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Social distancing revives America’s suburban instincts

A large cluster of homes in a Massachusetts subdivision.David L Ryan/Globe staff/file

The global pandemic is breathing new life into the American dream — our love of driving alone, of suburbs and wide-open spaces, big-box stores and big streets, and oversize single-family homes.

On the flip side, cities — for the last three decades enjoying a resurgence of popularity among millennials and aging boomers alike — are suddenly, physically, less desirable places to be. The urban condition is all about proximity, on the sidewalks and on the T, in elevators and apartment towers. But the urge for social distancing, and keeping 6 feet of space between individuals who do venture out, is being readily embraced. Those who can afford it have left town for country.


This isn’t the first time density has seemed dangerous. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, newly popular downtowns were suddenly considered targets. Public buildings were draped with security measures, the urban design equivalent of a cordon sanitaire.

Getting out of town is in our blood, from the earliest days of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson urged Americans to head West and become custodians of thousands of plots of untilled land. It was the very basis of our democratic society.

At the turn of the 20th century, as cities became known for pollution and pestilence, crime and crowds, American suburban zoning was born, codifying the separation of uses. No more tanneries next to tenement houses. From 1926 on — the date of the Supreme Court decision (Euclid v. Ambler Realty) confirming zoning as an extension of police powers to keep order — there would be separate zones for industrial, commercial, and residential activity, all kept apart by healthy distances.

Big-thinking architects jumped in to advocate for the dispersal. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City was a blueprint for horizontal living, taking advantage of modern technology to liberate the masses from more vertical clustering. His European counterpart, Le Corbusier, tried to bring more space — his mantra was “light and air” — into urban development. His proposed reconfiguration of central Paris, the Plan Voisin, inspired urban renewal in this country, leading to the bulldozing of cluttered neighborhoods like Boston’s West End, replaced by windswept plazas and towers in the park.


The real action, of course, was in the undeveloped countryside far outside cities: the great urban exodus following World War II, from Levittown in the 1950s to the far-flung frontiers of “exurban” development in Florida, Georgia, California, and beyond, miles from anywhere. The distant subdivision is well configured for sheltering in place, just skipping the handshakes after golf.

New residents move into their Levitt homes in Levittown, N.Y., in early October 1947. The town on New York's Long Island was America's first mass-produced suburb. Levittown Public Library/Associated Press

So what’s an urban dweller to do — especially those without the means to seek exile in summer homes? Even outdoor space is fraught, as public officials warn against using playgrounds where equipment is not wiped down regularly. The next best thing might be the meandering paths of the Esplanade or the Emerald Necklace, the “lungs” of the city that Frederick Law Olmsted so wisely anticipated as a balm to the urban bustle.

The city’s compactness makes it easy to step outside, round the corner, and find a pocket park. The tradition of the promenade will just get some extra buffering, with that 6 feet of separation that authorities suggest. A vast wilderness is not required.

Then there is the virtual world, which is the same for someone in an apartment in the South End as a McMansion in Hopkinton. Scholars have long theorized that the Internet would become a great spatial equalizer.


And while times might be tough now, history shows that cities endure. They are remarkably resilient, when people don’t give up on them. At the end of the 19th century, leaders responded to overcrowded tenement houses with social reforms and building codes; and to the scourge of cholera with the water, sewer, and sanitation infrastructure that serves metropolitan regions to this day. Whether it was succumbing to fate or simply getting over it, the exodus of people and commerce never really materialized after 9/11. In fact, more people have steadily streamed into cities, as unquestionably the place to be. Companies from GE on down recognize the pull of urban life for their workers.

In Italy, city dwellers are making the best of their country’s lockdown by singing to each other from the balconies that line their narrow, cobblestoned streets. Yankee reserve notwithstanding, we could do that here, too — in places like Beacon Hill, or just as easily on a cul-de-sac in the leafy periphery.

Opera singer Laura Baldassari leans out of her window to sing during a flash mob launched throughout Italy to bring people together and try to cope with the emergency of coronavirus, in Milan, Italy, on March 13.Luca Bruno/Associated Press

Indeed, parts of Boston have already embraced this urban serenading. In Jamaica Plain, 15 to 20 neighbors took to their porches at 6 p.m. Sunday to sing “Yellow Submarine." On Monday, they sang the Bob Marley ballad “Three Little Birds,” with its signature lyric: “Every little thing gonna be all right.”


Anthony Flint, a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, writes about architecture and urban design. He can be reached at anthony.flint@lincolninst.edu