City, Suburb or Country? Where's the Best Place to Ride Out This Crisis?

CC BY 2.0. Our local coffee shop/ Lloyd Alter

Apparently, policy is more important than place.

In her book about antibiotic resistance, The Drugs Don't Work, Professor Dame Sally Davies described how architecture, planning and public policy were effective at dealing with tuberculosis and other diseases before the development of antibiotics.

Almost without exception, the decline in deaths from the biggest killers at the beginning of the twentieth century predates the introduction of antimicrobial drugs for civilian use at the end of the Second World War. Just over half the decline in infectious diseases had occurred before 1931. The main influences on the decline of mortality were better nutrition, improved hygiene and sanitation, and less dense housing with all helping to prevent and to reduce transmission of infectious diseases.

Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic, we are again facing a bug for which we have no cure, and people are thinking about less dense housing and urban issues again. Architectural critic Blair Kamin writes in the Chicago Tribune that The things we love about city life — public transit, urban hustle — are the very things that put us at risk for COVID-19.

These days, who wants to ride in a packed elevator? Or work in one of those open-plan offices, without cubicles, where people are practically on top of one another? The years after the Great Recession have been a boom time for central cities, with luxury apartment buildings and chic restaurants popping up like dandelions. Now, a house in the exurbs, far from the threat of infection and surrounded by dandelions, may look pretty good.

In Citylab, Laura Bliss and Kriston Capps write Are Suburbs Safer From Coronavirus? Probably Not. They describe how suburban and ex-urban housing might soon be hot properties.

“People who are self quarantining in the suburbs can at least go in their backyards,” tweeted the New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz on Tuesday. “Being stuck inside a NYC apt is only one step above a cruise ship.” Similar sentiments have made their way to the Beltway. “Gotta hope our tremendous sprawl compared to Italy will help us some too,” tweeted Vox writer Matthew Yglesias about the possibility that coronavirus will take a lighter toll in the U.S. than it has in other nations.

Historically, the rich always did head for the hills, to their country homes. Now they are grabbing all the private jets and getting out of town. Nonetheless, rich New Yorkers are hitting the Hamptons. According to the New York Times:

Ms. Kencel, of Compass, said she had been fielding calls from New Yorkers in search of short-term rentals in lower Fairfield County. “They want to be in a less dense area right now,” Ms. Kencel said. “Some of them have children coming home from college to finish the term with online classes and they want their family to have more elbow room.”

But many things have changed, and they could be carrying the virus with them to those suburban and exurban communities. The current pandemic leapt from China to Germany because of a training session for Chinese auto parts makers at the head office in Bavaria.

But the suburbs and country skew older.

Capps and Bliss also remind us that the current outbreaks actually started in suburbs like Kirkland, Washington and New Rochelle, New York. And there are other issues when you get out of the city:

Rural populations are relatively older, making them more at risk for falling seriously ill from Covid-19. More than one in five older Americans lives in rural places. Those living outside cities also have more limited access to health care generally: Rural residents live much further from hospitals than their urban or suburban counterparts, and more of them list access to good doctors as a major community problem.

The suburbs and country skew conservative and thought it was a hoax.

Another factor that may come into play is that older and more rural populations tend to be more conservative, Republican and listen to Fox News, which until recently was denying that there was any real danger. In the Villages retirement community in Florida, they were still partying last week. The place may now be more of a Petri dish than Manhattan.

So I am not so sure that the suburbs or exurbs are much safer these days. According to Creighton Connolly, a senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln in England quoted in Reuters,

...very dense cities like Hong Kong and Singapore have contained the virus better than largely rural areas like Lombardy and Veneto in Italy. Ultimately, governance dimensions are more important than planning or design approaches."

Cities have their advantages.

montage of store window closings

© store closings in my neighbourhood/ Photo Andrea K. Williams I suspect that, in fact, it might be healthier in the city. My doctor is two blocks away and a big, well-equipped hospital is a 14-minute bike ride. I am surrounded by stores and restaurants, although this depressing photo by Andrea K. Williams shows that many are closed or just doing takeout and delivery. I had to make an appointment to pick up my Primrose bagels, but hey, I still get bagels!

We might use this shutdown time to think about what we would fix before the next pandemic; the activist and planner has some good points here. Others have added protected bike lanes, cargo bike delivery services, and car-free streets.

Voisin plan, Le Corbusier

Voisin plan, Le Corbusier/ Wikipedia/Public Domain

The massive trauma of the First World War, the Spanish Flu and tuberculosis led to a rethinking of how we build cities, not all of which turned out to be very good ideas. Perhaps this time we will try to build happier, healthier and greener cities instead of just skipping town.