Will COVID-19 drive us farther apart, or bring us together?

April 7, 2020 6:00 am

Some are predicting that the pandemic will reignite the suburbanization of the post-war era, seen here in Levittown, N.Y. But the pandemic has also highlighted how much we need human connection.

Since COVID-19 emerged, we’ve become acutely aware of our own social spaces — where we live, how close or far our families and neighbors are, how we move across local and regional space, the venues we visit and their features. Whether we live in dense urban, suburban, small town or rural locales, we’re learning how remarkably sociable are our day-to-day pathways. And how isolated we can feel when honoring stay-at-home strictures. 

On the internet, a broad and international community of urban planners are engaged in a lively debate about how COVID-19 may change our future living and working patterns. Some are arguing that the virus will induce more people to permanently work from home; create higher demand for quiet housing spaces convertible into offices; lead to more gym and mud room spaces in housing; drive retail sales from home based-businesses; broaden residential streets with loading zones for home-delivery truck traffic; and heighten demand for high-speed broadband infrastructure. 

Others are arguing that the virus will accelerate urban decentralization and atomization of community life. 

I disagree with the atomizing view of our residential and work future and believe cities will retain their vital place in civilization. Let’s look at recent patterns. Yes, from the late 19th century on, people began to move out from industrializing cities, mainly upper middle class folks.  Sam Bass Warner’s book Streetcar Suburbs chronicles this pattern in Boston, showing how suburbanizing residents created their own local governments — a kind of income and wealth pooling. These governments provided for their moneyed kind better schools, parks and amenities without having to support lower income folks or the cultural and recreational offerings of central cities. This dispersion continued well into the early decades of this century.

But since then, industrialized countries have experienced a significant uptick in densification of larger cities. Metropolitan residents seem less willing to live far from their jobs than they did during decades of suburbanization, even with more high-speed freeways. Many large-scale employers have not fled to suburban office parks — and some, like McDonald’s, have even moved back into the city. 

The rise of the two-parent working family has accelerated this trend. Many older people have abandoned their remote and empty nest suburban homes to live downtown where they can walk to health care, cultural opportunities, parks and grocery stores. In response to growing gentrification, many city governments — with Minneapolis leading the way — are permitting greater housing density and rethinking single family zoning. 

In another sociable trend, urbanites of all ages are engaging in co-housing, where more homeowners and renters are reconfiguring existing single family housing units into shared neighborhood space. Minneapolis is debating an ordinance allowing this, and a co-housing project is in progress on Monterey Avenue in St. Louis Park. In Minneapolis and elsewhere in the metro, there is a movement to allow and build tiny houses to house the homeless. (See Twin Cities Cohousing Network.)

This debate and counter-examples remind me of architect and urban designer Dolores Hayden’s wonderful forward looking plans. In her first book, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities, she chronicles the shared housing experiments led by women in American cities. Her subsequent book Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing, and Family Life proposes reshaping suburbia by sharing facilities among homes on single family blocks. She proposes converting one family’s garage into a laundromat, another to a community kitchen, and so on, to both lighten women’s household loads and create more sociability. 

Hard to say whether there will be more virtual and at home working. Of course, women and now increasingly men already devote many hours a week to housework and child rearing. Some can and will do more, and their employers and customers may find advantages as well as disadvantages to such arrangements. It will be an interesting phenomenon to watch. Many people like to work with others face to face: co-workers, trainees, bosses, customers, clients, funders. I recently wrote a piece on the future of work and underscored how face-to-face human interactions and teamwork are desirable for most workers. 

My prediction for COVID-19: Don’t expect the current pandemic to lead to a return to the intense suburbanization of the post-war years. Yes, our interdependency and proximity render us vulnerable to pandemics. But they also show us how much we need social interaction. I’m predicting many people joyfully returning to their churches, gyms, coffee shops, favorite stores, theatres, galleries and parks. We’ll see! 

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Ann Markusen
Ann Markusen

Ann Markusen, a retired University of Minnesota economist who lives in Cromwell, Minn., is actively engaged in local journalism and runs an art gallery in the recently launched Pine Knot offices.