February 9th, 2007

Social Prognostication

Today people live in one of four types of environments, organized by population density. These are not clear cut types, since there is a steady and gradual transition from one to the next, but looking at them in this way helps to understand them. The most dense is the city center, where people live in high-rise apartments and condominiums. At this density, walking, biking, and public transit are the primary means of getting about. Next is the city, where single and multi-family homes, low-rise apartments and condominiums are closely spaced on lots with minimal yard. While walking, biking, and public transit are often available, driving a car becomes more common. Third is the suburb, where houses are still close to each other, but streets often don't conform to a grid, yards are larger, and driving is almost essential for getting anywhere, though public transit in the form of buses and bike trails are also available. Last is the rural areas, where houses are widely spaced, often on large lots or farms, and public transit is non-existent.

The type of environment that people live in is influenced a great deal by the cost, time, and convenience of getting to work, balanced by the quality of housing that a person can afford. Dense cities became common because there was no way to commute from rural areas to an office or a factory in a reasonable amount of time. When freeways were built, suburbs started to grow. As people moved from the cities, offices and factories in turn started moving out to take advantage of cheaper land and a more mobile workforce. The conclusion that can be reached is that where people live is determined by where they work, the cost of land, and the availability of fast transportation, whatever its nature.

So what happens when tele-presence really starts to kick in? What happens to the very nature of urban planning when people can work from home to do all kinds of jobs that today require them to go to an office? As technologies improve, the difference in experience quality between being at the office and being at home diminish. High-speed Internet, VPN, video conferencing, instant messaging, and remote desktops are only the first steps into this world. Businesses will quickly embrace the dramatically reduced office costs once the perception that working from home is less efficient starts to give way. Some early adopters already have, but it isn't hard to imagine that in twenty years, if not less, the office experience as we know it today will start to collapse.

The potential implications of this are difficult to fathom. Without even touching on the changes in relationships as physical interaction with coworkers declines, or the potential opportunities for dynamic and spontaneous organization of people from all over, just looking at what this will do to how and where we live is incredible! Certainly I don't want to ignore all of the people that would still need to physically work somewhere, at data centers and factories, at retail and service jobs, the health care professionals, and many more, but over half of Americans are office workers, and if half of Americans didn't need to drive to work every day, what would that mean?

Traffic congestion starts to decline without building bigger roads, two car families become one, stay at home parents no longer mean single income families. The need for constant child daycare fades. Suddenly the need to get around is motivated not by commuting but by shopping, entertainment and recreation. In this environment, would we start to see a different type of city?

Imagine a community of a few thousand built around a centralized commercial area of shopping within walking distance. Groceries, restaurants, clothing stores and such that aren't surrounded by massive parking lots, but by parks. Broad, paved paths lead to houses and businesses instead of full streets. At the commercial center a train station can take you to other communities or the city center, a car rental for trips into rural areas, plus the other elements of a community like a grade school, doctors offices, police, and so on. Houses could be spaced at varying density, but likely similar to suburbs. There is effectively more space because there aren't roads. If you need to do grocery shopping, you have a cart, there are bike paths to neighboring communities, and several communities could share the larger services like high schools, hotels, and hospitals. The paths are wide and sturdy enough to allow a moving truck or an ambulance, but for the most part are not driven on.

In all of this, people are able to work not just at home, but at the café, in the park, at the pool, or while the kids are at soccer practice. They have more time because they don't spend time driving to and from work. Communities are stronger because people are walking about, meeting their neighbors. They may need to travel occasionally to an in-person meeting, but businesses don't start to realize the benefits of telecommuting until they no longer have to have offices at all, so these meetings would probably take place at hotels, convention centers, or restaurants.

Undoubtedly, there would still be big cities and people that choose to live in them. There would still be people living in all of the environments I described, at least initially. The community style I describe may never happen because it would take developers and urban planners to actually make it happen. It would take people willing to try a new way of living where they could move away from the car payment, the garage, and the insurance. In time it would take re-making existing communities as needs changed. I think that the end result would be worth it, though it could take a hundred years before the transformation is complete. It would be a lifestyle that I can see myself enjoying, and a lot of others probably would too.

Working from home is bound to happen, but how we as a society adopt it remains uncertain. If we take steps toward giving up the automobile, embracing the opportunity to move past the strip malls and six lane roads, we'd realize a cheaper, more relaxed, and simpler lifestyle, without giving up the conveniences and space that got us here in the first place. I think it's a possibility worth working toward.