Informal Urbanism in the Post-COVID World

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve thought a bit here and there about urbanism. Some of this was motivated by my time thinking about and working in the boom towns of Western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. More recently, however, doing some research on the mid-century development of Grand Forks has likewise stimulated my interest in contemporary urbanism.

These interests prompted me to submit an application to serve on our town planning and zoning committee. We’ll see if my application is accepted.

It also got me thinking a bi about how the post-COVID world will shape urbanism. It seems to me that most of mid-century (and even earlier) urbanism sought to encourage clear delineations between spaces of work and domestic space with the post-war suburb representing a set of values that equated middle class lives with clear division between family life and work life. This distinguished the post-war company man from the kind of labor regimes defined by the company town, the farm, or the apartment above the shop.

The middle class suburban fantasy, of course, has broken down in multiple ways. In some cases, the dream of owning a home in a leafy suburbs is simply not economically possible for middle class Americans who have found themselves priced out of major housing markets. 

At the same time, the notion of discrete places for work and domestic life has become complicated by the rise of the gig economy. The workers we met and talked to in the Bakken, for example, often earned middle class incomes for their work, but their need to work long shifts, often on or near the work site, broke down the tidy divisions between domestic and work spaces. Moreover, their participation in an increasing national or even global version of the gig economy required a mobile life style that disrupted the notion of the fixed suburban abode.

The gig economy also blurs the work home divide even for individuals who live in conventional suburbs. The home office is now a standard feature in the suburban home and it often represents a good bit more than the “den” where household finances, for example, were managed or the occasional work project completed away from the office. The COVID pandemic will likely accelerate the trend toward working at home and make the home office all the more important part of domestic architecture. 

Of course, working at home especially in the gig economy has parallels with long standing practices associated with informal urbanism. In our town, there are a couple perpetual yard sales and I suspect, if one knew where to look, more than a few businesses run out of homes. Food trucks offer another example of informal urban practices that create more fluid urban environments. Parking lots at rapidly declining shopping centers have become spaces for occasional festivals and seasonal sales of produce and Christmas trees, and manifestations of latent potential for parking, but also for forms of reuse.   

If the future of work dissolves some of the fundamental expectations that created the post-war suburb, it is interesting to think about what forms of urbanism will replace it. To my mind, informal urbanism opens a grey area between the well-ordered expectation of the post-war years and the future urban forms that embrace changing economic and social realities of 21st labor. I can’t help imagine the leafy suburb developing into a more dynamic patchwork of business, home offices, housing, and gathering places that defy post-war standards. The question is how do we support these changes in a way that encourage more dynamic spaces throughout our communities while at the same time recognizing that these are not viable solutions to systemic problems in our economy that render more and more people reliant on ad hoc approaches to maintain a vestige of post-war middle class life.