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072 171 1979

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Working from home is becoming the norm

Will cities ever be the same again?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Working from home is becoming the norm

Will cities ever be the same again?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

SARS-CoV-2 has changed so many things – the way we socialise, the way we work, and – yes – even the way we think. But will it irrevocably change the landscape in which we live? Cities evolved to accommodate the way people worked, so will they now evolve to embrace a new work-life balance? And how will this affect our bottom line as developers? Do we need to think outside of yet another box that we thought was watertight?

The rise of the modern city

Way back before the (first) Industrial Revolution, we lived pretty much close to where we worked. Farmers lived on-site, as did their labourers, and spinners and weavers lived close to the sheep or plants that provided their raw materials. Even retailers tended to ‘live over the shop’. But the rise of factories and railways, and a host of service industries changed all that. By the middle of the 20th century, industrialised countries had excellent road infrastructure, oil was cheap, and mass production put car ownership within the reach of more and more people. Living ‘over the shop’ was a decidedly non-attractive option, so anyone who could moved out of the city and into the burgeoning suburbs – a fantastic opportunity for developers.

The chicken-egg nature of urban spatial use

Cities arose to serve our needs – back when travel was cheap, workdays were eight hours max, and commuting was quick and easy. But, as the cities grew upwards to accommodate hordes of office workers in new jobs and new industries, and the suburbs sprawled outwards to house them further and further from ‘the shop’, those beautiful roads became snarled with traffic, the price of fuel shot up, and the length of the working day expanded. By the end of the 20th century, modern wage slaves were spending vast amounts of time commuting, and those lovely homes they worked so hard to afford could only be enjoyed on weekends, while the city centres – so vibrant from nine to five during the week – became virtual ghost towns outside of office hours.

That spawned a whole new movement – a new urbanism that revived the city centres by creating residential nodes in the cities, so that people could once again ‘live over the shop’. And, even more creatively, mixed-use precincts served as a microcosm of the existing land use patterns, but far from the existing city centres. Places where people could live, work and play. Even large corporations got into the act – starting in the 19th century, and continuing up until quite recently. In 2018, both Facebook and Amazon were in the process of building company towns – a move that was met with mixed feelings at the time. But, since COVID-19, those responses are probably a little less mixed.

The times they are a-changing

The last few months of working from home has changed the way we think about work, life and home. Some people miss the camaraderie of the office, while others appreciate the opportunity to devote small, discreet parts of the working day to family, pets or household chores. And almost no-one misses the commute.

Initially working from home was a necessity, but now many companies are realising the advantages both in terms of decreased costs and increased productivity. It’s a no-brainer. Even corporations, like Amazon and Facebook, that were building company towns have seen the light. In May, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that its employees worldwide would be able to request remote working, saying: ‘We’re going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale,’ but adding in a caveat: ‘We need to do this in a way that’s thoughtful and responsible, so we’re going to do this in a measured way. But I think that it’s possible that over the next five to 10 years — maybe closer to 10 than five, but somewhere in that range — I think we could get to about half of the company working remotely permanently.’

It’s much the same in South Africa, and the rest of the world. So what does that mean for cities? And, more importantly, what does it mean for existing, planned and in-construction developments? We did all the research, and planned a development for a specific market to provide a particular lifestyle, but now that’s all changed.

Land use is changing

Most of the developments that have been built close to, or within, city centres have been specifically designed to house people who work there – mostly white-collar-type office workers. But those are the people most likely to be permanently working from home in the future, so they may well choose to move to a smallholding on the urban periphery, a little dorp in the middle of nowhere, or even a game farm. Or even another country. Perhaps a tropical island? The possibilities are endless.

There is a real chance that cities may shrink. An article in the Wall Street Journal said: ‘Rents in San Francisco, the most expensive apartment market in the USA, are tumbling as the city’s vaunted tech sector sheds jobs and more tenants leave the city.’

What would that mean here? As we stand, there are heavily populated sections of all our cities without sufficient resources and infrastructure. Even more telling is the fact that there are whole buildings, or whole floors of buildings, standing empty in most of our city centres – and yet we keep building more.

So we need to rethink – from the ground up – what a city centre actually is, and, more importantly, what it is going to be. Because, remember, we have not resolved the problems of apartheid spatial planning. As city centres depopulate, the peripheries continue to become more crowded, which – in the time of COVID – is likely to hinder attempts to control the spread of the virus for years to come. Well, at least one or two, but possibly more.

Is this a problem or an opportunity?

Of course it’s a problem. On the one hand, we have empty buildings with electricity, sanitation, running water, and good access to public transport, while, on the other, we have overcrowded spaces with rudimentary infrastructure, substandard sanitation, inadequate access to clean potable water, and public transport that is neither safe nor reliable, and is artificially high priced because of distance. (And, of course, there are some jobs that cannot be done remotely, so there will always be areas with a large daily influx of workers, most of whom are likely to be at the lower end of the pay scale.)

It’s a problem of inequity and disproportion, a problem of imbalance – and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing because, if you look at it creatively, one part of the problem can be the solution to the other part. It’s simple, really. But, as anyone who has ever tried riding a bicycle on a tightrope, losing weight, or giving up smoking can tell you, simple does not necessarily mean easy.

There is an opportunity here, but it will take courage, ingenuity and daring. The rewards, however, could be immense – nothing short of revolutionary – and the developer who achieves this will leave a legacy of which anyone could be proud.

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