Recently the New York Times reported that there is a flight from the cities to suburbian locations in the wake of Covid19. This reverses a trend that has been persistent over the last decade where people moved to urban locations. While there is no evidence that the virus poses bigger risks in urban areas, this might be a consequence of the lockdowns and stay at home orders. It made people realize that a free-standing house on a plot with some green around makes this isolation more bearable. There is something that can be said about that after hearing stories of people having to stay in tiny 20 m2 apartments with family visiting for several weeks. But should this trend persist we will be falling into the same trap we were working to overcome in the last 20 years.
Suburbia means that we will not be able to overcome the dominance of the private motorcar and all the negative effects it has on our environments.
Suburbia means we will have to maintain a very expensive infrastructure that costs two to three times more per person than in urban environments and put a strain on the public budgets and the availability of money for other purposes like education, healthcare or social infrastructure.
Suburbia means cementing a traditional role division since there always must be one person that cannot work when kids for part of the family because – in most cases the woman – has to play taxi driver.
Suburbia means a bigger and bigger impact of the surrounding environment since the borders between man made and natural are becoming longer and longer – usually resulting in a decrease of biodiversity, the isolation of eco systems and the loss of nature
Suburbia means a delay in containing the effects of climate change since the suburban lifestyle tends to be more CO2 heavy than more urban ways of life.
So, if suburbia is not the solution, then what is?
There are people that are advocating eradicating nature in cities. The problem that this creates is that it cannot be eliminated from cities. All the sanitation we currently need to put in place in cities is a consequence of the fact that cities disturb eco systems and the eating and being eaten principle is broken with some species growing exponentially in the absence of natural enemies. Therefore, cities need to become more biophilic. They need to become a habitat which is a natural as possible, reducing the need for human interference. But there are other reasons why there should be more nature in cities. Despite it having been removed from the scene of daily news coverage, climate change is the bigger threat than Covid19. If we want to reduce the impact of the atmosphere heating up and eventually revert it, we need to reduce the heat cities create and contain and we need to provide for a more permeable ground plain and greener urban environments.
We need to learn from Covid19, how it appeared, how it spread and what we can do to avoid the consequences. One of the key aspects that made it a global pandemic is due to a slow containment in the beginning. That allowed the spread across the globe before action was taken. But even then, response was inadequate in many places and often too small scaled. We need to learn from that and put systems in place that are more sensitive and quicker in leading to containment measures. Better response will make the flight from the city unnecessary.
And – we need to rethink the way our houses are planned. Outdoor open spaces for every apartment should be a requirement as is the case in several countries already. Apartments should be kept or made affordable so that people do no need to squeeze into tiny places. This can be achieved by sufficient supply in cities that keeps housing prizes low and with regulatory frameworks that define quality standards for housing.
Finally, we need to invest in the quality of the public realms in our cities, creating room for humans walking and on bicycles so that they don’t have to squeeze onto narrow sidewalks and too small cycle paths. The objective should not be to facilitate the jam free flow of cars but turning the streets, intersections and squares into quality public open spaces where people not sitting in a vehicle feel at ease.
Suburbia is not the solution – it keeps us from it.
by Markus Appenzeller