Honeychurch found the people dull and their aspirations banal. The neighbors were pleasant, but their “identical interests and identical foes,” as she put it, became suffocating. Suburbia, she concluded, was actually a horror.
Honeychurch might as well be a Millennial Brooklynite media professional prepping for the launch of negroni season at the local gastropub, or an activist shaking her fist at local NIMBYs opposed to denser, transit-and-biking-friendly infill development. But no, she is the protagonist in E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room With a View, a biting critique of Edwardian English life, including the drab boredom of suburbia.
By the time Forster was writing, people had been mocking the suburbs for centuries. In the late middle ages, the agrarian and mercantile peasants of the European suburbium were mostly seen as underclasses to the urban gentry. The 18th-century London neighborhoods of Marylebone, Mayfair, and others continued that tradition. In 1897, the martians of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds began their wrath there, on the outskirts, where life was deemed so wretched as to earn even the extraterrestrials’ first strike. That scorn persisted: “Little boxes, all the same,” went a popular Malvina Reynolds song about cookie-cutter homes in 1962. The same sneer perseveres today.
But rejecting mixed-use planning has made suburban communities unexpectedly resilient in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not so appealing to be able to walk to the corner café for brunch (a cooked omelet, presumably) when the venue has been shut down by shelter-in-place orders. Even as restaurants and retailers reopen, dining in or shopping has been degraded by the coronavirus: Restaurant occupancy is restricted by social distancing; establishments are struggling to make ends meet; and worries about contamination in enclosed, air-conditioned spaces damage the experience. All of that might return to normal eventually, but by the time it does, the gastropubs and ice-cream parlors may have gone under anyway. The coffee shops may convert for good into tableless pickup stands. Commercial catastrophe will affect the allure of existing mixed-use developments far more than single-use, low-density residential communities, which never relied on those benefits as a condition of residency.
But America is not South Korea or Singapore. Americans have been running away from dense, vertical design for a century. Those who already prefer sparse, low-slung living will likely use their fear of COVID-19 to entrench their preference.
At the very least, the interior design of their homes might change in a post-pandemic world. The ranch house might seem natural to many Americans, but it was designed for a wholly different era. Starting in the 1930s, the ranch was cobbled together from a motley crew of unlikely sources and inspirations. Its interiors combined the minimalism of European high modernism (which was influenced by another outbreak, tuberculosis) with the Spanish ranchos and the tamed naturalism of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Usonian home designs and vision for a suburban utopia exalted individualism at communal scale.
Ranches often fused dining and living areas together, a design that would evolve into the now-ubiquitous great room. But their interior design also borrowed some of the visual and symbolic trappings of the dude ranch—all that wood paneling in bedrooms and dens, on kitchen cabinets, or in the exposed rafters of cathedral ceilings. Even the barbecue grill was adapted in part from the western ranch, built into a kitchen or patio in some early California designs.
Conveniences like grills offer more reasons to enjoy staying home. The modern, electric residence, with its refrigerator and dishwasher and washing machine and the like, helped consolidate activities that previously required outside contact, such as laundry or daily milk delivery, into efforts pursued in the home. Those devices anchored gender norms and invented ever more new labor to fill the time saved—but they also reinforced the inclination of realizing ever more needs and desires at home. A new gadget or appliance (and space to house it) produced an even greater sense of self-sufficiency—and more reason to seek out more space, and more gadgets. Suburban houses keep growing in part because they internalize more and more public amenities.
Now homeowners are outfitting their private enclaves further, with backyard vacation spots and luxurious pool resorts, unsure how long the coronavirus threat will persist. Chest freezers have sold out too, as consumers with room to house them seek to become better prepared in case future viral surges press them back inside. Threats of meat shortages due to supply problems and outbreaks at meatpacking plants made freezers feel newly essential. (Poetically, they also renew the American ranch home’s historical connection to the actual ranch, where cattle and therefore beef were plentiful.) Those with the means, space, and cultural proclivity to do so might make food stockpiling a mainstream practice, rather than a fringe neurosis for the paranoid. In the late 1990s, the old cellar evolved into the suburban wine room, a luxury replacing a necessity. Now it might yet devolve back into the second pantry, an unlikely marriage between the 17th century and the 21st. We’re all homesteaders now.
American homes are extravagant, having swelled from about 1,500 square feet on average in 1973 to more than 2,400 in 2018. After the pandemic, memory of the novel utility of all that space could justify even more of it. Some companies have already declared their intention to let workers telecommute forever, and real-estate analysts anticipate more companies eliminating or curtailing expensive commercial leases to save money. If more workplaces offer even some of those benefits, the appeal (and potential tax deduction) of home-office space, among others, might make big, suburban homes even more desirable. His-and-hers walk-in closets are already common, along with separate master bathrooms. As development evolves, his-and-hers offices might appear in new builds or as retrofits in existing homes.
The existing suburban McMansion might find a new life in the aftermath of the pandemic too. Although critics have deemed these homes aesthetically ghastly, inefficient, and extravagant, many families want the additional space of a suburban monstrosity to accommodate extended family, such as parents or grandparents. Multigenerational living might become even more common as the coronavirus threat and its economic consequences wear on. Colleges are still sorting out whether and how students will return to campus in the fall, and beyond. And recent graduates unable to find jobs, or unwilling to move to them, might return home for indeterminate periods of time. The exurban castle offers lots of space at an affordable price, thanks to its distance from the city.