In December 2020 I wrote a blog about redesigning city centers. This time around I consider redesigning the rest of the cityscape. One of my main themes for the past almost five decades was that telework would allow us to work and live in a neighborhood while still being connected to the rest of the world. The simultaneous advantages of small town and big city living. Most things available without getting in a car.
That concept was in the core of our original telecommuting project in 1973. Workers were allowed to work in satellite offices located in their residential neighborhoods, dropping the commute in favor of telecommuting. Working near home instead of in the big downtown headquarters of their employer. The Los Angeles long range plan then was to have 18 regional centers as hubs for local activities. Our idea was to set up projects in those regional centers. Living at human-scale within a booming metropolis. Fast forward 48 years and an article by Peter Yeung appears on the BBC website with the same idea: the 15-minute city.
What has changed since 1973?
Of course the technology enabling telecommuting has grown exponentially more sophisticated and pervasive than it was in 1973. The internet has become ubiquitous. It’s now easy to work from home as a result. Cities have become more costly, crowded, polluted and noisy. Tension and stress levels have grown.
As I have written before, the coronavirus has definitely got the attention of people worldwide about changing where we work and live. Telework works! Take advantage of it. Employers are finally considering not only their central office design plans but their office locations as well.
The latter includes our original concept: move the work to the worker, not the other way around. Moving the work to workers’ residential neighborhoods also provides an incentive to redesign the neighborhoods themselves. If people work and live in the same neighborhood they have more of a stake in what happens there. The bedroom community morphs into a traditional village within the greater city. Local businesses become viable again, as do local entertainment and social activities — while they become less viable in urban centers. Neighbors actually meet and talk to each other again (covid-inspired stay at home orders notwithstanding). Local sports and exercise opportunities develop. Neighborhoods become communities.
At the same time the people in the neighborhoods are still connected to the rest of the world via the internet. They have access to the world’s intellectual resources, as well as jobs, while the rest of their amenities are just a 15-minute walk or bike ride away. As the BBC article suggests, people actually discover their neighborhoods, finding all sorts of previously unseen treasures, prompting development of new ones.
All the above concerns rearrangement of today’s larger cities. Keep the physical infrastructure but rewire the connections. But another alternative of increasing popularity is the movement of such self-similar arrangements to smaller cities. Making the leap from San Francisco to Modesto, for example.
We helped develop a plan for the City of Modesto, California, in 1994 focusing on attracting telecommuters to move there while retaining their Silicon Valley jobs. The plan included providing all the amenities of big-city life, including university access, while eliminating the 90-minute one-way commute for new Modesto residents. That plan was not enacted then but maybe it’s time to dust it off.
It appears that big cities, in the US at least, are showing signs of net out-migration. As the covid plague lessens that trend may increase. A large segment of the workforce has discovered that it is possible to live well while distanced from congested downtowns. Commuting is expensive. So is living in urban centers. Regional and neighborhood-focused designs are becoming both more practical, attractive and less expensive.
This human-scale version of community design using sophisticated and versatile telecommunication linkages to the rest of the world can work almost anywhere. We have proven it for years. Now, at last, it is starting to happen. The word is getting around.
Even, or especially, in Paris.