This post from about a year ago feel especially apt now considering the forced remote work brought on by COVID-19. It originally appeared on Medium in April of 2019.
Today was the first day of my entire working life where I woke up without a boss to report to. I am working on Graphite full-time now and taking on some contracting gigs. As part of being your own boss, assuming you don’t have funding and haven’t opened an office for you and a bunch of employees, you work from home. Now, I’ve worked from home plenty of times while working for my last employer. We had an open work culture and weekly work-from-home days for the entire team. But waking up today knowing that every day would be work-from-home day felt different. It was different.
There are the obvious differences (not having to drive into work, not having to get gas, being able to start my work earlier and end my work earlier). But there are also the not-so-obvious differences. For example, instead of going into the office gym on my lunch break, I went for a run in my neighborhood. Spring has a way of confusing the mind and making you think everything is wonderful all the time, and that’s how it was as I ran through my neighborhood today. The temperature was perfect, the sky as blue as it gets. And it was quiet. Incredibly, beautifully quiet. We all know that after Spring come the doldrums of summer, so I readily admit that endorphins I felt were a mix of the run and the season. But as I ran through my neighborhood, it felt like the perfect experience. Get up, work, get some exercise in. What more could I want?
Here comes the reality check. It WAS a perfect day, and it is amazing not having to deal with commutes into a city center and not have to deal with gas and other headaches. So, I started wondering to myself what it would take to never have to worry about those things. Here’s the list I came up with:
- Grocery store within walking distance
- Restaurants within walking distance
- Schools within walking distance
- Parks within walking distance
- Coffee shops and other miscellaneous shops within walking distance
As I look over that list, I think it looks a lot like the requirements to a walkability score on Zillow or some other home-buying platform. That’s because they are. Yet, the suburbs so often score incredibly low on walkability indeces (my neighborhood score a 0, yep, a freaking 0). Why is that? Why do we allow that?
We would never be OK with a metropolitan area scoring a 0 on walkability. Is that because it is often, quite literally, impossible to drive anywhere because of congestion? Is it because there are so many people working and living (but mostly working) in one area that if there weren’t stores and amenities within walking distance, people would never come outside? Or is it simply a matter of market demand? Shops pop up around crowded areas BECAUSE those areas are congested, perhaps?
What if it could be different?
The reason metropolitan areas become metropolitan areas is employers flock to areas where other employers are. Where the employers are, the employees go. Where the employees go, the shops and restaurants follow. And where all of that converges is where we lose our planet and our sanity. So, back up to the second reason metropolitan areas exist: Where the employers are, the employees go.Why? Because employers expect employees to be on-site.
The world has changed drastically in the last 10–15 years. What used to be called telecommuting (because you were basically tethered to your telephone) is now called remote work. Entire companies are built around the idea. In fact, many companies don’t even have a central office. But there’s still a stigma around remote work, especially in larger companies. Lauren Moon from Trello makes a good case for why that stigma still exists.
…a lot of people don’t make the distinction between an employee who has an office but is allowed to work from their home for a day here or there, and a fully functional remote team.
This makes sense when you compare it to just about anything else a company does. If there isn’t a functional plan and intent around that plan, there’s no buy-in. There’s no understanding.
But this isn’t a post about convincing companies to embrace remote work. I think that’s happening no matter what, and sooner rather than later. This is a post about how a remote-first American culture can reclaim neighborhood connections, reduce transportation costs, improve the health of the workforce, and improve the health of the planet.
But it means neighborhoods cannot have walkability scores of 0.
Imagine a suburb with, say, four or five big neighborhood (you know, the master-planned communities). Between those four or five big neighborhoods and the sprinkling of non-master-planned (accident neighborhoods?) communities, there can be upwards of 10,000 people. And that’s just one suburban pocket. There are many of these in every metropolitan region in America.
If you design around those communities in such a way that each pocket of suburban area is a spoke on a wheel and the stores and shops and other amenities we need and want are the hub, you start building back a community that is walkable. Take my neighborhood for example. There are 3,000 families (that’s code for homes in master-planned community speak) in the neighborhood. So, that means this neighborhood alone might have 6,000 or more people in it. There are two other smaller neighborhoods right near this one. All of the homes in these three communities are within walking distance of the main stretch of road that we all drive on every day. What if that stretch of road stopped being for the sole purpose of getting people from here to the city center and started being for shops?
The demand would be there is people were, by and large, remote workers. The volume of business would be there based on the small sample size I gave you from my suburban area. It is possible that with enough work and dedication, we could see a reduction in cars on the road, a higher quality of life, more affordability for all socioeconomic groups, and a healthier planet.
I will readily admit these are the ramblings of someone not well educated on city planning. I could be entirely wrong on many of my assumptions. There are certainly variables I have not considered. But as I work through my first day as my own boss in my home office in my suburban community, I still wonder if it’s possible to bring walkability and a better quality of life to suburban communities through remote work.