Necessitated by lockdowns and enabled by technology, working from home has become a viable and potentially long-term alternative to work arrangements across a range of sectors, offering greater flexibility for workers, and changing the criteria for where we choose to live, and why.
Even when restrictions are reliably eased, there’s the possibility that workers will choose to remain at home, with 44% of workers surveyed at the end of 2020 reporting they’re reluctant to return to Melbourne’s CBD.
What will this mean for the liveability of our city, as well as our regional centres and towns?
A recent Infrastructure Australia report warns that an overhaul involving all levels of government, communities and business will be required to cope with the changes brought on by our flight to the regions.
As recurring lockdowns create more opportunities for people to work from home, the hold that cities have over job markets may ease. Rather than access to employment being the key decision-making driver, a reprioritisation of value is possible, with initial population movements during COVID-19 revealing preferences for quality of life and residential amenity.
This could prompt a shift in planning and design policy thinking for cities and regions, from the need to attract businesses, to people-centric policies that focus on creating great places.
The emergent nature of the data and ever-changing conditions complicate policymaking in this area, so it’s important to explore these changes and early findings with some nuance to better understand population dynamics occurring now and in the future.
This could help guide the places subject to immediate pressure to capture the benefits offered by the working-from-home catalyst, and avoid repeating the same challenges our cities have grappled with for some time.
Working from home presents a potential rethink of the existing monopoly that city centres have on urban life and activity. While many cities are experiencing a loss of vitality, there’s a concomitant gain to be found in suburban and regional areas. These changes are reflected in reductions in footfall traffic, which were more pronounced and took longer to recover in capital city centres than in suburban areas. The associated implications for office space and small retail, food and beverage businesses alike may cause a restructuring of the value of commercial property in each of these places.
Putting pressure on the regions
For regions, these population movements can also place pressure on residential housing markets and associated planning policies. This is already visible through their impact on regional real estate, where rapid price inflation is occurring and threatening the supply of sufficient, affordable housing. Questions can be asked as to whether these regions are prepared and sufficiently supported for the rapid growth in development interest occurring.
Regional migration trends also present a disjuncture with current compact city policies, and a growing concern is the contribution of this pattern to unsustainable urban sprawl in regional areas, and the environmental/bushfire issues this brings.
Design challenges presented by the phenomenon include the importance of better-quality housing to significantly improve mental health during lockdown conditions. Experiences of loneliness and stress were intensified due to inadequate access to air, light, temperature control and green spaces in the home during these difficult times.
Moreover, there’s a recognised need for adaptable work-from-home space, as well as spaces for relaxation.
The shift to the suburbs
While there’s a popular focus on intercity migration – which tends to highlight the movements of professionals who can work remotely – there’s also evidence of intracity migration, which largely involves low-wage, service workers moving to outer suburbs.
These groups have been identified as the most vulnerable to changing work conditions, and are relocating away from city centres to areas where housing is more affordable, but access to jobs and amenities is limited.
This has drawn attention to spatial disparities in the provision of services between neighbourhoods. Early evidence from Melbourne suggests that people’s wellbeing through successive lockdowns was highly dependent on the level of amenities available in the areas they live in.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that for some cohorts, their remote work-enabled relocations may be temporary. Greater housing affordability and lifestyle factors may draw young professionals to a coastal town, but work commitments and socialisation factors may well see them return.
Planning for change
There’s a need to broaden the working-from-home migration discussion to consider planning implications and opportunities for both the places people are leaving and those they are moving to, factoring in the possibilities above.
It’s vital that regions are able to retain the drivers that have caused the flight to the regions – housing affordability, walkable neighbourhoods, connections to space, and the natural environment and community feel.
Not only do we want to avoid a repeat of issues facing our cities, we want to learn the lessons of this migration, and prioritise those drivers in our urban areas as well. Both will require increased attention to a diversity of experiences and community needs, and more nuanced consideration of how spatial equity might be redistributed.
In this way, both cities and regions can capitalise on the benefits of the working-from-home flight, while ensuring the pitfalls are not following the path.
Alexa Gower will present at the Festival of Endangered Urbanism running from September 13-24 – a partnership event between Monash Art, Design and Architecture’s Urban Design and Planning team, and the University of Sydney School of Architecture Design and Planning.
This article was co-authored with Nellie Sheedy-Reignhard, Cassandra Tremblay and Vania Djunaidi.
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