How to further segregate cities: work-from-home and 15-minutes

Allow me a brief thought-experiment.

Let us imagine, for a moment, that the dream of many office workers is realised: henceforth they permanently work-from-home, saving on commute time and costs. No more pesky interruptions, no more tiresome colleagues, no more central business district, no more office buildings!

Let us further imagine that their lives are now centered on their homes and on their 15 minute neighbourhoods.

What would some of the urban consequences be of such a massive and permanent shift towards work-from-home and local living?

Work-from-home and urban segregation

Amongst other things, work-from-home would isolate people within their (increasingly homogenous) residential neighbourhoods. Their principal connections to the outside world would be via the echo-chambers of social-media and on-demand entertainment.

Urban polarisation along income, ethnic, social and ideological lines is not new. But, pre-COVID, workplaces and business neighbourhoods mitigated this : they are places where people were forced into the physical presence of, and interaction with, ‘others’.

If work-from-home becomes the norm, then social polarisation will be exacerbated. The (already tenuous) mixing that occurred in workplaces and in business neighbourhoods will have disappeared.

Crowded Oxford Circus
“Crowded Oxford Circus” by jepoirrier is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Pervasive work-from-home would bake echo-chamber dynamics into the urban fabric.

Better paid workers will cocoon in their comfortable homes. When they pop out for a coffee or to the local store, they will walk through well-kept and well-serviced 15-minute neighbourhoods.

Home Office v 2.0
“Home Office v 2.0” by Erik Eckel is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

But many people – often younger and less qualified office workers, and those living in difficult family circumstances – live in overcrowded or noisy spaces. Work-from-home hands over vital family or shared space to their employers. When they leave their (smaller and more crowded) homes, they find themselves in poorer, less well-provisioned, 15-minute neighbourhoods.

Home Office
“Home Office” by samwyse is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

And what of the support workers – cleaners, restaurant workers, receptionists, delivery people – who also, pre-COVID, converged upon workplaces and business districts? They will eke out a living, moving from home to home performing menial gig-housework for well-off home workers (without even the benefits of sociability and visibility that working in office buildings and city centres sometimes provides).

Office cleaner
“Office cleaner” by Leigh/J/M is licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Will these dire events come to pass? No, but…

…but that was only a thought experiment. Will work-from-home actually become the dominant mode for ‘office’ work?

It is unlikely. Business districts and offices will not disappear. There is considerable evidence that, despite the up-front cost-savings of reduced office space, most organizations will not be able to maintain their identity, team spirit and idea-generation through remote work.

Workers themselves, who at present lose nothing from working at home (because everyone else does), will feel the need to show up at the office (when things return to normal) for fear of missing out.

Still, even smaller changes will have consequences in terms of segregation and equity, of which I highlight two below.

1- Some strengthening of urban silos: whilst there will not be a massive shift towards work-from-home, more people will work-from-home part of the week. More time spent at one’s comfortable/crowded home and in one’s pleasant/poorly-serviced neighbourhood means less time spent in shared and diverse work spaces : urban segregation will be strengthened.

2- Increased job insecurity for remote workers: some organisations – especially those employing workers doing repetitive or on-line tasks – may shift more substantially towards work-from-home. Not only will this fuel urban segregation and workplace inequality, it will add to employment insecurity: remote workers will be unseen and unknown, like Amazon’s digital turks. As a consequence, it will become easier to hire and fire them: moving towards work-from-home may, for some organizations, be part of their HR strategy.

Urban planning: beyond the workplace to the city itself

From an urban planning perspective, it is important to think beyond immediate questions relating to work location and building use. It is also important to think carefully about what neighborhood-centered 15-minute cities imply. These important, but focused, questions raise wider issues of urban equity, polarization and segregation. Thought experiments are useful, not because they predict what will happen, but because they allow one to think through, and discuss, the possible consequences of nascent trends.

Such discussions are necessary before we embark on post-COVID urban revival. What would the social and economic consequences of retreating from offices and business zones, towards homes and (15-minute) neighbourhoods, look like? Are the consequences desirable? What are the alternatives?

Naturally, I don’t have the answers. These can only emerge from well-informed discussions, analysis and politics: but at least I can ask questions.

Note: There is considerable research on daytime v. nighttime segregation, such as: Social segregation around the clock in the Paris region ; Measuring segregation using patterns of daily travel behavior: A social interaction based model of exposure ; American segregation, mapped at day and night ; How segregation in American cities shifts from day to night ; Spatial and temporal patterns of economic segregation in Sweden’s metropolitan areas: A mobility approach; and so on… The basic result – nuanced, of course, by each study – is that nighttime (place of residence) segregation along racial, educational and socio-professional lines is higher than daytime (workplace) segregation. In other words, the fact of commuting to work increases people’s exposure to those of different backgrounds and social classes. Of course, co-location is not the same as meaningful intermingling… but it’s a start.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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