The compact city – a crumbling consensus
The policy consensus promoting compact, centralised cities cannot be
sustained in a world ravaged by Covid-19. The current pandemic is accelerating
the move to dispersed urbanism. Beyond the direct impact of disrupted trade,
travel, and consumption on the economic foundations of cities lies the cascading
impact of changing work behaviours. This post considers what remote working
might mean for urban development.
Calculating the number of jobs that can be decanted
post summarised the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) analysis of sector-specific
potential for remote working, applying the resulting metrics to New
Zealand. Here, in line with other
developed nations, around 30% of current jobs offer remote working potential.
This post considers the possible impacts on urban
function and form by applying the MGI approach to New Zealand’s cities and
Urbanisation and Remote Working
The share of tasks that can be undertaken remotely has been calculated
across 19 sectors for 67 territorial local authorities (TLA). The results have been aggregated into: (1) the
three largest cities (Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington); (2) ten
provincial cities with populations between 50,000 and 175,000; (3) partly
urbanised districts characterised by smaller towns and townships; and (4) mainly
rural districts encompassing rural areas and small settlements (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Urban
Dimensions of Remote Working Potential, New Zealand
It appears that more urbanised areas have greater potential to substitute remote work for fixed-workplace
employment. This is confirmed when we plot
potential for remote working against urbanisation across all TLAs (R2=0.47,
Urbanisation and Remote Working Potential, New Zealand Council Areas
Examination of the variation around this relationship between urbanisation
and remote working potential indicates the role of differences in local employment
structure. More production-based jobs offer lower
potential for remote working, while more business and service jobs lift the potential.
Where within the city?
This section considers variation in the potential for remote working within
Auckland (New Zealand’s dominant city with 1.7+m residents). Figures for 20
Local Board areas based on the MGI sector coefficients have been aggregated and
organised in Figure 3 from north to south (left to right on the axis). Reflecting the city’s linear geography, areas
at each end are most distant from the CBD.
The CBD and its fringe comprise the “Central” area, sitting within the
Isthmus, which contains the city’s older, inner suburbs.
Based on this example, remote working potential varies more within the
city than among cities, ranging between 41% in the centre (47% in the CBD
fringe) to 10% in the upper north and west and 2% in the rural south. The
former reflects the high value, administrative, business, and professional jobs
in the inner city and suburbs, and the latter the greater share of manufacturing
and personal service (face-to-face) jobs in the suburbs and primary production
on the fringe.
Figure 3 The
Prospects for Remote Working within Auckland
Push and Pull Drivers
Much of this theoretical capacity is likely to be taken up. On the push side, the risk of exposure to
infectious diseases is reduced by limiting exposure to places where people
congregate for work, education, and entertainment. One benefit is
limiting the spread of other infectious illnesses, a personal and productivity
bonus. Remote meetings offer another productivity gain, lowering travel costs
and focusing information exchange, supervision, and negotiation.
On the pull side, remote working has been positive for many people and
businesses, with reports that the practice is being adopted on an ongoing basis in New Zealand despite limited community transmission of Covid and internationally.
What about the downsides?
A suitable work (or school) space within a dwelling is needed to maintain
both productivity and satisfaction from remote working at the individual level.
With housing affordability constraints impacting on younger people and families,
in particular, their capacity to work effectively from home will be
Lack of face-to-face contact with colleagues limits the benefits
of work based social interaction. In a Covid-free environment, however, one
option is to mix remote working with workplace attendance one, two, or three
days a week.
Impact at the centre
However it evolves, the urban impacts of remote working will be
far-reaching. As employment in the central city stutters, policy makers and
investors will have to rethink the principles of workplace location, investment, and development.
Hospitality, personal services, and discretionary retailing in the city
centre will suffer from reduced commuter and work-related spending. They will
also suffer from any changes in the attraction of the city centre for housing.
Modest apartments in multi-storied buildings marketed for a city lifestyle will
lose appeal, becoming a welfare, last resort, or first housing step rather than
Add the deskilling
of high order services, displacement of predictable or repetitive
transactional tasks by AI, and the prospect
that the international travel industry shifts away from mass tourism, and the outlook
for city centres as we know them dims.
Against this, the resurgence of suburban centres, provincial cities, satellite
towns, and country life may build on the intrinsic appeal of living locally as more people decamp from intensively urbanised areas, provided,
perhaps, that the policy-makers do not seek to impose
the densities of inner cities on under-resourced suburbs and cling on to the notion of commuting-based city centres.
As it stands, the compact city comes at considerable cost. The demands on ageing infrastructure from
intensification were never anticipated by the city builders. Maintaining or rebuilding energy and water
supplies, the capacity and reliability of wastewater systems, boosting
transport networks and retrofitting ageing transit systems all demand substantial
expenditures, mortgaged in large part against expectations of growth that must now
be in doubt.
If nothing else, the impetus Covid has given to dispersal must shift attention to infrastructure challenges in existing suburbs. While highlighting the hard questions in a policy environment beset by an unnatural aversion to greenfield development (in which the potential for sustainable settlement has suddenly become compelling); it also raises challenges for small, erstwhile sleepy settlements unprepared for the demands of a growing flow of ex-urbanites.