We were greeted in the April 5 Star Tribune with two articles extolling the benefits of social distancing. Not the 6-foot variety, but the 20-mile one.
A vision of “Suburban Serenity” was featured in the Homes section. Over on the Opinion page, Katherine Kersten railed against cities and those who love them (“Density in a time of coronavirus”), where among other insults she referred to the Twin Cities’ light-rail system as “a petri dish for the growth of disease agents.”
Kersten’s slurs and phobias don’t contribute much to the important national conversation about the role of cities in solving critical problems — from lack of affordable housing, to the climate crisis, to the current pandemic. If ever there were a time for urbanist solutions to these problems, it’s now.
The COVID-19 emergency has toppled the walls of habit and inertia. It forces people like you and me to look hard at our routines. Among these, we can consider the distances between our homes and workplaces, the sheer amount of time we spend commuting, the all-in costs of the cars we may need to do it, and the environmental, social and emotional toll of living far from work, grocery stores, our children’s schools and activities, our beloved elders and each other.
Is the suburban lifestyle really so serene? It’s certainly cheaper to buy or rent homes outside towns and cities. But the moment we choose to live on the fringes is the moment we become enslaved to our cars, spending hundreds of hours every year behind the wheel just to manage routine trips. The opposite of a benign relationship, cars and trucks cost more than $9,000 each year to own and operate, kill 40,000 Americans per year and injure millions more, measurably contribute to heart disease, cancer, and asthma and are the biggest carbon emitters in the United States. Even if our suburban housing costs less we’re being bankrupted by mobility.
A common theme among those who prefer the suburbs is a desire for big yards or proximity to nature, even if that entails mowing a poisoned monoculture lawn in the center of a socially engineered cul-de-sac community.
No doubt many of us choose suburbia or points further out because we want to stay away from urban crime, city schools and people unlike ourselves — fleeing from what we’ve defined as the “problem” rather than doing anything meaningful to solve it or fix our prejudices. These sentiments — resigned and helpless at best, selfish and racist at worst — have fueled the growth of suburbs for decades.
Meanwhile there’s a little silver lining to the COVID-19 crisis. We’re rediscovering the gift of time. Those of us lucky enough to be working from home find that the extra hour or two off the road each day offers some long-lost balance. Imagine if, post-virus you could use that time walking or biking to work, living the urbanist dream of having all your needs met within a mile or two of home. Densely developed, service- and pleasure-rich city life is quite the opposite of Kersten’s infected nightmare.
Although tragic, the virus has visibly improved some parts of our communities. People we’ve never seen outdoors are emerging like spring tulips, testing their tender feet on walks around the neighborhood. Entire families are mounting bikes on their newly safe, quiet, practically car-free streets. City residents are reveling in what their neighborhoods feel like without the stench of cars or the roar of commuter highway traffic.
In Minneapolis, the Park Board closed several parkways to cars in response to resident concerns about social distancing. The move was wildly popular and social media threads are filling with calls for more streets to be dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists, and not just during the current health crisis.
The experience of the virus offers a rare chance to plan for what we want and not what we inherited. Because cities and towns aren’t the problem — they’re the solution, and they exist in various forms and sizes all across our beautiful state. Let’s seize the opportunity to recover from the coronavirus collapse by investing in superb statewide and regional rail and transit systems, parks and gardens, beautiful, green and affordable multiunit residential communities, electric bicycle highways, solar roofs, shared renewable energy districts, dedicated busways and all of the other pleasing and proven urban sustainability features so many have envisioned for so long.
Mary Morse Marti, of St. Paul, is a Twin Cities urbanist. On Twitter: @MaryMorseMarti.