Guest Post by Alex Morales, Assoc. AIA, EDAC, LEED GA, Structural Steel Specialist, American Institute of Steel Construction

Recently, in the calamity of COVID, there has been much hype across the real estate, design, and construction industries with claims of an exodus back to the suburbs.

Predominantly, it appears, the logic is focused on the flexibility of the “new” work-from-home model. While there are many variable perspectives on why life in the suburbs is the next big trend, the general argument goes something like this: Why would someone congregate in COVID-ridden urban cores and live in relatively higher-priced environments when presented with the opportunity to live in the spaciousness of the suburbs. Remote working, after all, cancels the requirement to report to a traditional office setting. Just choose your favorite platform, and you’ll be at work in no time.

Given the bushy-eyed enthrallment for a move to the suburbs by industry pundits, we should wonder if somewhere in this eager forecasting lies the sleeping arguments previously made as a collective industry of builders. These arguments celebrated the ideas of densification, urban living, and the all too familiar live, work, and play concept that was monikered into the fabric of city living. While there is undoubtedly value in proclaiming that professionals in the built environment need to respond to the saveur du jour, one must also be diligent in remembering the original commitments to shepherd the balance of human habitats and why the appeal of urban living still makes sense. Here are three arguments for why a flock to the suburbs is unlikely.

First, there’s the business case. In the past decades, the development industry has invested heavily in urbanism. Millions of dollars have been poured into an urban infrastructure that includes a myriad of living options from which to choose, transportation seemingly arriving at one’s doorstep, cultural revitalization feeding on an urban buzz, and diverse businesses that capitalize on the dense foot traffic lured by the convenience of it all. It would be a monumental and presumptuous undertaking to suddenly ask the real estate gods to abandon ship, make an about-face, and shift resources to the suburbs. A vast sea of real estate product, new and refurbished, is on the line, propped by an army of stakeholders vying for its success. Even in the age of COVID, it is unlikely that these properties would be forsaken to entertain impromptu developments in the suburbs. Though it is evident that the pandemic has resulted in a culture shift for how people work and, yes, that there has been an increase in home purchases in the suburbs, there is still no proven indication that this will be a sustained market behavior.

Let us now examine market confidence through a more consistent and measurable trend – the rise of densification, specifically through the lens of a very familiar group. Enter the millennial, again. Before the news cycle focused on 24-hour coverage of the election, alongside ravenous updates to the pandemic pandemonium, this group was the darling of much discussion highlighting their influence on market trends, including trends affecting the construction markets. Undoubtedly, much of the focus on the millennial impact is due to their chunky population numbers and purchasing power. And while they are now either having babies or highly considering adulting, there is no indication that there has been a drastic shift in cultural likes and preferences. Take, for example, my own hometown of Houston. Under the shadows of steel and romantically glazed skyscrapers, in big Space City, lies a neighborhood in east downtown.

East downtown, also known as EaDo after being rebranded by the genius marketing machine that is real estate, is home to large numbers of sunglasses wearing Yads (young dads) pushing strollers with toddlers dangling one foot out into the air. Millennials are growing up, and many of those who have taken an alternate route by leaving the swanky apartment life are not necessarily opting for life in the suburbs.

They are sticking around. In this neighborhood, like in so many others across the nation, millennials have invested in revitalizing previously sleepy neighborhoods. Allegedly because of the boomer legacy, millennials have resorted to paying off debt and leaning on resourcefulness and frugality, especially in creating and supporting their new families. On any given day, you can find them congregating in their familiar urban burrows, with a latte here and a CrossFit over there. Many have purchased fixer-uppers as their first homes on the wings of economy, taking on a Chip and Joanna Gaines challenge of sorts. Replacing the once ubiquitous water-guzzling lawns that shaped the 1950’s era bungalows in EaDo, allegedly also gifted by boomers, you now find mini farmsteads, fully equipped with the latest red tomatoes. On one street, someone outdid the Jones’s by installing a self-made cistern for storm water harvesting. If you know Houston, zoning allows for some crafty creations, so these urban farmers aren’t likely to find the dreaded violation notice come harvest time.

Furthermore, millennials are upping the ante by setting up side hustles, like street side coffee houses, or fully committing to new day jobs in neighborhood businesses like El Segundo, a local watering hole where you will find all sorts of exciting folk basking in Houston’s endless summer rays. Then, of course, you have breweries, an enterprise seemingly founded, built, and supported entirely by millennials who have now recruited gen-z’s in adopting familiar habits. A cycle primed for repetition. When it comes to the business case, it is simple. Supply and demand. There is more than enough evidence to suggest being in these inner-city enclaves, where there is plentiful supply and demand, is for the long haul.

Our second argument brings us to a movement that has been baking even longer, sustainable design and construction. Let us imagine for a moment that suddenly, a stampede of ex-urbanites will frenzy their way to greener pastures and stake flags for a claim to dirt in the suburbs. It is expected that a surge in suburban population will result in the need for the supporting infrastructure demanded by these new suburbanites. Folks are likely to still be human, and old habits die hard. The demand for a live, work, play mode is not only probable, it is expected – even in the suburbs.

Suddenly we find ourselves with an explosion of dotted micro-cities setting up shop in the ‘burbs. As an industry of professionals in building environments, what would our response be in the face of yesterday’s commitment to sustainability? What of the revitalization efforts that were meticulously outlined for our urban cores, those that resonate with the canons of sustainable design, that provide services that are proximate in nature, that makes sense in terms of clustering distribution of our food based on least distance traveled – all those things that not only are no-brainers to the triple bottom line, but that also help us arrive at smaller carbon footprints with an air of dignified selflessness? If we respond by diverting resources to develop in suburbia, which exists for reasons outside of COVID, rather than problem-solving for how best to navigate the pandemic with the infrastructure we already have, we would almost certainly be complicit in throw-away architecture.

The final reason for why a mass move to the suburbs is unlikely is also quite simple. It’s too soon. Yes, it seems as if COVID has been with us for an eternity, and it is time for it to go. But it’s too soon to wave the white flag and surrender our cities to the pandemic. If there is a sustained legacy from the impact of COVID, it is arguably that remote work is here to stay, raising the need for office space and its fate post-pandemic. Rest assured that the brilliant minds of ingenuity are already at work propelling purpose to the heartbeat of these spaces, through innovation and imagination, but still within the context of urbanism. Most compelling, perhaps, is that we are on the precipice of having more than one viable vaccine offering to finally give us respite and a return to familiar habits, precisely the typical patterns that will keep us anchored to life in our great American cities.

Alex Morales is Assoc. AIA, EDAC, LEED GA, Structural Steel Specialist (Houston Market), at the American Institute of Steel Construction.