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.

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