Courtesy DAHLIN

Editor's note: This is the third and final installment in a series stemming from the third wave of the America at Home Study.

During the peak days of the COVID-19 pandemic, our social lives moved outdoors and our communities got both smaller and more important to us. Some of us got to know neighbors we’d never really talked with before at weekly 7 p.m. check-ins or cul-de-sac cocktail hours. Others gathered in parks they may have previously only driven past or got out of the house each day and walked local trails along the now quieter streets. Some built outdoor offices in yards and on decks, while others opened up their garages and turned them into home gyms, play zones, or custom-built bars and wine cellars. Trails, parks, and access to open green spaces have always ranked near the top of any list of preferred community amenities. Like so many other things, life with the pandemic just accelerated the trend of their growing importance, while revealing how critical places to gather and share time together have become.

According to the American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even today we are spending 62% of our time at home, and 38% of us do some or all of our paid employment from home. We are living the hybrid life. As the pandemic waned and became an accepted reality, our hybrid lifestyles have shown many of the top home-based activities are sticking around for the long term like shopping online, exercising at home, cooking and baking more, do-it-yourself projects, and working from home. The greatest shifts downward in time spent include time streaming online content, playing video games, spending time on social media, and grocery delivery. We are choosing to spend time at home, but no longer feel trapped there.

It’s been widely shared in content and conversation about waves one and two of the America at Home Study—the online survey of 3,000 and nearly 4,000 adult Americans, respectively, conducted in April 2020 and again in October 2020 during early and peak pandemic times—that “home” meant “a safe place.” In wave three of the study—the first post-pandemic survey of an additional 3,000 people conducted in October 2022—safety was still in the top spot. But what was interesting, especially considering all this time we are spending at home, was the increase in the number of people who said home meant “freedom.”

Most people have gotten comfortable with a new hybrid everything life and the “freedom” that comes with it. When required to shelter in place in April 2020, just 58% of survey respondents said home meant “freedom.” When asked in October 2022, that number ballooned to 77%, an increase of almost 20% and more than double the percentage increase for any other factor describing home. This has been the biggest shift in how people describe their feelings and lifestyle at home since the pandemic. And as we continue to spend more time in our homes and communities, it has impacts for how we think about community planning and design, whether single-family neighborhoods, multifamily developments, or large-scale master-planned communities.

The pandemic brought many things to light, including how critical social connections and engagement are to our mental and emotional well-being. Our wave three data showed mental wellness ranked the most important to people, but with only 65% satisfaction levels. Neighborhood is not a place. It’s a state of mind. And when asked which community features would influence their decision to buy their next home, “nature and open space for hikes and activities” remained in top spot overall, with nearly 60% of people saying it is very important and would influence their decision to buy their next home. This has been consistent throughout the different waves of the study and is in line with most other consumer research about community: People want and need access to nature and the outdoors. It’s not only good for our physical health, but our mental well-being as well. A quote from Setha Low’s book, “Why Public Space Matters,” describes how important these spaces are to social connection and our overall feeling of community: “In many ways the park serves as an extension of people’s living rooms, kitchens, and backyards.”

Courtesy Rancho Mission Viejo

Most Preferred Community Features by Generation

Across generations, no matter the region of the country, or the type of home the respondent lives in, access to open space and nature is the most desired community amenity. Below is the rank order and percentage of each generation’s rating as “very important” for each community amenity:

Community Feature
Generation X Younger Boomers
Older Boomers
Nature and open space for hikes and activities

59% (No. 1)

55% (No. 1)

58% (No. 1)

54% (No. 1)

Large park with open fields and green space

53% (No. 2)

45% (No. 3)

45% (No. 3)

42% (No. 3)


50% (No. 3)

49% (No. 2)

49% (No. 2)

47% (No. 2)

Small neighborhood park, seating, and play

47% (No. 4)




Walkable to coffee shop/casual eatery

45% (No. 5)

42% (No. 4)

42% (No. 4)

40% (No. 4)

Controlled environment for safety, sanitization, and maintenance

39% (No. 5)

39% (No. 5)

39% (No. 5)

Generations are one way to assess the data. Even more can be learned by looking at it by family formation. The top amenity preferences for each are:

  • Singles (who represent 38 million, or 29% of all households today): Walkable to coffee shop/casual eatery
  • Couples: Trails
  • Couples with children: Large park with open fields and green space
  • Multigenerational: Large park with open fields and green space

The bottom line is one size doesn’t work for all, and it’s critical that development investment be made with a clear understanding of who will ultimately live in and use the spaces being created. We see it in our work with clients that family formations have shifted and how and where people spend time has as well. This affects how we think about community planning and activation.

When it comes to the No. 1-ranked “built” community amenity for all respondents, a coffee shop or casual eatery within walkable distance ranked highest over all other built amenities. A “third place” that provides a destination and invites connection was at the top of everyone’s list, after access to nature and outdoor amenity spaces. For more urban and multifamily communities, providing spaces that meet this need may not be difficult. Some exist already in adjacent neighborhoods, and if not, with intentional planning at the start, these spaces can be created in building amenities. Beyond design though, attention needs to be paid to activation and operation, so these spaces don’t fall prey to being underutilized.

Courtesy DAHLIN

In suburban master-planned communities, providing early access to “retail” spaces has always come with the belief that rooftops needed to be in place first to support them. But curiously this same logic isn’t used when planning, developing, and funding the development of pools, community centers, and clubhouses—all of which ranked far further down on the list of desired community amenities that would drive home purchase behaviors by anywhere from 10% to 20%, with the following percentage of all respondents saying these amenities are very important to them:

  • Pools: 34%
  • Gym/Fitness Facility: 37%
  • Clubhouse/Gathering Spaces: 22%

What we believe and what our data shows people are asking for today is a reinvention and activation of the spaces and places in their communities where social engagement and connection occurs, and they want to do it over coffee and food. With housing attainability being such a concern, there’s an opportunity to think about investing less in the expected hard amenities and instead investing in designing and building (and if needed, diverting development dollars to support activating) places for people to walk, relax, grab a coffee, and spend time together.

As our hybrid patterns of life set in, so do varied schedules and opportunities to spend time in the community. There’s white space and a huge opportunity for designers, architects, and developers to create new third spaces and rethink amenities beyond the typical and expected. Access to nature and trails will continue to be top of everyone’s list. But home shoppers are telling us their lives are different—and hybrid—and they want places in their community that are activated, engaging, and flex and adapt to different times of the day. Places they can walk to meet neighbors and friends. More than ever the community is an extension of our homes. It needs to live like and feel like that.