Mr. Lovell’s opinion piece brings up an interesting question regarding growing cities, particularly density and transportation. Over past decades, urban sprawl has led to congested highways and increased air pollution, both resulting in health issues. Urban planners have pressed for increased housing density and more mass transit. As Mr. Lovell asks, “will the current pandemic spawn any possibility of slowing the rate of increasing density in our residential areas?”
COVID-19 calls into question modern urban design concepts. However, after a vaccine is produced and the memory of the crisis fades, the same urban problems will exist unless there is a drastic reduction in urban population growth. Increased density is inevitable as cities remain magnets of employment and social engagement. They will also be magnets for health problems.
If, however, the impact of the pandemic is significant enough, people and businesses may reevaluate the concept of massive urban centers and megacities. A new era of out migration and the revitalization of small town America could occur.
There are hundreds of quaint towns and villages located in the vast and scenic national hinterland that have seen out-migration over the decades as America’s rural regions have experienced significant losses in jobs and population. Some towns are on the verge of dying.
These small towns offer very affordable real estate and property. Old Victorian fixer-uppers are available for a fraction of the cost of their urban counterparts. Large lots with old trees exist. Some towns have the traditional Main Street, the town square and neighborhood parks. Some are decrepit and need a makeover. Businesses are few and generally focused on very local needs or there may be the one large employer that sustains economic life.
There are towns on rivers and lakes, in mountain valleys, on the coast, or on rolling plains where one can see forever. Many have small airfields or rail connections. What these towns need are people and an upgrade in infrastructure. That, and some vision along with vigor, can transform these declining towns into thriving communities. The synergy of people and enterprises will attract larger healthcare facilities and the services offered in cities.
Given the extensive national coverage of the internet and emerging satellite technology, along with the use of drones, have reduced the need for information technology-based enterprises to crowd into cities. “Work from home” is proving to be doable. On-line learning allows even a small town school to be connected to the larger educational establishment and the value of large physical schools may come into question in the post-COVID 19-era. Shopping is done on-line. A new paradigm is emerging.
Dying small rural towns can become vibrant communities again. Instead of going to huge stadiums to watch professional sports, residents can go to the local high school or sports club contest where the athletes will be approachable. The local theater troupe will offer affordable entertainment and be the birthplace for new actors and emerging talent. Restaurants can still have wonderful culinary talent that offer excellent dining experiences based on true farm to table ingredients. As the small town economies grow and attract wealthy professionals and local entrepreneurs are successful, small towns will grow to small cities that offer a higher quality of life than the overcrowded and unhealthy megacities. Young people will actually be able to afford a nice house without massive debt.
There will always be big cities. Until the end of World War II, America was indeed “small town” with a large part of the population living in rural areas or small cities. There were a few large cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, and Seattle that had large industrial complexes that employed thousands of workers. That will not change, but for businesses that do not require thousands of workers and a very large physical plant with a commercial infrastructure, rural small towns and cities offer alternative forms of living.
Smaller towns and cities provide a great lifestyle and where “social distancing” health protocols can be easily implemented when the next inevitable epidemic or pandemic emerges. History shows COVID-19 will not be the last epidemic, and dense cities will always be ground zero for diseases.
Instead of facing a future of decreased lot sizes, high density housing complexes/high rises, crowded roads and making mass transit systems efficient and affordable, American businesses and families should give consideration to becoming modern pioneers. Rural America offers tremendous opportunities for those with the courage and vision to take the chance.