Think Globally, Act Locally: How Cities Are Adapting to the Suburban Shift

Bloomberg photo by Jose Sarmento Matos
Morning commuters exit Liverpool Street railway station in the City of London, UK, on Monday, Oct. 25, 2022.

To paraphrase Karl Marx, all workers of the world are uniting. They seek change, and in tight labor markets white collar workers are increasingly getting it. The number one trend for human resource departments globally, according to Mercer, is “improving the employee experience for key retention populations.” That translates roughly to “the balance of power has shifted.” My working assumption: The power struggle isn’t just people but place and specifically the city has a renewed competitor – the suburb.

The draining of revenue for Manhattan is just the latest alarm bell tolling the end of the central business district, the area most associated with offices as we know them. In Australia, so-called e-changers have moved from cities to regional and coastal areas but kept their city jobs. In London – a city defined by its sixfold growth in a decade at the beginning of the industrial revolution – the collapse in commuter-based revenue and rise of anti-commute habits is such that Govia Thameslink Railway, the U.K.’s largest railway network, is offering discounted tickets on Mondays and Fridays.

The city as we know it is less than 10,000 years old and has always been about three things: population, trade and growth.

The trajectory of growth is set to continue: By 2050, it’s projected that nearly two-thirds of all people will live in urban areas. Yet, what happens in cities is changing profoundly. A century ago, Carl Sandburg’s poem Skyscraper captured the proto-industrial age commute so well: “By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul. Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into it and they mingle among its twenty floors and are poured out again back to the streets, prairies and valleys.”

Today the buzz is less of the skyscraper than of the 15-minute city, popularized in Paris by Mayor Anne Hildago and now seen as a model across the world – although times are shortening. Seoul is aiming for a 10-minute city. These concepts imply having all necessary amenities within a short walk, bike ride, or public transit trip from one’s home, both for convenience, community and to reduce reliance on cars for climate-related reasons.

Not everyone is happy about this shift. Oxford in England has become a hotbed of conspiracy theories around its plans to limit private vehicles, and has attracted international attention as a result of the rising tensions.

Nevertheless, you can clearly see the influence of the 15-minute city concept both locally in towns and suburbs and in the adaptations of city centers to what’s called “mixed use,” or repurposing central business districts for business, residential and public space. This is being done to either attract new models of tenancy or to create new income streams on evenings and weekends if offices themselves are going to remain under-occupied. But it also reflects the live/work culture of the moment.

The Age, a daily newspaper in Melbourne reported on Mad March, an upcoming month of city-based festivals and other attractions that draw people to the city. Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, The Royal Commission for Riyadh City has predicated its entire Downtown Riyadh Development Program to be in essence mixed use for residents, tourists and business. In Lithuania, Zaha Hadid Architects have won the contract to redevelop 24,000 square meters of mixed-use space in the business district of Vilnius.

The speed of change has taken some people by surprise. At the end of his influential 2017 book “Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies,” the physicist Geoffrey West noted “the vast majority of people who could in principle de-urbanize and yet remain connected to the center choose not to. I know of no high-tech geeks who are operating from high up in the mountain ranges of the California Sierra.”

But in “The Momentous, Uneventful Day: A Requiem For the Office,” published in 2020, Gideon Haigh reminds us of what lies at the heart of the switch away from purely office-centered cities: “The convenience of working in a domestic setting.” He notes that “The White House, 10 Downing Street, the Palais de l’Elysee, Zhongnanhai, Sori Daijin Kantei: all have combined their functions as headquarters of government leadership with residences for senior officialdom.”

The ordinary white-collar worker has a home life as well as a work life. They clearly want the benefit of their education and skills to play out in where they work and play. Technology affords many more opportunities to unite what the worker wants with what they can now get: work-life balance. It isn’t the end of the city, but potentially the beginning of it. Or, as Marx might put it: the redistribution of it.

Those wishing to re-energize their workforces and stay more capitalist than socialist have their work cut out, but they should also take heart: The maxim to “think globally, act locally,” coined by the Scottish planner and conservationist Patrick Geddes, has been rolled out successfully by large companies like McDonald’s. Yes, offices will perhaps need to relocate or fragment into smaller regional franchise hubs. But is that such a bad thing?