But after the anxious spring of 2020, these defects seem like new luxuries. There was always comfort to be found in a big house on a plot of land that’s your own. The relief is even more soothing with a pandemic bearing down on you. And as the novel coronavirus graduates from acute terror to long-term malaise, urbanites are trapped in small apartments with little or no outdoor space, reliant on mass transit that now seems less like a public service and more like a rolling petri dish.
The pandemic will improve suburban life, perhaps in lasting ways. Take the automobile commute: The exodus from the office has dramatically decreased traffic and pollution, a trend that will continue in some form if even a fraction of the people who abandoned their commutes continue to work from home. Dunham-Jones, who is also my colleague in Georgia Tech’s college of design, thinks that even a modest rise in telecommuting could also increase the appeal of local walking and bike trips. Families have two cars, but nowhere to go. They are rediscovering the pleasures of pedestrianism.
Multigenerational households represent a modest increase in density, and they can make quarantine more tolerable on top of it. The summer is upon us, but camps are largely closed and ordinary family activities have been substantially disrupted. The spring lockdowns also proved that working from home while facilitating children’s remote schoolwork is extremely challenging. Intergenerational households offer more hands and eyes to watch the kids or manage mealtimes made incompatible by overlapping schedules. Schools have always been a huge driver of residential real-estate sales, and even a modest increase in online learning could shock the market. Economic pressure may encourage consolidation of some families into bigger but more populous single-family homes, while decoupling home values from school districts even somewhat could make them more affordable.
Living in the suburbs is a mixed bag as it’s always been – you trade things like culture, collectivism, walkability and energy efficiency for a longer commute, more space (but more isolation) and (often) better schools. However, I’m hopeful that this pandemic has shown us there’s possibility to find a middle ground now that more folks are working from their homes and helping educate from the comfort of our house. If we’re lucky, residents in suburban areas will look to invest more in their local communities and build them into places that might make those longer commutes less necessary. If we can move to a world where remote work is accessible for more folks, suburban and exurban communities can be more sustainable.
I try to remind myself daily how lucky we are to have a setup like we do – we have an office that I can work remotely out of, (mostly) uninterrupted during the day. Our kids can complete their schoolwork in the basement. We have a fenced in back yard that the kids can play in as well. So generally speaking the quarantine has been “easier” for our family than the average apartment dweller.