A Path to Pandemic Relief in the ‘Burbs

A shift in residential demand to suburban and exurban locations is nearly a year old in the pandemic.

It’s said to stem from households’ desire for more private space (as well as school and crime concerns), combined with greater flexibility to work from home. But public spaces are also an attribute of distance from the city center. Unlike most urban respites, parklands in the ‘burbs tend to have enough elbow room during most times of the year.

This is particularly true for nature trails that entail a substantial hike, say a mile or more. These invite determined active recreation, and that self-selection in turn rewards users with a further break from unwelcome reminders of the mass public. For example, on the East End of Long Island, where I have most recent experience, it is rare to find litter on most trails, whereas the roadsides that surround them are replete with such debris.

Because most trails on the East End are in wooded areas, away from sandy beaches and open farmland, they aren’t widely known to the seasonal visitors who typically crowd this “Hamptons” area. Covid-19 has changed matters to a degree—with more people in residence year-round, some hiking stretches have become too popular lately to suit some of their off-season enthusiasts. (Cold weather is also the best time to avoid infectious ticks in the bush.)

What’s true locally is true nationally, according to various accounts (and in Sonora, Mexico, too!).  AllTrails, a free and subscription service for finding and navigating hikes, reports that usage of its app-based services has grown three-fold over previous years, with the totals for daily users, in all seasons and not just weekends, up 130%. 

It needn’t take a national park or wilderness to provide an hour or two of virtual solitude. However, even where volunteers look after most trails, as on the East End, land-use policy is critical in assuring public access. This can be accomplished through deeded open space or easements across private property. Having more room to begin with—even where parcels are expensive—makes such objectives more attainable. For instance, clustering new development can leave surrounding territory in nature. (In a three-acre minimum zone, putting two homes beside each other on an acre apiece yields four acres of woods.)

Turns out that in many cases, the premium from adjacency to undisturbed terrain can make up for much of the lost backyard value. In any case, property transactions on the East End—clustered or not–have exploded in volume and price such that a 2% fee on sales over $250,000, for what’s called the Community Preservation Fund, raised about $140 million last year. This money goes mostly to buying more land out of developable use.  Again, this kind of virtuous cycle (from a nature-lover’s perspective, if not a budget-conscious homebuyer’s) is easiest to achieve on the outer ring of a metropolis.

What has not yet been mastered is the custodianship of these preserved stretches. The volunteers can blaze the trails and even keep them cleared, but they are not suited to enforcing proper use, whether against illegal motorized-vehicle trespass or more nefarious human presences. By contrast, urban areas have had more call for policing parks, and (at least until lately) more capacity for exercising such authority.

Perhaps, to borrow on a different city experience, the greater usage of the trails will have a “Jane Jacobs” effect, deterring miscreants by force of wider observation. Paradoxically, even in a pandemic, a more populated path might turn out to be a safer one.

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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