Cities and the four-day working week: Towards a new urban paradigm

Illustration ©Patricia Cornellana

Cities, as dynamic hubs of activity, are grappling with challenges such as precarious employment and a declining quality of life. Reduced working hours, exemplified by the four-day working week, emerges as a response to these challenges. Pilot schemes demonstrate its benefits in productivity and quality of life, while also promoting a more sustainable and inclusive urban environment through increased community participation and diversity.

Cities, as we know them today, are incredibly dynamic, fast-paced and interconnected places. They resemble bustling beehives, where everyone is constantly on the move, with tasks to complete. Most of all, a sense of urgency prevails. You can always find someone rushing to a meeting, catching a bus or navigating rush-hour traffic to get home. Just as bees are driven by the search for pollen and the production of honey, humans in cities are primarily motivated by the need to work and adhere to the schedules we have committed to.

This daily movement, now relatively coordinated and often taken for granted, can be considered one of the foundational elements of the modern concept of a city. Major cities in Europe and the United States experienced significant growth during the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of industrialisation. This process brought about an urgent need for the coordination of work activity for the first time in history. On one hand, companies needed to ensure workers’ physical presence in factories during specific hours to ensure production processes ran smoothly. On the other hand, workers had to organise their personal and family lives while safeguarding their health from the detrimental effects of long, unregulated working hours.

Cities, as major hubs of people and businesses, are where these different dynamics collide, but they also provide opportunities for cooperation among actors to achieve their goals. Urban spaces have historically been crucial settings for struggles and initiatives that have led to the reduction of working hours and the standardisation of the working day. For instance, the precedent for implementing a five-day working week was set in Detroit’s, in the United States. In 1926, Henry Ford decided to implement it in his River Rouge factory while doubling workers’ salaries, aiming to reduce staff turnover, decrease absenteeism and attract the best employees to his company. Closer to home, in 1919, Barcelona’s La Canadenca strike led to the establishment of the maximum eight-hour working day in Spain, making it one of the first countries in Europe to adopt this new standard.

If these struggles have primarily occurred in cities, it’s because, as mentioned earlier, cities serve as fertile ground for cooperation and collective action. In urban environments, people have more opportunities to rally and work together towards common goals. Furthermore, cities are where social and economic issues are most visibly and tangibly present. Indeed, many of the major contemporary challenges facing society, such as poverty, gender inequality and the fight against climate change, are directly observable in urban settings. Poverty and exclusion are concentrated in specific neighbourhoods, while issues like loneliness and isolation among both young and elderly residents, problems associated with overtourism, concerns about women’s safety on the streets and poor air quality are prevalent… These and other issues ultimately impact everyone.

Making working time flexible

Turning our attention to the realm of work, things are not so different. Labour precariousness, characterised not only by low wages but also by the increasing fragmentation, extension and unpredictability of working hours, is predominantly concentrated in cities. A prime example is the so-called platform economy and the extension of commercial hours in the service sector. Just as coordinating working hours was crucial during the industrial era, today’s prevailing productive model in cities demands intensified and flexible working hours. Cities, particularly exposed to global competitive dynamics, witness an incessant pursuit of profit, necessitating permanent work availability and the growing commercialisation of public spaces. These dynamics have clearly contributed to the deterioration of the quality of life for a significant portion of the population.

However, cities are also inherently diverse and complex spaces. They often concentrate the most precarious occupations, yet simultaneously offer the best job opportunities and highest-paid positions. The most dynamic, innovative and competitive productive sectors are typically located in urban areas. Similarly, the most skilled and creative workers – referred to as the “creative class” by urban theorist and economist Richard Florida – tend to gravitate towards cities. This creates a landscape of contrasts, particularly concerning the organisation of working time. While the most precarious workers often face insufficient working hours to earn a decent wage (such as women working part-time involuntarily, platform workers, etc.), these “creative classes” often contend with the opposite problem: an extension of work that makes it challenging to balance work and life, thereby impacting their physical and mental well-being.

It is precisely in this context, within highly skilled job sectors and professions, where some contemporary proponents of Henry Ford have begun to explore initiatives aimed at reducing working hours, such as the four-day working week. This is not a novel idea, although it may seem so. The concept of condensing the working week into four days was already a trend in the United States during the 1970s and 80s. It was heralded as an innovative business practice promising increased productivity and significant energy cost savings. However, it’s worth noting that, at that time, the proposal did not entail an actual reduction in working hours but rather the compression of the same hours into fewer days. Essentially, it amounted to an initiative aimed at intensifying work and boosting business profits. Nevertheless, the proposal began to evolve from the 1980s and 90s, with new theoretical approaches emerging that argued for the potential benefits of reducing working hours from ecological or feminist perspectives.[1]

In recent decades, the reduction of working time has evolved from being viewed as an end in itself to being recognised as a potentially valuable tool for tackling various social, economic and environmental challenges. Empirical evidence, particularly from recent years, supports the potential benefits of this approach. Pilot studies of a four-day working week conducted globally have demonstrated its capacity to increase productivity, boost job satisfaction, alleviate stress and burnout syndrome, and facilitate a fairer distribution of household responsibilities. In addition, it can promote more sustainable mobility and consumption patterns. All these issues are directly linked to many of the significant challenges confronting cities today.

A more diverse and engaged city

The American urbanist Jane Jacobs, author of the influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a crucial thinker for those seeking a more humane and interdisciplinary understanding of urban life. Jacobs argued that the vitality of cities directly hinged on their diversity. She advocated for neighbourhoods and streets with varied uses and inhabited by people from diverse backgrounds to enrich urban life. Jacobs believes that having “eyes on the street” – people who look out of their windows, walk, use public spaces and participate in community initiatives – fosters security and enhances social interaction, ultimately contributing to a better quality of life and increased economic activity. In this context, a shorter working week presents opportunities for a more engaged and community-oriented lifestyle, which helps alleviate the escalating challenges of mental health issues and loneliness in the city.

A more dynamic and creative city

One of the primary motivations behind the adoption of a reduced working week by many companies is the need to attract and retain highly skilled talent, which is crucial in an era where knowledge and innovation are the main drivers of economic growth. A shorter working week can improve the quality of life in urban settings and make it more appealing, especially to highly skilled professionals. Moreover, by reducing working hours, employees gain additional leisure time, which can be allocated to social, cultural and creative pursuits, thereby broadening their knowledge and experiences. All of this would boost cities’ economic vibrancy and their capacity to attract talent.

A slower and more sustainable city

The most immediate and visible impact of a four-day working week in urban areas, as evidenced by available data, is a reduction in traffic congestion. A notable example is the pilot study conducted in the city of Valencia during April 2023. Due to the alignment of holidays and the transfer of a local festival, the city experienced an entire month of four-day working weeks, which was subsequently evaluated.[2] One of the most significant findings was a 58% decrease in air pollution, as measured by nitrogen dioxide levels. This underscores the potential of reduced working hours, coupled with the introduction of hybrid work models, to mitigate motorised commuting in cities and foster more sustainable lifestyles. Activities such as walking to work, patronising local businesses or preparing meals at home require time, thus necessitating more leisure time to encourage their adoption. Furthermore, as urban sociologist Saskia Sassen reminds us, a sustainable city must prioritise not only environmental stewardship but also inclusivity and diversity. Consequently, advancing towards a fairer and more equitable distribution of working hours is essential, alongside comprehensive revisions of urban design, production models and public policies, placing people and their well-being at the forefront of all decision-making processes.



Florida, R. Cities and the Creative Class. Routledge, 2004.

Gomes, P. ¡Por fin es jueves!: Por qué la semana laboral de 4 días impulsará la economía y mejorará nuestra vida. RBA Libros, 2024.

Jacobs, J. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, 1961.

[1] A comprehensive overview of this transformation in theories about the organisation of working time can be found in Capitalism and the Political Economy of Work Time by Christoph Hermann, published by Routledge in 2014.

[2] The full evaluation report prepared by Valencia City Council’s innovation centre Las Naves can be accessed at:



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