How COVID Will Change the Suburbs
As People Flee Congestion and the Virus, Suburbs Stand to Gain

Five Takeaways:

The suburbs of old – white, child-centered – are no more: They were built for returning World War II veterans in the 1940s and 1950s, and were the destination of white flight in the 1960s and 1970s. Today’s suburban areas are both older and more diverse. Whites have dropped from 77% to 66% of the suburban population (2000 to 2018 comparison); Latino and Asians have almost doubled their shares of the population. Politically, rural areas are getting redder and urban areas are getting bluer, while the suburbs – historically red and conservative – are in a dead-even tug of war for control.

The COVID pandemic has caused panic, but it might not last: It’s true that real estate agents are seeing houses outside core cities get snapped up in bidding wars. Now that work can be Zoomed from anywhere, people no longer need to be tethered to the central business district. “We certainly have quite a bit of anecdotal evidence on this,” said Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center, which has several resources documenting social and population changes in the suburbs. “And it probably varies from metropolitan area to metropolitan area.” Solid numbers – such as from the U.S. Census Bureau – won’t emerge until mid-2021. But many employers are liking the lower costs that come from shuttered offices.

Large suburban areas are growing in importance: Demographers consider “large suburban” areas to be the 370 outlying counties that surround the nation’s 52 largest metro areas. And they are growing – in absolute and relative terms. As a share of the nation’s population, rural areas have lost ground, while small metro areas and core cities are stagnant. The large suburban areas have steadily picked up strength, from a fifth of the nation’s population in 1970 to a fourth of it today. “They are attracting a rising fraction of the nation’s population,” Fry said.

The drive to “retrofit suburbia” faces six main challenges: June Williamson of the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York said suburbs need to disrupt their dependence on automobiles, improve the public health infrastructure and support an aging population. Suburbs that encourage a car-heavy, sedentary lifestyle could be remade recreational trails and expanded pedestrian environments. “Modest amounts of physical activity – encouraged and supported by how places are planned and built or rebuilt – are a low-cost cure,” Williamson said.

Different countries plan cities and suburbs differently: In Australia, planning is done at the state or regional level. In the U.S., it’s at the city or town level. “And that changes the way the development happens,” said Brian O’Looney, an architect with Torti Gallas and Partners, which works in cities around the world. Suburban developments 25 miles outside of a city might have the same population density as in that city, with apartment towers instead of single-family homes.


This program was funded by Bayer LLC. The National Press Foundation and the Association of Foreign Press Correspondents in the United States are solely responsible for the content.
June Williamson
Department Chair and Associate Professor, City College of New York's Spitzer School of Architecture
Richard Fry
Senior Researcher, Pew Research Center
Brian O’Looney
Principal, Torti Gallas + Partners and Author of “Increments of Neighborhood"
Richard Fry Presentation
June Williamson Presentation
Brian O'Looney Presentation
Full Q&A
Subscribe on YouTube
More Presentations
Help Make Good Journalists Better
Donate to the National Press Foundation to help us keep journalists informed on the issues that matter most.
You might also like
A “Perfect Storm for Death”