lafourche parishes where cases are in the 300-400 range.

In sum, numerous suburban counties and communities outside of major cities hit by COVID-19 are also facing significant numbers of cases. Various factors could be at play including race/ethnicity, the locations of jobs and workplaces, and the ability of suburban governments and organizations to respond to the threat.

(And a bonus story from ABC in Australia: how residents of Australian suburbs are coping with isolation.)

Disparities in COVID-19 cases in DuPage County?

As news came out in recent days about disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths by race in Chicago (and now the AP shows blacks are disproportionately affected in numerous American locations), I wondered how this plays out in DuPage County. The second most populous county in Illinois (after Cook County) has a reputation for wealth, conservative politics, and numerous jobs.

First, looking at COVID-19 cases across DuPage County communities as reported by the DuPage County Health Department on April 8:

DuPageCountyCOVID19casesCommunitiesApr0820

The numbers differ across communities, with some DuPage County municipalities still having no confirmed cases while others have 40+ (and Naperville, the largest community by population in DuPage County, leads the way with 71 cases). But, it would be useful to have rates as the populations differ quite a bit in DuPage County. The Chicago Tribune has an interactive map that shows cases by zip code and also provides rates of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 (but appears to be missing data compared to the DuPage County map). Across the zip codes in DuPage County listed, the rates of cases range from the 50s to the 140s per 100,000. Working with both the absolute numbers and the rates, a few communities stand out: Addison, Lombard, Carol Stream, and West Chicago.

DuPageCountyCOVID19ratesApr0820

DuPage County has a different population composition than Chicago or Cook County. For DuPage County as a whole, 66.3% are white alone (not Hispanic or Latino), 14.5% are Latino, 12.6% Asian, and 5.3% Black.Of course, these demographics can differ pretty dramatically across different communities (Oak Brook looks different than West Chicago which looks different than Glendale Heights). While the reported data does not have a breakdown across racial/ethnic groups (and without this it is impossible to see who has contracted COVID-19 in these communities), some of the higher rates of cases are in communities that are more diverse (Lombard is an exception): Addison is 40.6% Latino (44.7% white not Latino), Carol Stream is 19.3% Asian and 14.9% Latino (and 57.2% white not Latino), and West Chicago is 52.9% Latino (36.5% white not Latino).

Second, addressing age, there are several stories about COVID-19 cases in DuPage County senior homes. The most notable case was a center in Willowbrook (where as of April 7 eight of the county’s 26 deaths had occurred), it also hit a community in Carol Stream, and eight more deaths in the county were attributed to long term care facilities. As of yesterday afternoon, 17 of the 28 COVID-19 deaths in the county occurred among long term care residents.

People 65 years old or older make up 15.5% of the population in DuPage County. Lombard is right at the county average while the other three communities with higher rates are lower than the county average.

Third, all four of the communities with higher rates of COVID-19 cases are below the county median household income. While Lombard is just below the county poverty rate, the other three communities are higher. For DuPage County, the poverty rate is 6.6% and the median household income is $88,711. (A side note on social class: wealthier communities may have fewer households receiving stimulus checks. For example, “About 30% of Naperville households earn too much to COVID-19 stimulus money, study finds.” I imagine there would be similar results in other DuPage County communities with higher incomes.)

More detailed data would obviously enhance our abilities to examine patterns in COVID-19 cases in suburban settings. And the patterns could look different even in the Chicago region: wealthier DuPage and Lake counties might have different patterns compared to other Chicagoland areas. But, I do hope that data does come eventually; while much attention is now focused on big cities, COVID-19 is widespread throughout numerous metropolitan regions, individual suburban governments have limited resources and abilities to tackle the issue, and the risk of contracting and being harmed by COVID-19 could vary quite a bit across suburban residents and businesses.