How suburban resurgence is changing family fortunes

9 minute read
19 July 2021

Localism has been at the forefront of many people's minds since the onset of the pandemic, with a large proportion of us adapting to a new life focused on living, working and socialising in close proximity to our homes. This is the premise for suburban resurgence and the '15-minute city' principle where all the services you might need are within a quarter-of-an-hour by foot or bike ride.

The impact on society of COVID-19 and the restrictions of lockdown living will change the way we all live and work for many years to come. However, while families have battled with innumerable hardships, the pandemic has been a catalyst for more positive societal change. As the Government lifts the remaining restrictions in England, many of us will want to continue to enjoy the advantages of living locally and a resurgent suburbia.

COVID-19 restrictions have, paradoxically, strengthened our communities, and delivered multiple benefits, such as the chance to spend more time with close friends and family, when allowed, and having time to go outdoors and explore the local community. A 2020 study from The Office for National Statistics (ONS) stated that during the start of the pandemic, in April 2020, two in three adults (64%) felt other local community members would support them if they needed help, and more than half (55%) had checked in with their neighbours. The report also states that many members of the community felt they received more support during the early stages of the pandemic than in pre-COVID times.

Changing commuting trends

An obvious consequence of the Government urging us to work from home since March last year is the impact on commuting. A survey from FinderUK found that the average daily commute time in the UK is now 59 minutes, allowing full-time workers to save almost five hours a week to spend on 'personal activities', as a result of homeworking. Over the past year, parents who were previously unavailable to help with school pick-ups, mealtimes and bedtime routines suddenly were able to gain this time back so could participate in these activities. According to an ONS report on how people spent their time during the start of lockdown, there was a 19% decrease in gender role imbalances within the family. Whilst acknowledging that there is more to be done, this suggests that a hybrid mix of home and office working could continue to equalise childcare responsibilities within the heterosexual relationship dynamic.

Furthermore, the impact of suburban resurgence and the decreasing radius between school, work and home will increase the time working parents have for childcare. This may afford parents, who had previously had to juggle geographically dispersed childcare responsibilities, more opportunities for continued employment. A 2020 report from the ONS compares how people spent their time in March 2020 with March 2014 and 2015. The report shows that, on average, people with children in the household spent 35% more time providing childcare during the start of lockdown than five years ago. Additionally, the close proximity of schools, shops and the home, allows for working parents to have greater flexibility in combining daily tasks. Now, walking home from school can mean picking up groceries, while passing a local shop, instead of a separate chore to be squeezed into the day.

Transformation of fatherhood

2020 has been transformative for how society sees fatherhood and long may this continue! Whilst there is research from the International Monetary Fund which shows that women are being disproportionately impacted by the economic fallout, there has also been an increase in the number of hours men are spending with their children as a result of lockdown restrictions. In May 2020, the ONS found that the first lockdown led to a 58% increase in childcare undertaken by men. Whilst women still undertook more childcare roles during this time, the gender care gap narrowed by 19%. Again, work to be done (particularly with younger children) but progress and signs of a positive potential societal shift.

In many families, childcare duties had previously fallen to grandparents, with a 2017 report from AgeUK stating that 5 million grandparents take on childcare responsibilities for parents. However, the flexibility of suburban resurgence and hybrid working mean that grandparents may no longer be required to step into this role. Instead, we could see a switch to more traditional grandparenting, where they spend more 'quality time' with their grandchildren, as opposed to a relationship that consists of a daily routine with chores, schoolwork, and dinner preparation. Further research from the ONS confirms that the introduction of restrictions coincided with those aged over 60 years reducing the time spent providing childcare by 90%, which equated to 1 hour and 44 minutes a week. There are clearly emotive pros and cons to this but, arguably, an increase in the time parents have for childcare may strengthen the relationship between both grandparent and grandchild as well as parent and child.

Greener cleaner family time

Some other standout benefits of suburban resurgence are the positive environmental impacts of reducing car journeys and shifting the focus to walking and cycling to destinations. After the first lockdown in March 2020, nitrogen dioxide levels along London's roads decreased by an average of 31% according to DEFRA. This reduction in pollution levels in city centres points towards better health outcomes for residents, which consequently could lessen pressures on the health services.

There are also tangible benefits for families with young children. The 15-minute city approach to planning can ensure there is sufficient land for playgrounds and recreation areas, like those of suburbia. The freedom to enjoy a local playground or park situated within walking distance would allow children and families from all socio-economic backgrounds to play and meet friends. Sports and recreation facilities located within a 15-minute walk would also empower children and families to participate in sport and exercise, which may have been restricted by the need to travel across cities.

Having more accessible green spaces designed into urban and suburban planning has a wider social role by providing access to nature for all, regardless of age group. Importantly, a 15-minute city also better caters for the needs of the elderly than the typical fast-paced city centre environments we are familiar with today.

Furthermore, with more pedestrianised areas, comes greater footfall for local businesses. We have recently seen the importance and appreciation of pedestrianisation for struggling hospitality businesses, with more space for outdoor seating required to adhere to social distancing guidelines. The beauty of the 15-minute city plan is that spaces formerly used for parking, can be converted into enjoyable outdoor seating areas for the community.

Localism and the suburban resurgence we have witnessed over the past year has caused a positive shift in both family and community dynamics. More parents have been able to spend more time with their children and, for many, responsibilities within the family are being shared between both parents more evenly. It remains to be seen whether the allure of city centre living will return but suburban life has become an attractive alternative for those seeking a more positive and healthier balance to both their work and lives.

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