The pandemic has made suburbs look brighter — will it last?

An exodus would require either change in the way suburbs work or in how city people live.


Leonardo Vizioli

3 years ago | 6 min read

An exodus would require either change in the way suburbs work or in how city people live.

Imagine you are someone whose job went fully remote. During these uncertain times, the tempting idea of running away from the chaotic city life and moving to a bigger suburban house might have crossed your mind.

After all, if one is going to spend more time at home, and the children may need to as well, it may be preferable to live within the comfort of a big dwelling rather than paying high rent to live in a shoebox. According to a survey conducted by Zoopla, for instance, more than half of home hunters in the UK have changed their priorities.

Among the new must-haves, an office (22%) and space to exercise at home (20%). Of those under 65, 54% anticipate less commuting. And given many people’s lockdown experiences, this shift is hardly surprising.

On the other hand, the previous trend was the exact opposite — megacities were growing fast. From an economic perspective, densely-populated cities are often more prosperous and better for the environment.

From an urbanistic perspective, their sidewalks are more vibrant and diverse. Thus, will this new suburbia temptation prevail or will it be fleeting?

Suburbia has always had its appeal. Outdoor space, familiar faces in the neighborhood, and a slow-paced routine are not characteristics often associated with living in a metropolis.

More importantly, the new must-haves of buyers and renters in Britain demand space, and the square metre gets more expensive near the city centre.

At the same time, urban density has been associated with a higher number of COVID-19 cases. Capitals such as London, New York City, and Madrid have largely contributed to the total death count in their respective countries.

Therefore, with no need to commute regularly, families may prefer to get a plot of land and place their own homes away from the town centre. Zoopla’s most recent UK Rental Market report, for instance, supports that conclusion, showing a steeper decline in rent prices in the inner city of London, while rent rose in outer boroughs such as Havering and Bexley.

A visual map of square metre housing prices, which has The City of London, Camden, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster on top of the list of most expensive boroughs. Source: ONS, House price per square metre and house price per room, England and Wales

What draws people to cities, however, goes beyond a shorter commuting time. In her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs praised concepts that were far from the mainstream urban planning of her time, such as mixed-use neighborhoods and urban density.

\Her view was that any project ignoring these aspects would hardly flourish. Essentially, a car-centered approach would not bring life to the sidewalks, since people have no reason to use them in residential-only areas, apart from visiting neighbours. Populated and vibrant sidewalks are the ones located in mixed-use neighbourhoods, the ones with commercial enterprises alongside residences, where people have reason to pass by day and night.

Moreover, pedestrians are needed to self-police the sidewalk, and consequently, to bring the assumption that there are eyes on the streets, alert of any possible crime. Regardless of the objective security situation of a street, no pedestrian enjoys walking completely alone.

When people give up on the idea of commuting by foot, sidewalks get emptier, thus contributing to the general feeling of insecurity. To acquire such sidewalk life, suburbs would have to abandon their core features, such as residential-only areas, and become denser.

Jane Jacobs as chairperson of a Greenwich Village civic group at a 1961 press conference.

If suburbs are not going to embrace mixed-use areas, an alternative would be its new residents embracing the suburban way of life.

The nature of commerce in both, for example, is sharply different. In the outskirts, big retailers often thrive, given their self-sufficiency capacity.

Jacobs recounts how Connecticut General Life Insurance Company could only build new headquarters in the countryside by providing other facilities, such as cafeterias, game spaces, and a beauty parlor. In cities, on the other hand, it is easier for small and medium manufacturers to succeed, since they get access to a wider range of products and amenities outside of themselves.

When a small retailer needs any supply, it can rely on other smaller retailers that hardly would have succeeded in the suburbs. In short, clustering people together makes it easier to find different skills, demands, and supplies.

A working paper by Gabriel Ahlfeldt and Elisabetta Pietrostefani analysed 321 studies about urban density and supported the same conclusion. The authors have found a positive effect in 69% of the studies reviewed, from sizable effects of job accessibility to consumption benefits and lower crime rates.

Assuming an average city in a high-income country, they estimate that a 10% increase in density ends up making an increase in factor incomes of US$140 per capita per year, and US$71 net wages for workers. This gap may narrow as remote working gets more popular, but that is far from clear: a 2019 Portuguese study argued that, on average, remote working reduces productivity.

The suburbs’ slow-paced routine, thus, would come at the cost of fewer commercial options and a greater reliance on big retailers.

Suburban life in the limits of Greater London.

The exodus to the outskirts also presents a few urbanistic problems. One may wonder how people are going to get around. The greater distances make it harder to go everywhere by foot, and the bicycle lanes rarely are as good as the ones in the city. On the outskirts, one often needs a car.

As a result, suburban residents might have to face long journeys and stressful traffic. Moreover, millennials and zoomers are also less keen to drive.

Of those aged between 17 and 20 in the UK, the proportion of the ones holding a driving license has fallen from 48% in the early 1990s to 29% in 2014. Of those aged between 20 and 29, the drop was from 75% to 63%. Car usage has also been falling — younger drivers take fewer trips compared to their counterparts in the late 1990s.

To succeed without clustering people together, the outer boroughs would have to provide an alternative to the car. Multimodal transportation perhaps could be one way to solve it, but it would require major changes in terms of suburban culture and transportation infrastructure.

Besides making suburbs more attractive, the pandemic has also provoked a reaction by the mayors of many major cities. Among the principles outlined by Global Mayors Covid-19 Recovery Taskforce, there is a strong assertion that cities cannot go back to “business-as-usual”.

The changes currently being proposed are in the direction of improving walkability and mixed-use areas. For instance, the Mayor of London announced plans to create one of the largest car-free zones in the city, having added 5,000 square metres of extra space on footpaths.

The newly re-elected Mayor of Paris has praised the concept of “the 15-minute city”. In her view, no Parisian should have to travel more than 15 minutes by foot or bike for daily necessities. The Mayor of Milan announced plans to add 21 miles of cycle lanes to the city, which were a source of conflict in the recent past. I

n addition to the top-down changes, there are more bottom-up ones. Across the Netherlands, municipalities have allowed bars and restaurants to spill onto the streets, making better use of space. In London, bars, restaurants, and street markets have added seats and tables to the sidewalks when possible.

All these measures may make the city more attractive in the post-pandemic world and seduce many to stay.

At Battersea Park Street, pubs are taking advantage of the car-free streets.

Borough Market, one of London’s most well-known street markets, added tables and seats onto the streets and sidewalks.

Dense cities, although not living their brightest moments during the pandemic, are resilient and unique ecosystems.

In the end, the suburbs will hardly be able to replace some of the city’s features, such as vibrant sidewalks, and an exodus would come at the cost of reduced commercial options.

Additionally, with no changes to take up more people, transportation within the suburbs can quickly become a frustrating experience for those used to the range of options provided by organised metropolises.

As their mayors work to improve walkability and mixed-use areas, cities might remain attractive in the post-pandemic.

The Director of Research at Zoopla, for instance, already sees this change in preferences as more of a “one-off” factor than a “seismic shift”. In the post-pandemic period, a move back to the suburbs might end up as little more than a long-forgotten daydream.

Originally published under the Political Economy Review on medium.


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Leonardo Vizioli







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