Luke Fernandez and Susan Matt: How to make Utah more neighborly post-corona

After the 1918 flu epidemic came the Roaring 20s, a period often remembered for its booming economy and partying flappers. As our own epidemic appears to slow, what will happen? What will the “post-corona” decade look like along the Wasatch?

One thing we’re all looking forward to is being less bored and lonely. As more of us are vaccinated we will be able to meet people more easily than before. But while boredom and loneliness are likely to ease, they will decline more rapidly if we consciously design neighborhoods which make it easier for people to meet.

The two of us, since the pandemic began, have been fighting our own boredom by trying to walk on all the paths that join Ogden, where we live, to Salt Lake. And as we’ve walked it’s been impossible not to notice that along the Wasatch, some housing developments seem to encourage social interaction better than others.

Sometimes these housing developments have a small park or “commons” where neighbors and their dogs can congregate face-to-face. But most cater more to the car than to people on foot. “Snout houses” — with protruding, street-facing garages and not much in the way of a front porch or veranda — predominate.

Full disclosure: We live in one. But we’ve come to realize that this architecture exacerbates the social isolation of suburbia which Robert Putnam described in his book “Bowling Alone.” America, he claimed, had once been a civic, convivial society where boredom, loneliness and political rot were kept at bay by constant friendly neighborly interactions. From front porches, neighbors greeted each other and hailed passers-by on sidewalks. Or they ran into each other at the local park or the bowling league or Lions’ Club.

Writing in 2000, Putnam warned that this conviviality and association was fracturing. Instead of bowling together, Americans were increasingly “bowling alone.” This was partly a consequence of suburban developments and the cult of the car and the TV, all of which encouraged people to live more privatized, isolated lives.

Compounding this effect is the snout house. Rather than nudge us to meet our neighbors on the porch or street, such architecture encourages us to drive directly into the garage, and retreat into the privacy, loneliness and boredom of our own homes.

As we move toward the future, one Pfizer or Moderna shot at a time, let’s remember that the boredom and loneliness that so many have been experiencing during the pandemic might not lift simply through the panacea of a vaccine. Those emotions which we think are of recent vintage have a longer history. And their persistence or disappearance depends on other technologies and architectures as well.

Post-corona, many are likely to continue working from home. And as a result many people will want bigger houses. Instead of “3 bedrooms 2 baths” it will be “3 bedrooms, 2 baths ... and an office.” But let’s also hope for a front porch, or veranda, and that the developers also leave more room for parks or “commons” which were staples of 18th and 19th century urban planning.

If we can make a place for those more traditional architectures that invite us outside, and encourage us to take leave of our screens and instead see our neighbors, then we can look forward not only to a new roaring 20s, but to a time when the prospect of boredom and loneliness are truly distant memories.

Luke Fernandez

Luke Fernandez, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in School of Computing at Weber State University.

Susan Matt

Susan Matt, Ph.D., is a presidential distinguished professor of history at Weber State University.

They are co-authors of “Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter” (Harvard University Press, 2019).