Working From Home Will Change Cities

Just three years ago, the New York Times had this headline Why Big Cities Thrive, and Smaller Ones Are Being Left Behind” – trumpeting the victory of big cities over their smaller competitors, not to mention the suburbs and rural areas.  At the top of that heap, of course, was New York City.

Now the headlines are different:

A week ago, the always perceptive Claire Cain Miller added another perspective in an Upshot article that was headlined with the question “Is the Five-Day Office Week Over?”  Her answer, in the sub-title, was that the “pandemic has shown employees and employers alike that there’s value in working from home — at least, some of the time.”

This chart summarizes a part of what she wrote about.  As Miller’s story makes quite clear, it is important to realize that some of what has happened during the COVID pandemic will continue after we have finally overcome it and people are free to resume activities anywhere.  Some of the current refugees from cities will likely move back to the cities and many city residents remained there, of course.  But the point is that many of these old, returning and new urban residents will have different patterns of work and that will require cities to change.

While the focus of this was mostly on remote office work, some observers note that cities still have lots of workers who do not work in offices.  While clearly there are numerous jobs that require the laying of hands on something or someone, there are also blue-collar jobs that do not strictly require a physical presence.

I have seen factories that can be remotely controlled, even before the pandemic.  Now this option is getting even more attention.  One of the technology trade magazines, recently (7/3/2020) had a storied with this headline – “Remote factories: The next frontier of remote work.”  In another example, GE has been offering technology solutions to enable the employees of utility companies to remotely control facilities – see “Remote Control: Utilities and Manufacturers Turn to Automation Software To Operate From Home During Outbreak”.

So perhaps the first blush of victory of big cities, like the British occupation of New York City during the American Revolution or the invasion of France in World War II, did not indicate how the war would end.  Perhaps the war has not ended because, in an internet age where many people can work from home, home does not have to be in big cities, after all, or if it is in a big city it does not have to be in a gleaming office tower.

These trends and the potential of the internet and technology to disrupt traditional urban patters, of course, have been clear for more than ten years.  But few mayors and other urban leaders paid attention.  After all they were in a recent period in which they could just ride the wave of what seemed to be ever increasing density and growth in cities – especially propelled by young people seeking office jobs in their cities.  This was a wonderful dream, combining the urban heft of the industrial age with cleaner occupations.

Now the possibility of a different world is hitting them in the face.  It is not merely a switch from factory to office employment, but a change from industrial era work patterns too.  Among other things that change means that people do not all have to show up in the same place at the same time.  This change requires city leaders to start thinking about all the various ways that they need to adjust their traditional thinking.

Here are just three of the ways that cities will be impacted by an increasing percentage of work being done at home:

  • Property taxes in most cities usually have higher rates on commercial property than on residential property. Indeed, commercial real estate has been the goose that has laid the golden eggs for those cities which have had flourishing downtowns.  But if the amount of square footage in commercial property decreases, the value of those properties and hence the taxes will go down.  On the other hand, most elected officials are loath to raise taxes on residential real estate, even if those residences are now generating income through commercial activities – a job at home most of the week.
  • Traffic and transit patterns used to be quite predictable. There was rush hour in the morning and afternoon when everyone was trying to get the same densely packed core.  With fewer people coming to the office every day that will change.  Even those who meet in downtown may not be going there now for the 9:00 AM start of the work day, but for a lunch meeting.  Then there is the matter of increasing and relatively small deliveries to homes, rather than large deliveries to stores in the central business district.  This too turns upside down the traditional patterns.
  • Excitement and enticement have, of course, been traditional advantages of cities. Downtown is where the action is.  Even that is changing.  Although it is still fun to go to Broadway, for example, I suspect that most people had a better view of the actors in the Disney Plus presentation of Hamilton than did those who paid a lot more money to sit somewhere many rows back even in the orchestra section of the theater.  At some point, people will balance this out.  So, cities are going to have be a lot more creative and find new ways, new magic to bring people to their core.

Cities have evolved before.  In the 18th century, American cities thrived on the traffic going through their ports.  While the ports still played a role, in later centuries, cities grew dramatically and thrived on their factories and industrial might.  Then they replaced factories with offices.

A transition to an as yet unclear future version of cities can be done and will be done successfully by those city leaders who don’t deny what is happening, but instead respond with a new vision – or at least new experimentation that they can learn from.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Are Any Small Towns Flourishing?

We hear and read how the very largest cities are growing, attractive places for millennials and just about anyone who is not of retirement age. The story is that the big cities have had almost all the economic gains of the last decade or so, while the economic life has been sucked out of small towns and rural areas.

The images above are what seem to be in many minds today — the vibrant big city versus the dying countryside.

Yet, we are in a digital age when everyone is connected to everyone else on the globe, thanks to the Internet. Why hasn’t this theory of economic potential from the Internet been true for the countryside?

Well, it turns out that it is true. Those rural areas that do in fact have widespread access to the Internet are flourishing. These towns with broadband are exemplary, but unfortunately not the majority of towns.

Professor Roberto Gallardo of Purdue’s Purdue Center for Regional Development has dug deep into the data about broadband and growth. The results have recently been published in an article that Robert Bell and I helped write. You can see it below.

So, the implication of the image above is half right — this is a life-or-death issue for many small towns. The hopeful note is that those with broadband and the wisdom to use it for quality of life will not die in this century.

© 2018 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved


[This article is republished from the Daily Yonder , a non-profit media organization that specializes in rural trends and thus filling the vacuum of news coverage about the countryside.]

When It Comes to Broadband, Millennials Vote with Their Feet

By Roberto Gallardo — Robert Bell — Norman Jacknis

April 11, 2018

When they live in remote rural areas, millennials are more likely to reside in a county that has better digital access. The findings could indicate that the digital economy is helping decentralize the economy, not just clustering economic change in the cities that are already the largest.

Sources: USDA; Pew Research; US Census Bureau; Purdue Center for Regional Development This graph shows that the number of Millennials and Gen Xers living in the nation’s most rural counties is on the increase in counties with a low “digital divide index.” The graph splits the population in “noncore” (or rural) counties into three different generations. Then, within each generation, the graph looks at population change based on the Digital Divide Index. The index measures the digital divide using two sets of criteria, one that looks at the availability and adoption of broadband and another set that looks at socio-economic factors such as income and education levels that affect broadband use. Counties are split into five groups or quintiles based on the digital divide index, with group №1 (orange) having the most access and №5 (green) having the lowest.

Cities are the future and the countryside is doomed, as far as population growth, jobs, culture and lifestyle are concerned. Right?

Certainly, that is the mainstream view expressed by analysts at organizations such as Brookings. This type of analysis says the “clustering” of business that occurred during the industrial age will only accelerate as the digital economy takes hold. This argument says digital economies will only deepen and accelerate the competitive advantage that cities have always had in modern times.

But other pundits and researchers argue that the digital age will result in “decentralization” and a more level playing field between urban and rural. Digital technologies are insensitive to location and distance and potentially offer workers a much greater range of opportunities than ever before.

The real question is whether a rural decline is inevitable or if the digital economy has characteristics that are already starting to write a different story for rural America. We have recently completed research that suggests it is.

Millennial Trends

While metro areas still capture the majority of new jobs and population gains, there is some anecdotal evidence pointing in a different direction. Consider a CBS article that notes how, due to high housing costs, horrible traffic, and terrible work-life balances, Bend, Oregon, is seeing an influx of teleworkers from Silicon Valley. The New York Times has reported on the sudden influx of escapees from the Valley that is transforming Reno, Nevada — for good or ill, it is not yet clear.

Likewise, a Fortune article argued that “millennials are about to leave cities in droves” and the Telegraph mentioned “there is a great exodus going on from cities” in addition to Time magazine reporting that the millennial population of certain U.S. cities has peaked.

Why millennials? Well, dubbed the first digital-native generation, their migration patterns could indicate the beginning of a digital age-related decentralization.

An Age-Based Look at Population Patterns

In search of insight, we looked at population change among the three generations that make up the entire country’s workforce: millennials, generation X, and baby boomers.

First, we defined each generation. Table 1 shows the age ranges of each generation according to the Pew Research Center, both in 2010 and 2016, as well as the age categories used to measure each generation. While not an exact match, categories are consistent across years and geographies.

In addition to looking at generations, we used the Office of Management core-based typology to control by county type (metropolitan, small city [micropolitan], and rural [noncore]). To factor in the influence of digital access affects local economies, we used the Digital Divide Index. The DDI, developed by the Purdue Center for Regional Development, ranges from zero to 100. The higher the score, the higher the digital divide. There are two components to the Digital Divide Index: 1) broadband infrastructure/adoption and 2) socioeconomic characteristics known to affect technology adoption.

Looking at overall trends, it does look like the digital age is not having a decentralization effect. To the contrary, according to data from the economic modeling service Emsi, the U.S. added 19.4 million jobs between 2010 and 2016. Of these, 94.6 percent were located in metropolitan counties compared to only 1.6 percent in rural counties.

Population growth tells a similar story. Virtually the entire growth in U.S. population of 14.4 million between 2010 and 2016 occurred in metropolitan counties, according to the Census Bureau. The graph below (Figure 1) shows the total population change overall and by generation and county type. As expected, the number of baby boomers (far right side of the graph) is falling across all county types while millennials and generation x (middle two sets of bars) are growing only in metro counties.

But there is a different story. When looking at only rural counties (what the OMB classification system calls “noncore”) divided into five equal groups or quintiles based on their digital divide (1 = lowest divide while 5 = highest divide), the figure at the very top of this article shows that rural counties experienced an increase in millennials where the digital divide was lowest. (The millennial population grew by 2.3 percent in rural counties where the digital divide was the lowest.) Important to note is that this same pattern occurs in metropolitan and small city counties as well.

Impact on the “Really Rural” County

“Urban” and “rural” can be tricky terms when it comes to demographics. The Census Bureau reports that 80% of the population lives in urban areas. Seventy-five percent of those “urban” areas, however, are actually small towns with populations of under 20,000. They are often geographically large, with a population density that falls off rapidly once you leave the center of town.

On the other hand, some rural counties are adjacent to metro areas and may benefit disproportionately from their location or even be considered metropolitan due to their commuting patterns. Because of this, we turned to another typology developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service that groups counties into nine types ranging from large metro areas to medium size counties adjacent to metro areas to small counties not adjacent to metro areas.

Figure 3 (below) shows counties considered completely rural or with an urban population of less than 2,500, not adjacent to a metro area. Among these counties, about 420 in total, those with the lowest digital divide experienced a 13.5 percent increase in millennials between 2010 and 2016. In other words, in the nation’s “most rural” counties, the millennial population increased significantly when those counties had better broadband access.

Sources: USDA; Pew Research; US Census Bureau; Purdue Center for Regional Development. This graph shows population change by generation and “DDI” quintile in the nation’s most rural counties (rural counties that are farthest from metropolitan areas). In rural counties with the best digital access (a low digital divide index), the number of Millennials and Gen Xers increased.

The New Connected Countryside: A Work in Progress

To conclude, if you just look at overall numbers, our population seems to be behaving just like they did in the industrial age — moving to cities where jobs and people are concentrated. Rural areas that lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy will continue to suffer from these old trends.

However, the digital age is young. Its full effects are still to be felt. Remember it took several decades for electricity or the automobile to revolutionize society. Besides, areas outside metro areas lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy, limiting their potential to leverage the technology to affect their quality of life, potentially reversing migration trends.

Whether or not decentralization will take place remains to be seen. What is clear though is that (while other factors are having an impact, as well) any community attempting to retain or attract millennials need to address their digital divide, both in terms of broadband access and adoption/use.

In other words, our data analysis suggests that if a rural area has widely available and adopted broadband, it can start to successfully attract or retain millennials.

Roberto Gallardo is assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a senior fellow at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum. Norman Jacknis is a senior fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum and on the faculty of Columbia University.