This morning my wife and I woke up, as usual, to the insistent meowing of our two attention-starved 10 month old cats. Eventually we both got out of bed and started doing our thing on this lazy Sunday. I checked my email on the couch while indulging in a a cup of super cheap tasting coffee loaded with creamer so as to be drinkable. A little while later I grabbed a coffee stout and joined some friends in a virtual Zoom brunch. My wife, who’s always diving into new artistic and creative projects, retreated to our office and painted.
Let’s back up. Yesterday was Saturday… I went for a 24-mile round-trip solo bike ride up to Charlotte, and sat on the big rocks alongside the water at the Port of Rochester inlet on the banks of Lake Ontario. The sun was shining, and families were were enjoying one of the first breaks of winter weather while practicing social distancing.
Friday after work, Amanda and I enjoyed our weekly fish fry delivery from one of our favorite local establishments, Ken’s Pizza Corner. While we always enjoyed their pizza, we started doing a Friday fish fry to celebrate the end of our sometimes challenging work-from-home weeks.
Earlier in the week my wife made apple crisp for the first time… and in the style of The Great British Baking show (one of our favorites!) we even made our own caramel from scratch… which is incredible by the way. We had this for dinner one night while binge watching episodes of Community, which I can’t believe I’ve never seen. It’s a hilarious show.
While sometimes we get on each other’s nerves, we are doing just fine. Maybe even better than fine. Sure, we don’t have the added pressure of children, and we are both fully employed with little worry. But this has been a time for both of us to remember the simple things we both love to do that make us happy.
I’m not making light of an incredibly difficult time in our world’s history. People are dying. People are sick. People are losing family members and friends. Businesses are closing. Jobs are lost and lives are being made extremely difficult, even impossible. The effects of this time, however long it lasts, will ripple for years, if not decades. Public health will change forever. Our first world economies will face levels of austerity like we’ve never seen before, and for a long time.
But as a whole we are extremely fortunate. For most of us, food is still abundant. Most still have roofs over our heads and technology to help connect us to the outside world. Our basic needs are, for the most part, not in jeopardy, at least for now.
As a result, all we have to do is jump on social media to see what wonderful things parents are doing with their kids. Art projects, secluded hikes through nature and in-home blanket forts that take up entire rooms. Suddenly, virtual happy hours have negated the variable of distance with regard to the closeness of our friendships. A friend 300 miles away is now just as close as your neighbor next door.
People are cooking, working out, sharing their creations and learning new things. More people are walking around their neighborhoods than ever before, while practicing responsible physical distancing. With fewer cars on the road, pedestrians and cyclists are treated to a calm outdoor experience, even alongside our busiest roadways. The formally scary act of mask wearing has turned into a fashion statement as floral patterns, sports team colors and hilarious designs cover our faces.
Then there’s the fact that we don’t physically have to be somewhere all the time. Most days, I’m not rushing off to work… I’m sitting comfortably on my couch with a cat on my lap. When I finish work, I close my laptop, grab a drink and wind down into a relaxing evening. Maybe I join in a virtual happy hour, or a board or committee meeting for the urbanist organizations I am part of… but I don’t physically have to leave my work and rush to the next “thing” I have to do. My only transition might be from my laptop to my iPad, or a cup of coffee to can of craft beer. When I look at my calendar at the beginning of the week, there isn’t a feeling of stress that comes from thinking about getting from place to place to place in order to get everything done. The beautiful ability to do everything I need to do in one place is, quite frankly, incredibly relieving and refreshing. A sort of calm washes over me as I see all the things I suddenly don’t have to do.
Look… I’m one of those guys who constantly makes the mistake of saying yes to too many things, culminating in weeks of stress and over-commitment. I don’t like being complacent. I don’t really like how much the TV is on at our apartment (my wife likes having the TV on nearly all the time) and yet I find myself watching more often than not. I like to be active, I like to get out there and force myself to experience new things. And when you run a publication that, as humble as it is, has a national audience, the self-inflicted pressure of constantly having to produce meaningful content keeps me buzzing. I like to be doing, consuming, creating and producing. Complacency isn’t me.
And yet, while staying at home, I have just had more time to do the things I want to do. I’ve had more time to evaluate the things that I want to continue doing, and what I can shed temporarily or permanently instead of continuing to commit to things that don’t serve a purpose or make me happy. I have more space in my life right now than I have had in some time, and I have to tell you… it’s nice. Real nice.
I miss hugs, connecting with friends, seeing their smiling faces and subtle changes in their expression, hearing their laugh without some sort of abrupt digital echo. I miss biking somewhere. I feel like my bike trips are just “there and back” for the sake of riding right now. I like to have a REASON to ride, even if it’s just hitting up a local brewery on a nice day. I miss a fun night out with my wife or friends. Other than that, I really find that the added stress of this time is virtually negated by the other life stresses that have been negated as a result of physical distancing. In fact, all things considered, I might be less stressed now than I was when life was “normal.” I acknowledge my privilege in being able to say that, of course, so I can only speak for me, right now. It may be very different for others, and it may be very different for me and everyone else in the near future. But for right now, this new way of life just isn’t that bad.
Let’s look at this with regard to our cities. Human scale density, much like we find in our small and mid-sized cities, will welcome a new generation of city dwellers who want the luxury of “just around the corner” urbanism with easier access to secluded nature and a scalable level of human contact. The ability to live a life close to grocery stores, jobs, bars, restaurants and community resources while giving residents and visitors a feeling of appropriate space and safety will likely be a coveted luxury that smaller cities have in abundance. The stress-free experience of a car-lite or car-free life which still connects us to nature will become increasingly valuable as meaningful density must also include access to all that Mother Nature has to offer. Smaller cities will be a destination of choice for Americans in the very near future, especially in a post Covid-19 world. Human-scale density AND personal space will be a coveted commodity in the near future, and cities must prepare accordingly.
I truly believe that cities have the ability and responsibility to re-introduce us to a simpler life. That might sound contradictory to the traditional perception of cities… most see urban cores as places that overwhelm our senses with noise, speed, and crowds. But the true power of urbanity is that which removes us from the shackles of a life ruled by our time in the car and great distances between resources and destinations. In a perfect world, our homes, jobs, schools, daycar and entertainment options would only be a stones throw away… but it’s possible, all through the central beliefs of New Urbanism. Urban space gives us options, and options give us the true meaning of flexibility. Let’s stop seeing urban cores as a threat to our way of life, and see them as engines that give us the ultimate freedom… the freedom of choice.