Credit: AP1948

Among the many cultural artifacts that COVID-induced isolation has led Americans to rediscover, the “Why I Left New York” essay is becoming the most common.

The exodus from Gotham and other cities is grist for newspapers and magazines and blogposts and Medium brimming with once committed Cobble Hill residents who now delight (or despair) about moving to Chatham or Cos Cob. And while it may be too early to know if these trends are permanent, FlatRate Moving reported moves from New York to Connecticut increased 74 percent between March and April of this year as compared to last year, while New Jersey and Long Island saw 38 and 48 percent spikes, respectively, per the New York Times.

The logic of saying “Bye” to Brooklyn is fairly straightforward — in an era of social distancing, why pay astonishing sums for cramped quarters, a greater likelihood of contracting the virus, at least initially, and no ability to frequent the events, nightlife, and cultural activities that make America’s cities worth living in, not to mention a crime spike, more homelessness, and a school system that shuts down despite low transmission rates in many districts? Suburbs, once shunned as boring, conformist, with bad casual dining restaurants, have begun to look better in recent years. Some of the cool families were already crossing the Hudson to Montclair or Maplewood. Now, everybody, it seems, is heading for the PATH trains and Metro North.

The questions now are whether this migration is temporary and will be swiftly forgotten when a vaccine is distributed — or is it more enduring? If there’s more Zoom work and less advantage to living near the (now empty) office tower, then why stay in Williamsburg even when the pandemic ends?

It’s also important to know that the suburbs’ mythic underpinnings — homeownership, the nuclear family, and sprawl — are changing as American priorities change and suburban tax bases are reconfigured.

“The culture that created Levittown doesn’t exist anymore,” said Brian O’Looney, an architect of sustainable urbanism and a panelist at the National Press Foundation’s “The Suburbs: After COVID, A Changed Landscape?” program last week.

In the American imagination, the suburbs are conceptualized as high-income, exclusive, white spaces with great schools, the Pew Research Center’s Richard Fry said demographic and economic data show a different pattern. Over the last 20 years, suburbs have become more diversified, both ethnically and economically.

Large suburban counties have gained 17 million people between 2000 and 2018, Fry said, outpacing cities’ growth. But when broken down by age group, the cities still retain a growth advantage in one notable demographic — people aged 25 to 44, or those in their prime working years. With growth concentrated on either side of the age spectrum, suburbs are expected to provide a strong education and healthcare infrastructure, but without the prime-age workers. They do not necessarily have the tax base to support that. Poverty has grown at a sharper rate in large suburban counties than in urban or rural areas, while average household incomes have fallen in the suburbs since 2000. Property values are appreciating more slowly than in urban cores, or at least they were until this recent panic.

“On any number of economic outcomes, what we see is suburban areas are lagging what we see in the urban core,” Fry said.

If COVID trends hold, suburbs could attract the 24-to-44 age demographic. But the suburbs, which were designed around the ideas of owning a car and segregation, both racial and economic, do not resemble the urban neighborhoods that these working professionals prefer. That mismatch could facilitate what June Williamson, a professor of architecture at the City College of New York and the co-author of a forthcoming book in her “Retrofitting Suburbia” series, calls much-needed “incremental metropolitanism,” where suburbs are remade to be more sustainable and resilient.

Williamson proposes three strategies for retrofitting suburbs to meet new cultural and economic realities — “reinhabitation,” in which abandoned and struggling office parks and big box stores are adapted for residential and mixed-use, redevelopment, which includes new construction to maximize walkability, density, and transit, and re-greening, to restore wetlands ecologies and wildlife corridors.

“Certain trends that drive the retrofitting of suburban form have been going on already for some time, and the pandemic seems to be accelerating and intensifying some of them,” Williamson said, listing the death of the shopping mall, vacated office parks, and bankruptcies as examples. “These losses are painful at the local level — loss of tax revenue, jobs, and the eyesore properties that are left beyond. (They are) also places of opportunity, especially for well-located sites in high growth and transit-friendly areas.”

Suburbs’ long history of exclusionary zoning was designed to keep property values high, incentivize homeownership, and, often to maintain racial segregation. But values have changed — subsidized affordable housing has become a priority and a necessity, particularly in inner-ring suburbs. Younger millennials are much more interested in renting than owning. Older people often want to downsize while staying in the suburbs. Meanwhile, the middle class is often priced out.

To address these challenges, Williamson said the suburbs need zoning reform — and expressed hope that the new suburbanites who moved post-pandemic might be incentivized to incite change. As downsizing and renting become more popular, creating new developments to accommodate multigenerational households, home rental, and retrofitting commercial property to meet the needs of seniors — for example, building cottages around a central green on an acre of property — would open up opportunities that meet current needs.

O’Looney said creating these alternative lifestyle developments can be difficult in a country like the U.S., where so much of land use control is local when efforts, particularly around affordable housing and environmental policy, can be more efficiently solved at the state level.

He also said the U.S. lags in housing affordability, particularly due to the expenses associated with cars, such as having to build multiple parking spaces for single-family homes. If they ever appear, new transit opportunities could improve affordability and help give suburbs a more modern character.

If suburbs can be made more affordable, accessible, and livable, it may even ease the urban pressures that lead to gentrification, Williamson said.

Politically, suburbs are beginning to look more like cities as well. President Trump’s appeal to suburban voters based on the notion that Democrats would bring crime-plagued, low-income housing to your neighborhood didn’t help him in the big suburban countries that ring America’s cities.

“That whole political narrative was like shadow boxing with a ghost of this persistent stereotype of what suburbs were in the past,” Williamson said. “It had some traction, but it actually led to more activism in certain pockets to say ‘That’s not what the suburbs are today!’”.

“As (millennials) get older, maybe they’re going to move to those inner suburbs because of the prices…If it’s near a transit stop, if there’s a coffee shop, if there’s a different kind of townhouse they can buy or some older house they can remodel and work from home, they’re going to remake those suburbs.”

Gabby Birenbaum

Gabby Birenbaum is digital editor at the Washington Monthly.