Coronavirus

COVID-19 Could Force City Planners To Rethink Their Priorities

The coronavirus shutdown might alter buying patterns, as more people flee tightly packed cities for suburban, exurban, and rural areas.

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All we need are ankle bracelets and Americans would understand what it's like to be sentenced to home confinement. In a short drive to a grocery store in town last week, I spotted six patrol cars that were out presumably to enforce the stay-at-home orders. Even without those bracelets, we're essentially prisoners in our homes.

My house sits on six acres—and my dogs, goats and chickens are blithely unaware of the social-distancing requirements (although the cats are getting grumpy about all the extra attention). Life is fairly normal for my family, as we work from home and take breaks by doing chores at the barn.

Even in the nearby tract suburbs, life doesn't seem that different—at least until we queue up along six-foot markers outside the grocery store. There's traffic, activity and some semblance of normalcy. In San Francisco, it's a different story. Life has ground to a halt, and we read ominous reports from Ground Zero—in Manhattan, Seattle, Seoul, and other cities where people live packed together.

For years, urban planners have been singing the praises of population density. In fact, California' planning model over the past couple decades has revolved around something called New Urbanism. The idea is to set aside as much land as possible as open space—then require developers to build high-density projects in the existing urban footprint. The public still likes single houses with yards, but policymakers are trying to limit that option.

The new rules are justified as part of the state's battle against climate change. When Jerry Brown was attorney general, he even sued San Bernardino County for permitting too many sprawling developments. The idea that urbanization helps the planet is debatable, given that packed urban centers create heat islands. But the concept fits neatly with existing urban-planning ideology, which decries suburbs as soulless and rural living as wasteful.

Yet after the dust clears from the lockdowns, more Californians will likely be tempted to rethink the high-density status quo. Obviously, diseases spread more quickly where people live cheek by jowl. When a health crisis spreads across the globe, people living in less-dense environs are better able to cope with the madness. My heart goes out to urban dwellers, stuck in their tiny apartments and risking arrest by going to the park for fresh air.

"Density is a factor in this pandemic, as it has been in previous ones," wrote Richard Florida in the CityLab website. "The very same clustering of people that makes our great cities more innovative and productive also makes them, and us, vulnerable to infectious disease." Some big cities have handled the crisis better than others. Some rural areas have high infection rates, too. But, as an urban studies professor, he's distressed at big-city vulnerability.

I find it distressing, too. I like cities for the same reasons as these urbanists and plan on moving back to one after our time on the acreage is done. There's something exhilarating about the variety and vibrancy in cities, even though urbanists can be overly dismissive of the thriving social connections and civic life that take place in suburban and rural areas. I've lived in big cities where no one knows their neighbors, as well as tightly knit "sprawl" suburbs filled with a sense of community.

In reality, the suburbs largely are a product of government planning and subsidy, so there's no reason that the government should restrict the construction of mid-rises and other higher-density projects in these areas. Some opponents of recent state legislation to give developers the right to build such projects are just as meddlesome as the New Urbanists who want to use government to force only the construction of these projects. They want to legislate their preferences rather than let the market decide.

But while the "get off my lawn" suburban crowd can be awfully annoying, the "you will live in high-density housing" crowd is even worse, given that their prerogatives are in control on virtually every local planning board (not to mention at the state level). Those restrictive policies, by the way, are the most significant reason that so few Californians can afford to buy homes now. The restrictions have reduced housing supply and driven up building costs.

The long-term economic effects of the coronavirus shutdown on the nation's housing markets is far from clear, of course. Ultimately, it could alter buying patterns, as more people flee tightly packed cities for suburban, exurban, and rural areas that are less susceptible to societal breakdown when pandemics or other crises unfold. Unfortunately, California's urban-planning rules restrict the ability of people to make those choices.

At the very least, I'd hope that California planners rethink their belief that density always is a good in and of itself—and realize the best way to move forward is to allow builders and buyers as many housing choices as possible.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

NEXT: The COVID-19 Economic Collapse Is Absolutely Wrecking State Pension Systems

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  1. “But the concept fits neatly with existing urban-planning ideology, which decries suburbs as soulless”

    You want soulless? Look where this virus is spreading – public transportation, nursing homes, prisons.

    Not the ‘burbs.

    1. That

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    2. No more high density housing, no more mass transit. No more progressivism. Progressive central planning is clearly Trump supporting stupidity designed to kill us all with WuFlu.

    3. But the eclectic diversity of the city is where its at! Homeless shitting in garbage cans and scary aggressive ethnics selling souvenirs and blocking the sidewalks. So lovely.

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  2. I can foresee a slew of regulations coming relative to big building ventilation systems.

    1. Lysol-fogging air curtains at every building entrance.

      1. Lysol injection stations at every entrance.

    2. Electrostatic precipitators in the ductwork.

  3. I foresee no long lasting changes. This pandemic is a once in a while thing and with any semblance of a competent administration could’ve been mitigated right at the start (only proceeding as it has between a perfect storm of China secrecy, WHO mismanagement, and complete ineptitude from the WH).

    There’s no reason to throw away sensible ideas for something so rare and as it turns out, maybe not so deadly after all. I certainly would never choose to give up the density we’re finally building right.

    1. This panicdemic is a once in a while thing

    2. any semblance of a competent administration could’ve been mitigated right at the start
      I rather doubt that
      This thing was going worldwide and it was a near certainty that just about everyone was gonna get it without any possible way of stopping it before China even knew of its first case.

      1. China knew of its first case pretty early, (Late last year.) and then deliberately suppressed the news, and even went so far as to destroy the records and samples for deniability.

        Then they shut off travel from Wuhan to the rest of China, while keeping it open to the rest of the world, to make sure it spread beyond their borders.

        Basically, they figured out early on that they were going to be screwed over by a pandemic, and decided to make sure to invite the rest of the world to the party, so that they could preserve their relative position. Instead of doing the responsible thing, and being the only country hit.

        They’ve got a lot of politicians and media people around the world on their payroll or otherwise compromised, but it’s getting a bit beyond their capacity to suppress news of what they did.

      2. Yep. China ensured there was no way to stop it originally. By the time we heard of it (Dec 31?), it was too late.

      3. Yes this was going to be worldwide – and everyone knew that by mid/late January or so. At the latest – by when China put Hubei under basically martial law.

        So everyone in the world had the opportunity to put their own notions of ‘public health’ to the test. At roughly the same time without much chance to free ride off of others.

        Some succeeded. Some failed. The notion that the US is one of the successes – well that takes a whole bunch of willful ignorance

    3. wearingit
      April.24.2020 at 9:24 am
      “I foresee no long lasting changes…”

      As if the opinion of a fucking lefty ignoramus was worth other than spit….

    4. re: “There’s no reason to throw away sensible ideas…”

      You assume those were sensible ideas in the first place.

    5. complete ineptitude from the WH)

      The White House doesn’t run the country. If there was any ineptitude then it was from your state government.

  4. Let’s be real about the “New Urbanists” motives. At low to moderate population densities, Republicans prevail. At high population densities, Democrats rule the roost. It’s like something about living in each other’s faces flips a switch in people’s minds, and intrusive government starts to look sensible.

    The “New Urbanists” are Democratic activists. They just want to herd everybody into tightly packed cities so they’ll become Democrats. That’s all.

    1. Which of course plays right into the pandemic crisis – dead people overwhelmingly vote Democrat.

  5. The coronavirus shutdown might alter buying patterns, as more people flee tightly packed cities for suburban, exurban, and rural areas.

    Something something banning single family zoning something.

  6. how can we graft the same with less people? go!

  7. The coronavirus shutdown might alter buying patterns, as more people flee tightly packed cities for suburban, exurban, and rural areas.

    What?

    People are going to sell their homes and move to the suburbs all of a sudden because of a few months of minor inconveniences? Maybe if this carries on for a couple of years. Otherwise, no. By the end of the year everything will be back to the status quo ante.

    Everyone who wanted to live outside the city and could afford to already does. Those living in the cities live there because either they want to or they can’t afford to. A massive outflux will just make moving harder as it will drive up prices outside the cities and drive them down in them.

    And let’s not forget that New York has about 50% of the total case in the United States – the vast majority in New York. 41 states comprise around 20% of the total number of cases.

    No one is moving out of Phoenix because of 3,000 cases out of 4 million people in the Phoenix Metro Area.

    This is another ‘people will stop owning cars when autonomous vehicles come along’ article. Its written from narrow experience and about situations that don’t apply to most of the country.

    1. But Dr. Fauci says eleventy billion will die next winter!

  8. Cities have always been a hotbed of disease, crime, and corruption. People still choose to live there for the sex, brothels, food, entertainment, and jobs. Much as I would prefer if that changed, I don’t actually see it changing.

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