It is not an unusual state of mind these days, but I am puzzled over a couple of things that have been the topic of discussions (or in the first case the media as well) I have been in over the last week or so.
The first is the approach, perhaps best articulated by members of the UK Government, to shame people back into work. ‘Get back to work’ is the instruction; which comes as a surprise to many who had never stopped working but had just changed their mode and place. The aim seems to be to save service businesses in big cities. The Scottish Government wanted no part in this and their advice remains work from home if you can.
Many people have told me that the novelty of working from/at home has worn off somewhat and that they miss aspects of their formal work sites. But in the same sentence they rail against the unpleasantness (money, time and environment) of their daily commute, especially into our larger cities. If the best we can envisage for our future is to continue to cram people into tin cans of various shapes, sizes and forms and force them to travel large distances and for substantial times and then herd into crammed buildings, all to do much what they could do from home or from a more local co-working centre, then we really have not got any ambition, imagination or sense. The ‘daily commute’ became a swear word for a good reason.
There appears a challenge underway to the status quo, which as there are beneficiaries and losers is an issue. The eventual outcome will not be the extreme lack of commuting as it is now, but will see a reasonable transformation. We will see a move back, but hopefully not wholescale and not to the previous levels – we can use technology to be more productive. Cities have many attractions for many people and given them space to breathe will be a good thing. People getting back their lives by reducing elements of their jobs they hate – and which are essentially unproductive – is also a positive thing in terms of individual and corporate wellbeing, as well as the economy and the environment. Local places around cities can benefit from this.
My second puzzle has been the refrain that the problem with town centres is that they are too dependent on retailing. This is then followed by the claim that out-of-town retailing and the internet have destroyed town centres. I must confess to now beginning to challenge people when I hear these statements being made in the same discussion.
If town centres are too reliant on retailing then it is not because there is an insatiable, unending and overwhelming demand for retail space in your local town, which is driving out all other uses. It is because lots of these other uses have also moved away from the town centre. Which is why I also get very irritated by out-of-town retailing being blamed for the town centre problem. As I have pointed out, all too often I suspect, we have decentralised so many things beyond retailing (you can see my example of Stirling in Julian Dobson’s book and in one of my presentations on this blog. The problem is decentralisation per se and the lack of reasons to visit a town or abilities to live, work and play there. The over reliance on retail in town centres is due to the under-presence of a breadth of other activities. This is where we should be focusing.
For towns, these two issues may be about to collide. Working at home is not the perfect solution for all, nor for all of the time. Combining it with working locally – in a range of spaces and combinations to be developed – can be a boost for local places. These new spaces need to be in accessible town centres and not reused decentralised offices or shops or retail warehouses or industrial estates accessible only by car. No doubt there will also be a need/desire to work at times and points collectively, both locally and in large cities and offices. It is the mix of all this, and the control it could give people that is interesting and exciting, as well as producing a more healthier and sustainable set of activities and places (and individuals).