Let’s look on the bright side. As someone whose home is in the center of London, I have to admit that cities have become much more pleasant to live in since lockdown. There’s less noise, less traffic, less pollution. Same in New York. “You can hear the birds singing,” says the architect Tom Kligerman of Ike Kligerman Barkley. “Walking through Midtown, I saw the streets strewn with pink petals from the trees. It shows what a city could be.” Unfortunately, as both Tom and I have discovered, there’s not the same point in being here. No theater, no opera, no fun. Everyone who has a second home in the country has decamped, leaving, as one restaurant owner complained to me, “only scumbags who complain about the service charge on a cup of coffee, when they’ve been sitting on my chairs and waited on by one of my staff.” Although the restaurant is long-established and has always done well, it will probably be forced to close, unless there’s an unexpected change to the COVID rules and a more understanding attitude from the local authority. They used to say it’s grim up north. Now it’s gloomy down the metropolitan southeast.
Across the world, buyers have been stampeding into the country property market. Around New York, what were already dizzy prices on Long Island and elsewhere have gone stratospheric. One buyer, I’m told, has purchased a home for $50 million, simply for the site. The existing building will be torn down and replaced in the style of the modern billionaire, perhaps doubling the spend. A recent article in Bloomberg Wealth revealed that prices in Greenwich, Connecticut, this summer were nearly three times what they had been a year before. In England, the architect Hugh Petter of ADAM Architecture says he’s “never been busier.” Hugh works at the high end of the country house market, but it’s the same at all levels. The other day I was walking the bounds of a Gloucestershire village with one of the inhabitants, a keen archaeologist. As we stomped through ancient woodland, looking for prehistoric burial mounds, he gave an update on the more recent history of the parish. Before COVID, there were six or seven properties on the market. “Whoosh, they’ve all gone. To Londoners, and a couple of them doctors.” Clearly a doctor would know when it was a good moment to bail out of the capital, and these two have jumped.
This is doubly remarkable because, before March, the countryside had fallen behind. Under the old-fashioned model, dating probably from the era of the burial mound, economic activity in London would stimulate prices to rise in the capital, then the effect would then ripple out to rural areas, as residents of Fulham took advantage of the difference in value, sold up, and bought country houses in Hampshire. Since 2007, this hasn’t happened. Nervous about their financial prospects, young families — usually the ones to move out — clove to the capital. Besides, London was doing too well. The party was too exciting to leave. Foreigners kept piling in. You’d be mad to sell up and rusticate, because London prices would keep rising, your country cottage wouldn’t keep pace — you’d never get back in. Now it’s the other way around. London prices are tottering. Some of us take a wry pleasure in knowing that the luxury towers for Asian buyers that have been disfiguring the skyline won’t sell, bankrupting the speculators behind them. But in rational moments, that seems scant consolation.
It is a global phenomenon, fueled by not only the pandemic but similar issues affecting the property market around the world. It’s difficult for young people to buy in cities. Now out-of-town places that they might not previously have considered, given the great time they were having, look more possible. Their friends are doing it. Besides, despite the price rises seen in these volatile months, many country and suburban homes are within their budget. Which is something that, even now, can rarely be said of prime real estate in a major city.
For life in general, this augurs well. Fortunately for me, my work rituals don’t involve catching a commuter train first thing in the morning: I need do no more than stagger from my bedroom to the study on the floor below. When I do commute, boy, do I feel badly treated by the world. Do you know how unpleasant it is to be rammed against other human beings, unable to read a newspaper without elbowing a fellow passenger in the nose? Well, possibly you do because many workers have to undergo this torture every day. It may just about be worth it for the high earners, who can go home to a beautiful home in the evenings, having perhaps taken in a show after work. But for the people working in accounts, who can derive no benefit from the capital because shows are expensive and they must hurry home to somewhere that isn’t that great, it’s misery. Expensive misery, given the cost of a season ticket, at that.
There’s no point in someone like that having to slog into an office every day. Of course, some people in accounts do have to slog in: I have been surprised to discover how many payment runs cannot be made unless people are physically on the office computer — or is that only the excuse I am given when chasing fees? Most things can be done from home. Let’s not go into the pros and cons of home-working: suffice it to say that, say, coastal towns that potentially offer a good quality of life — time to go sailing at the end of the day, friendly faces behind the checkout coronavirus screen — ought to do well. We have a holiday place in Ramsgate, on the south coast. It has been struggling to get back on its feet after a difficult twentieth century (too close to France during the Second World War, then the closure of the Kent coal mines in the 1980s, coinciding with the collapse of the British holiday industry) and has only so far succeeded in attracting a boho crowd who have brought color but not prosperity. Places like Ramsgate might appeal to a wealthier crowd who can admire the famous Sands for three days a week and go into the office, by the superfast Javelin train — an hour and fifteen minutes, soon to go down to an hour — for the other two.
Across the world, buyers have been stampeding into the country property market.
Ramsgate is what the Journal of the American Planning Association would call a “gateway community.” It is a small town near something pleasant — in this case the beach. We bought our place there because prices were cheap. That fact has been noticed by a crowd of artists, creatives, and escapees from London, which gives it a scruffy charm. A study published by the Journal recently calculates that there are around fifteen hundred Ramsgates across the United States: towns of fewer than twenty-five thousand people, each within ten miles of a national park, monument, forest, lake, or river, and some way from a major city. Even before COVID, people had started to notice that these were nice places to live and it was possible to work remotely from them. Now, suddenly, they’ve become the flavor of the month. These will be the new boom towns as buyers who were previously chained to city or suburbs break free.
Be warned: this movement, which promises so much for improving the general quality of lifestyles, won’t be popular with the folk already living there. We’ve had the same thing with pretty villages in Britain. You might have thought that locals would be pleased to see their homes increase in value, while benefiting from the superior savoir faire and improved coffee shops brought by the incomers. Doesn’t work like that. They only see their children being unable to afford a cottage where they grew up and a lot of rich aliens who don’t join in with quiz night or the village fête.
The resentments can be intense. There was a time when Welsh activists burned second homes owned by people outside the Principality. Holidaymakers to Cornwall are greeted by homemade signs reading “English Out” — although geographically part of England, locals see themselves as Cornish first. Norway attempts to preserve rural life through a Concessions Act that requires property buyers to live full time in their new homes, unless they are able to obtain a concession. In England, the problem may have been unintentionally solved by the dire quality of broadband in rural areas, which made my recent Zoom call to an ecologist locked down in the Yorkshire Dales National Park such agony. I don’t know what internet speeds are in Sandpoint, Idaho, one of the Zoom towns identified in the report, being situated on a lake and near a popular ski resort. If it’s bad, locals might want to keep it that way.
And it’s not just cute rural settlements that are getting busier. When I drive home to London on Sundays, the route takes me through outer London; these parts of the city are not overburdened with charm. But unlike posher areas like Belgravia, they’re heaving with life. These are the places where most people live, and they’re sticking to them. Before March they would have gone somewhere else, I suppose; but since the world has stopped moving, they stay home. Which for the while doesn’t look great, unless you like derelict street frontages and for some reason a large number of barber’s shops. But is it too Pollyanna-ish to imagine this could change, providing the altered behaviors of pandemic-time don’t prove short-lived?
Urbanism is the science of planning towns. Wisdom used to have it that, for this to be done well, people should be encouraged to live in cities. Only when there was a sufficient density of population would neighborhoods achieve those things people love: shops and offices only a walk away from where people live, genial streets where you greet your neighbors, good local services. Urbanism is a child of the Eighties, pioneered at Seaside, a town on the Florida Panhandle, by Duany Plater-Zyberk and picked at Poundbury, outside Dorchester in England, by Prince Charles. This thinking has now swept the board, though you wouldn’t always know from the brouhaha that Poundbury continues to create in the retardataire architecture press. Every good architectural firm, Modernist or traditionalist, thinks the same; it’s just that the buildings on the streets look different. They all want to celebrate the character of Tuscan hill towns or London’s Marylebone — take your pick — whose buzz and attractiveness comes from the density of population.
Wake up, guys. There’s a new world out there. People now want to live in the suburbs. What should happen is that a conurbation like London will develop many smaller centers, away from the big center. The big center will still have the arts venues and high-end restaurants that can’t be sustained locally, but smaller centers in the suburbs will have more of what the suburbs lack now — something to do. I know what I’m talking about. I grew up in a suburb. It was green and pleasant, and, looking back on it, I can see why it suited my parents. To their generation, the city was soot-blacked, unhealthy, evil. To me, London was glorious. I went to live there as soon as I could.
It won’t be easy to achieve this revolution in the suburbs. But a recent interview in the New York Times has introduced me to the concept of “retrofitting suburbia”: June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones have written a book about it. I like the idea. Unfortunately their cases — such as Mueller in east Austin, Texas — tend to be new developments that have been placed in suburban locations: Mueller is on the site of a former airport. It’s walkable, which is remarkable for Texas, but it could have happened anywhere, really. My solution is simple. Incentivize developers to replace shopping malls with homes. Malls are made up of low-rise sheds, surrounded by acres of car park: what an extravagant use of land. Redevelop them with proper streets, with terraced houses, parks, trees — you could still have the shops on the ground floor, cars underground. This would be good for Britain and even better for the United States. After all, “Suburbia is the United States. Suburbs are us,” says Ms. Williamson.
COVID has made people reconsider their homes, having spent so long in them. It’s time they should rethink the larger environment, too. This should be part of the great rebalancing of the West, post-COVID. London might not regain its fizz, but it will make for a happier world.
Clive Aslet is author of Old Homes, New Life, published by Triglyph Books.