Working in the post-COVID metropolis

Il·lustració © Maria Corte

The pandemic has hastened the uptake of remote work and reflections have burgeoned on the changes it is bringing and how it is transforming the city. Many people will no longer have to work in the same place and at the same time, which means rethinking workspaces beyond the traditional office. But we mustn’t forget that, for a very large swathe of workers, this working style is not applicable.

In 2008, the British architect Frank Duffy published Work and the City, a paper in which he speculated on the implications of introducing digital technologies in the spatial organisation of work. Telework, which began to be talked about in the 1970s, had begun to become a reality in the late 1990s thanks to the Internet and mobile telephony, and its first symbol was the BlackBerry.

At the heart of Duffy’s analysis, it was argued that people in the same organisation did not need to work in the same place and at the same time, and that much more flexibility was therefore needed in the uses of buildings and in working styles.

In 2009, the Australian James Calder, also an architect, set out a proposal to organise work in two seven-hour shifts in the paper 14-Hour City, in order to make the most of the built infrastructure. The proposal sought to improve the economic, but also environmental, amortisation, as it is estimated that buildings generate 30% of greenhouse gas emissions.

More than a decade has passed, and the dynamics of an increasingly digitised labour market, accelerated by the impact of COVID-19, even question whether the city office park can be occupied in the classic 9 to 5 shift, as Dolly Parton sang in the early 1980s.

Where are we going, then? What are the main effects on the urban fabric that we can discern with the explosion of digitalisation and the rise of telecommuting that we are witnessing? Will the power of urban centres as major magnets of economic activity and employment be strengthened or weakened?

Strategies of cities and companies

Admittedly, it may still be too early to hazard what the real medium- and long-term effects will be on urban environments. As always, it will all largely depend on the strategies followed by both cities and businesses, but some reflections can be made on the influence of telecommuting and flexible working hours in the places we live in.

The main effect of the spread of remote working is the reduction in forced mobility for work purposes. In turn, greater flexibility in working hours should allow traffic and public transport use to be spread more efficiently, avoiding rush hours and congestion. So far, it’s all positive. A first question, however, lies in how to prevent presumably more occasional, multi-purpose and therefore more non-linear journeys (as opposed to linear home-work journeys) from contributing to a higher use of private vehicles. The other challenge for city mobility management will be how to ensure the economic viability of public transport if the number of users diminishes.

Remote working also opens up new opportunities for the development of small and medium-sized cities, even in rural settings. Companies will be able to use models such as the hub and spoke system, with a smaller headquarters and other offices spread throughout the area, often based on coworking spaces (a better option than working from home from the social point of view). To promote this model, urban fabrics with a mix of uses and a rich supply of accessible services with no need for motorised transport, renamed “the 15-minute city”, must be combined with good public transport connectivity with the main urban centres that concentrate the most specialised services (“the 45-minute region”).

Digitisation will also bear an impact on economic activity on the street. The umpteenth retail crisis will force the sector to reinvent itself for the umpteenth time. On this occasion, it seems that neighbourhood trade and that of small urban centres, thanks to telecommuting, has come out better than the rest. Meanwhile, many business premises in central locations are turning into supply points for riders, both for merchandise and food (so-called ghost kitchens) or anything else that needs to be home delivered. Many premises therefore will be in business, but not face to face with the public.

Il·lustració © Maria Corte Illustration © Maria Corte

The self-sufficient city

A specific case will be manufacturing spaces, where the so-called makers, whether manual neo-craftspeople or equipped with 3D printers, drive the revolution of the so-called Fab City, the city that gravitates towards self-sufficiency, integrating technology and the circular economy in small-scale manufacturing.

Some premises will lead to so-called third places: hybrid spaces that combine work, recreation, community action, public services and catering facilities in varying doses, and will be an essential alternative when it comes to breaking the isolation of working from home. It is not improbable that large-scale third places will breathe new life into certain urban centres or industrial estates. In this regard, an important question is whether large shopping centres will be revived, especially those found in suburban locations, given that there was already a trend towards their gradual closure in English-speaking countries.

Finally, all these changes also mean stepping up the importance of public space as a meeting point and natural areas as more everyday places of recreation.

A truly networked metropolis is thereby mapped out, if investments in connectivity (physical and digital), in the provision of services and in the relocation of major amenities (cultural facilities, for example) accompany it. As claimed by the Foundational Economy movement, a “spatial contract” between territories must be designed, akin to what the social contract meant, which guarantees a sufficient provision of infrastructures in all areas to allow their capacities to be fully harnessed.

Either way, the rise of telecommuting shouldn’t make us forget that, for a very large swathe of workers, this working style is not applicable and that, although the location of their workplaces may vary along with the general transformations, little or nothing about life will change. As economist Tim Bartik explains, when work involves mobility, it isn’t as important to find jobs in the same neighbourhood as in a well-interconnected region, and again, the availability of public transportation is the critical factor in improving the options for this population.

Beyond the neighbourhood and regional dimensions, telecommuting and flexible working hours ultimately boost the international movements of certain professional categories. What Richard Florida called the creative class is no longer characterised today by where they live and work (and the wages paid there), but by the fact that they can live wherever they want and for as long as they want, working for any (big) company in the world or freelance. That is why it is fundamental to restore the essentiality of rail and air connections with cities in central and northern Europe, through which the establishment of international commuting relations is more feasible. It should also be borne in mind that the effectiveness of health measures or the strength of the healthcare system will play a key role in choosing where to settle. Gaining a reputation in these areas will be as or more important for attracting talent as the climate or the available recreational activities have been until now.

In conclusion, the dilemma now lies in which strategy to adopt: encourage greater use of office buildings, as proposed by Calder, maintaining large urban centres as fundamental nuclei of economic activity, or promote a greater distribution of the activity in the area, fostering proximity? In other words, the question now is not how much agglomeration economies can be exploited before they collapse, but what is the minimum critical mass required to yield benefits.

Bartik, T. J., “How Long-Run Effects of Local Demand Shocks on Employment Rates Vary with Local Labor Market Distress”, W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, Upjohn Institute Working Paper, 21-339, January 2021.
Berbel, S. (coord.), El treball i el futur de les ciutats. Reflexions per a una nova política econòmica local. Barcelona Activa, 2018.
Diez, T., “Dels ‘fab labs’ a les ‘fab cities’”. Barcelona Metròpolis, no. 93, pp. 10-11, 2014.
Duffy, F., Work and the City. Black Dog Publishing, 2008Krauss, G. and Tremblay, D. G., Tiers-lieux. Travailler et entreprendre sur les territoires: espaces de coworking, fablabs, hacklabs PU Rennes, 2019.
Schafran, A., Smith, M. N. and Hall, S., The Spatial Contract: A New Politics of Provision for an Urbanized Planet. Manchester University Press, 2020.

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