Even as we return to “in-person” dealings with the world, some of the realities that emerged in the last two years may be here to stay. Not least because we may want them to, including having greater control over schedules previously shackled by a corporate world order that regulated how and where we work. And when.
Eight to 5 was, and remains, paramount and once underway behind the desk, busy doing what we do at the office, the gaze of the boss never let go, always there monitoring the flow and rate of production. Miss one step and you may be docked for negligence or misappropriating the company’s time and space. How about reading a book halfway through the afternoon? Nope you can’t do that, often reminded that the company’s space isn’t for personal growth but for growth of the shareholders. Or something close to that.
With the prying eye gone, we now gained the freedom to move about, give greater care to children, pets, plant life. Neighbors, so long they were masked, came out and talked, became friendlier, more visible. They were human again, doing ordinary things like tending their yards, fixing a bike, cleaning the porch, right smack in the middle of the day.
We bought chickens in droves, to harvest and eat fresh eggs, but more importantly restore to our lives a love of the earth and of each other, long lost in the rat race of trying to eke out a living. What time was spent trying to find a parking spot now was spent putting together a chicken coop. Indeed, the sale of chickens and chicken related products surged according to one article. “Searches for baby chick supplies were up by a whopping 758 percent,” during COVID-19, tells us the article, “while those for chicken nesting boxes were up by 126 percent.”
Some of that taste for rural life was handled right in the middle of the city, in backyards and side yards, communal gardens and shared public spaces. But some of it was also taken to the countryside, where we could immerse ourselves in the art and science of growing food, soil maintenance, animal husbandry and more.
The demographics shifted as a result. More of us sought rural or small towns, if not in outright pursuit of farms, then at least a life lived close to one. The idea of living a simpler professional life appealed to us, not to dumb things down but indeed to make them more socially and spiritually complex. Work remained important but this time a source of pleasure precisely because we had greater say in how we navigate it.
Many do not want to go back to the old ways. According to one study: “Between 14 million and 23 million Americans say that they are likely to move as a result of their ability to work remotely,” adding that “these geographic shifts are even more critical because they point in many directions and represent less a fundamental break with the past and more an acceleration of changes already under way in how we live and work.”
This is very interesting news with real implications on our two cities of Pullman and Moscow. According to the National Association of Realtors website, 38 percent of the Realtors in Washington reported increases in people in the state who currently live in cities wanting to purchase new property in either the suburbs or rural small towns. That means us and I can vouch for that trend myself.
Four years ago I put my house in Pullman on the market. People came and went indicating interest but no takers at the end. This year I did the same and the results were very different. Many came and never went but wanted the house right away, for a brief time entering into a bidding war over it and eventually going well beyond the asking price. Things had significantly changed in four years.
What this yields for us architecturally is a real opportunity to reshape the idea of the American dream, including what it means to live with neighbors, animals, food-near or in the heart of the America countryside. Instead of the single family home narrative, by now shaped by a mindless and quite frankly exclusionary set of codes and requirements, we might come up with a much tighter knit of relations between inside and outside, human and animal, friends, home and work, shop and factory.
Those 3-, 5- and 15-foot setbacks, engineered to isolate homes from their surrounding and feed a by now outdated narrative of individualism and property value, would now go away in favor of a more seamless continuity between functions. Privacy would remain but less through hideous fences and high hedges, and more through, say, a staggered arrangement between gardens, chicken coops and outdoor furniture, each strengthening the knit of social fabric.
This is not the place to flesh out the development of a new community, only suffice to say that it is ripe with possibilities. Let’s come together and explore them.
Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate professor in the School of Design and Construction.