COVID-19 has not only changed the way we live, but looks set to change where we live too. Case in point: online searches for houses in suburban areas rose by 13 percent in May. As Robert Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, said in a recent report: “The flight to the suburbs is real.”
It’s a trend that’s particularly visible in a megalopolis like New York City, where, The Wall Street Journalreports, moves to neighboring Connecticut have more than doubled from 2019. “We’re seeing an uptick in sales that we haven’t seen in years, particularly in homes priced at $1.5 million and above,” confirms Karla Murtaugh, Realtor at Neumann Real Estate in Ridgefield. “Many New York City residents who rented properties here during the city’s shutdown in March decided to buy after experiencing the amazing lifestyle, beautiful surroundings, and nationally ranked schools on offer.”
But, while suburban markets are experiencing a boom, many housing economists warn that urban property values could be facing a corresponding long-term decline. So, should we be looking to urban renewal as a way to save our cities?
“Yes,” says human geography expert Joel Kotkin, “the traditional roles of cities have to be integrated with the new realities of the age.” But what needs to happen to attract new residents to a city, when urban buzz often comes at the cost of the fresh air, greater space, and outdoor areas on which we now place such a premium?
It can be done if we develop a new paradigm, says Kotkin, presidential fellow in urban futures at California’s Chapman University. “Cities need to compete for their residents on the basis of quality of life. They need to offer better choices and up their game in terms of amenities.”
It’s no longer about just building a tower where people live, but rather an entire ecosystem in order to flourish—Michael Berkowitz
In that respect, Los Angeles—long known as a “city of villages,” comprising many small incorporated towns, with business districts close to adjacent residential streets—has led the way since its inception. Kotkin fondly remembers his years in Studio City, “where everyone worked from home, but there were thousands of businesses and restaurants, and lots of places to meet.”
Irvine, a newer city in nearby Orange County that was developed in the 1960s and ’70s, took a leaf from L.A.’s book, says Kotkin. He cites it as a model example of a planned community with good services, plenty of green space, and jobs on its doorstep, adding that the other American cities that will fare best are those with dispersed city centers instead of a single downtown. “The ideal is having everything you need—work, schools, entertainment, and recreational facilities—within a 20-minute walk, a 10-minute bike ride, or a five-minute drive from your home.”
Cities need to compete for their residents on the basis of quality of life, and up their game in terms of amenities—Joel Kotkin
Examples of cities that are already getting it right include Phoenix, Dallas, Austin, Kansas City, and San Antonio. In the case of Phoenix, says Dub Dellis, chief operating officer at Walt Danley Realty and a lifetime local of the city, it’s because “while the city of Phoenix is massive in terms of area—almost 25 times larger than Manhattan—the downtown cores of each of the surrounding communities really have identities of their own. They have great restaurants, as well as live performance venues, and art galleries. Our developers saw the opportunity to create communities.”
The Best of Both
So, could mixed-use developments, which combine the best elements of both city and suburban life, be the way forward? Yes, says Michael Berkowitz, a New York-based urban-resilience expert and founding principal of Resilient Cities Catalyst, which helps cities around the world to prepare for extraordinary challenges, such as hurricanes, droughts, terrorist attacks, or pandemics. He believes Domino Park, a development in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, represents the face of the future.
Here, developer Two Trees Management converted the disused Domino Sugar Refinery into residential buildings, along with neighborhood gathering areas and dedicated retail spaces—including a yoga studio, wine store, and Michelin-starred restaurant. “It’s no longer about just building a tower where people live,” Berkowitz explains, “but rather an entire ecosystem in order to flourish.”
A city’s resilience is ultimately about the capacity to withstand whatever the next crisis is—Michael Berkowitz
Kees Kaan, a Dutch architect who has practices in Paris, São Paulo, and Rotterdam, is applying the same principles in his urban dispersal project for the rapidly growing French city of Nantes. His aim: to create a new neighborhood with its own commercial heart. “It has good transport links with the city center, but isn’t suburban at all,” he explains. “It also has all the amenities people need, including its own main street and central boulevard.”
Kaan is also transforming an area of southeast Amsterdam, which was once dominated by dreary office buildings. The project, named Spot, will “create an urban village, with areas that are safe to play in and accessible only to cyclists and pedestrians.” Its design will allow for copious green space, and will reconfigure residential and office spaces across several buildings.
The city has been under siege for centuries, with ups and downs, but it’s always regained popularity—Kees Kaan
Renewed Greenery—and Growth
On the need for increased greenery in urban areas, the experts are unanimous—with Berkowitz citing it as “a non-negotiable.” As a result, biophilic design, a movement that aims to bring nature into the home, is rapidly gaining ground. It’s a way to create a green interior, which goes far beyond house plants, says U.K.-based designer Oliver Heath. “Living walls and interior water features enhance a home’s connection to nature,” he explains, “and this is rapidly becoming an essential for homeowners, not just a nice-to-have.” “That kind of access to nature and outdoor spaces is what’s getting us through this crisis,” adds Berkowitz, “and resilience is ultimately about the capacity to withstand whatever the next crisis is.”
Happily, another point the experts agree on is that the city will survive—even if it falls out of fashion temporarily. “It’s been under siege for centuries, with ups and downs, but it’s always regained popularity,” says Kaan. And Berkowitz points out that the arrival of an effective COVID-19 vaccine could create its own shift. “When that happens, more people will once again want to be near to others, in the places that have traditionally been the hubs of innovation, wealth, and creativity—the cities.”
On the Market
Within an easy walk along tree-lined streets to surrounding stores and restaurants—and just over an hour away from New York City—this home offers the very best of life in Connecticut. Beautifully updated, the six-bedroom property is on the market with Neumann Real Estate and includes a private library, two home offices, a gourmet kitchen, and park-like landscaped grounds.
This magnificent home, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Bing Hu, is situated in the coveted Biltmore Estates Circle and is on the market with Walt Danley Realty. Designed for comfortable living and effortless entertaining, the five-bedroom property includes a chef’s kitchen and two offices, along with an upper floor dedicated to the master suite and a large gym. A detached two-story guest house, large pool, and spa can be found within its lush, landscaped grounds.
Banner image: Domino Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn