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Columbia after Covid-19: The increasing appeal of a new type of suburbia

Sometimes I can't believe I'm moving past the feeling... that I'm a city-person. After 20 years in DC, and not even after one in Columbia, I must say, the suburbs aren't so bad after all. And it's not just me, over the past decade, suburbia has been changing to attract young families like mine who seek city amenities in suburban locations - higher density housing, easy access to daily needs, walkable bikeable streets, a strong sense of community, plenty of green spaces, and high-end dining options. The first half of the 2010s were characterized by the growth of cities, but even before Covid-19, that growth had begun to stagnant. Instead, vibrant mixed-use suburban environments that combine the best parts of city and suburban living have been springing up to meet the demographic demands of millennials, young Gen Xers, and all those who value interactions and experiences over material possessions. The revitalization of downtown Columbia will surely act as a magnet for young families who still desire urban amenities but now also seek excellent public schools and all the programs, parks, paths, and pools that make Columbia such a great place to raise a family. And of course, for Columbia, the uniqueness of having a historic world class outdoor amphitheater anchor our downtown revival brings an authenticity and coolness that other "cities in the suburbs" lack.

One has to wonder how the coronavirus crisis will change these geographic trends. Will the boring suburbs win out over the thrill of the city? Will Howard County continue be to the fastest growing county in the state? I believe it will. City dwellers currently quarantined in apartment buildings will be increasing drawn away from city crowds. I suspect that COVID-19 has forced a paradigm shift in the way people will work for decades to come. As more and more of the region’s workforce learns how to work remotely, one has to wonder if telework arrangements will persist well beyond this crisis, particularly in this region where the #1 employer - the Federal Government - has many federal agencies that had already begun to accept routine telework arrangement even prior to 2020. An employee who is fortunate enough to have the ability to work from home has more freedom in choosing their place to live. And given that choice, I believe that more people will be drawn to places like Columbia that provides more space and natural beauty while also boosting cultural and economic diversity.

On the other hand, even though Howard County has been attracting more and more employers, many Howard County residents still need to endure a daily commute to job hubs in DC or Baltimore. In a post Covid world, for those HoCo commuters who must continue to commute to our nearby cities, the idea of returning to crowded trains and buses is anxiety-inducing. We have obviously seen a tremendous drop in transit ridership across the country over the past several months, and one has to wonder whether we will ever see ridership return to pre-pandemic numbers. The DC Metro won't even resume full service operation until at least some point in 2021. Those who otherwise might have an eye on the suburbs may now be increasing reluctant to accept public transit as an acceptable part of their daily routine. Despite all the benefits of public transit in providing access to gainful meaningful employment for so many and for being such an important part of combating climate change, I worry that a decline in transit ridership will lead to an increase in carbon emissions and rising economic inequalities.

The Merriweather District - Columbia's Future downtown core.

While the immediate economic crisis will certainly bring with it many short-term and medium term economic challenges for our county; in the long-term, I predict that suburban environments like ours will flourish. The New York Times just featured a piece about New Yorkers permanently fleeing the city for homes in the burbs. If these predictions hold true, and the appeal of suburbia grows stronger, Howard County could see even faster growth than projected as Baltimore and DC residents are lured in by the sirens of our diverse and cultural-rich home.

While the potential growth of Howard County could certainly bring economic benefit, it also comes with many challenges; housing affordability, equity considerations, and climate concerns come immediately to mind. The urbanism movement has traditionally concentrated on housing, transportation, and public policies in cities; but now the long term vision of a socially, economically, and environmentally healthy community could become equally important in suburban areas as well (if it hadn't already). Gentrification - the displacement of longtime residents due to skyrocketing housing costs and other factors - is the downside of rapid growth. Continuing Columbia's proud tradition of ensuring housing choices that are accessible to people of all income levels and backgrounds will become more important than ever. Fortunately, the 30 year master plan to transform Columbia's central core into a dynamic regional destination also established the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation to promote the development of affordable housing downtown. While this is a significant step in the right direction, we must fight to ensure that the Rouse vision of Columbia - a place that values diversity, ensures all who work here can afford to live here, and is a responsible steward for the environment - continues to persist.

P.S.: While we are on the topic of population growth, if you haven't done so already; please complete the census. It's important!


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