Admittedly, not my best writing, apologies in advance for the length and the meandering….
Given the high percentage of commuters that reside in cities in the suburbs, and the changing trend in “work from home” or the hybrid version of “work from home”, we should consider reviewing our assumptions about pursuing job creating businesses that physically locate in small cities and other strategies that we normally pursue with economic development dollars.
After all, there is no guarantee that those businesses that locate in your city will hire your resident. What do you do if they hire remote work from home workers outside of your city or region or state? Incorporated City Limits are no longer a reliable boundary when it comes to economic development, maybe never was.
Many cities will say they want to attract people with more disposable income. That means that in any great number you mean STEM related jobs, some of those may require being in person such as in a healthcare setting, but a great number of STEM jobs allow “work from home” which means you need to create the bedroom community 2.0, yep I said it, bedroom community (gasp).
Bedroom community simply means you don’t live in the same city you work in. This is an old idea and unless you were a major city it was almost impossible to achieve not being a bedroom community by this definition. Also the trend since the 90s has been a commute from suburb to suburb. The idea of a bedroom community simply described most cities. This trend seems to have already been occurring for more than two decades and now has accelerated due to Covid, but what will post-Covid look like? Which city to plan for?
Sometimes cities get obsessed with not being a bedroom community because they want the status of being a “real city”, meaning everything can be done without the leaving the city, your City “has it all”, hence the very tired mantra of- live, learn, work, play, and worship. I’ll come back to this last statement in a second. So cities have spent considerable sums to attract businesses to physically locate to bring jobs to drive the residential development to their City. But with the trend of “work from home” likely being here to stay at some substantial level, serious consideration needs to be given to the economic development strategy most suburban cities employ, as it is what will drive the land use pattern in the future. Many small cities are using a 20th century playbook trying to bring jobs to their City; is there a good reason to expect this playbook will work post-covid?
But what if the 21st Century Play Book for small cities should not be as focused on bringing jobs to your City but instead bringing the workers to live in your City that businesses want to hire? That these people will likely work from home or a hybrid schedule and what amenities will these future residents want locally? Next I am just going to pick on parking and transportation…. What will the ‘business lunch rush’ look like in the future? How will this impact driving patterns if people are commuting less, or not at all? How will this impact the Level of Service for roads? With the car becoming more autonomous and less reliant on gasoline what will this mean for transportation and land use? In 10 years do I ask, “Alexa, go pick up my groceries at Krogers?” And my car goes to Krogers for curbside service and someone places my groceries in the trunk and it comes back to my garage? If my car can drive itself, then I have my own valet, this could optimize the convenience of dropping yourself off in front of the restaurant or retail store (they aren’t’ all going away after all) and you can summon your car to pick you up later, in the meantime your car parks ‘wherever’ or maybe even goes back home to wait on you. Will we need all that parking? What do we do with the unused parking? Should we now go on a parking diet before it’s too late and we’ve paved ourselves into the proverbial corner?
Those are just a few random questions. there are lots of questions to think about for the future, for the next 20 years or so. But the vision you create and the policies you adopt to achieve the vision become built and relatively permanent at least in terms of multiple decades.
Remember inflation is coming, it will only be more expensive to build in the future even when adjusted for inflation than it is today. As they say, history doesn’t repeat but it rhymes, I am old enough to remember double digit interest rates, when was the last time you saw a double digit interest rate on a mortgage? Hint: February of 1990! I fear I am veering off course…. Back on topic… Also, cities in Texas can no longer forcibly annex, so every acre of land in your City Limits is now a constrained supply. Every acre now counts. You have to think farther ahead than the next 5 to 10 years, you need to be thinking 20+ years. You can no longer just ‘grow your way out’ (at least horizontally) out of your fiscal issues.
So if you are a smaller city, you need to know what the people want that you seek to attract. Just like you would have pursued a company and marketed the City to them you should do the same in pursuit of attracting new residents. The future residents may want different amenities, different architecture/housing stock, have different needs, etc than what you currently provide. This needs to be fully understood, otherwise your ‘residential growth strategy’ is reactive and you will ‘get more of what you’ve got’ which may not be good for the future fiscal health of your city.
No, I don’t have the answers, and I totally glossed over the important issues of equity and affordability, but these questions have been rattling around in my head for a while now and maybe you might find it useful to ponder, or if like-minded now you know someone else has the same concerns.