Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"I can hear the birds again..."

Photo by H├ędi Benyounes on Unsplash

The impact of the US virus shutdown on everything has been stunning. On the phone with the pediatrician (yes, we're one down), she remarked that she never heard the birds before because of all the traffic noise - and she's pretty far back from the road.

We don't have issues with pollution, but I'm sure many cities have seen dramatic changes. No traffic counts are valid after March 13th because the volumes are nearly non-existent. Gas prices are as low as they've been since 2003, but no one notices.

I sat out on our front porch this morning and saw at least 7 different sets of neighbors, some chatting on phones, some walking dogs, some just playing with their kids. Most of them I knew. Some I met for the first time.

My son is out on the front driveway with his buddy just hanging out 6 feet apart because I took away his keys. He's been getting stir-crazy and trying to figure out how to hold his tutoring sessions online.

Life is more digitally connected, but I see people being far more intentional about physical connection too. The choice to stay home takes on new ethical ramifications. We miss what we can't have. The wake-up call is good.

Dads are spending time with their kids - Heck, moms are spending time with their kids too (guilty). Dinner is at home together instead of on the run - or at least mostly together - Katie is double quarantined so I had breakfast with her in her bed. She's pretty happy about nearly unlimited Disney+ time, but misses her teachers and friends terribly. We're beginning to think about what it looks like for a cognitively disabled child to be employed digitally. Our church small group is going to meet via Zoom at our normal Thursday night time. Another group is meeting outside at a coffee shop and planning how to deliver supplies to those who are quarantined at home. Small towns mean close neighbors and dense support networks. Big towns are working on creating the same connections.

We have been blessed. We continue to work from home and have little disruption to our lives or futures. Many are rightfully scared about what the future holds both for life and making a living. Many who have been content just making it may realize that they need to catch up digitally and find new careers. Grocery store workers are esteemed as highly as police and firefighters. Nurses and doctors are heroes again. We all contribute to the whole and none of us are expendable.

Life will go back to normal, but I'm hoping it won't be the same normal. I could be content with some of these changes being permanent.

#Covid19 #NewNormal #grateful

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

How will CoVID-19 change communities?

Winter Garden, FL  Photo: PJ Tice

I just got back from my small town polling place. There were lots of discussions about the virus, but no fear. The elderly folks from the Lion’s Club that man our polling place were just as friendly and cuddly as ever — it’s a hugging town. Social distancing was more of a joke than a panic. As a small urban space west of Orlando, where there are already two confirmed deaths, you would think that they would be more concerned, but they’re not.

Downtown, people are far more reactive. Our mega-church has cancelled in-person meetings for the rest of the month, resorting to Facebook and YouTube. Many of us created informal watch-parties with our small groups to get together around breakfast last Sunday. We’re planning to do it again next week.

This is where small-town America has the edge over Urban America. In our small town, we will see a few hundred people a day, who see the same few hundred people. As I chatted with one of the candidates at the polls, her mechanic husband greeted nearly every person that passed us by name. The risk is greater at WalMart where several thousand people move through the space on any given day, but again, it’s the same few thousand people. It’s two orders of magnitude less than moving through a transit station that may have seen hundreds of thousands of people in a day from around the world or a downtown that serves 8 million people.

I read a trend article a few weeks ago that started with “people will continue to move to cities” and then followed with 9 other items that made urban life unnecessary like telecommuting, deliveries, and digital transitions. Living in a large city is hard. It’s emotionally draining. It’s expensive. Crime rates are higher. More to the point, social support is much less and the potential for disease transmission is exponentially higher than lower density areas.

I do think small towns will pick up more more urban characteristics. Small urban is very different from typical suburban development. Mile-long cul-de-sac projects and gated subdivisions are just as isolating as the most dense urban areas. As people become more digitally connected, the value of a unique place and strong human connections becomes even more critical. Even in the suburbs, where driving is king, congestion is a pain. Mixing land use at a local scale means your trip can be only a mile instead of five. Kick in a scooter or bike and that one mile trip doesn’t need a car at all. That means that small communities with good walking and biking infrastructure and a nice land use mix provide all the advantages of an urban area with much less risk.

There will always be people who want to live with the excitement of a large urban area. There’s a great energy being surrounded by so many different people. The question may become, is it worth it and can we do it differently? The current pandemic isn’t a huge risk to the majority of the population. We are taking precautions to care for those who are at risk. The 1918 flu hit the youngest and strongest. Small urban places will remain fairly isolatable, while large urban centers will remain risky. Transit systems can be sanitized. but the sheer number of strangers you encounter on a daily basis amplifies the risk in a way that is much harder to counteract.

Americans have always wanted to have their cake and eat it too. Small urban spaces may provide just what we needed.