Working from home not the cause of downtown decline

Whilst I empathise with the concerns expressed in Craig Boudreau’s recent letter (The beginning of the end of downtowns everywhere, Cape Breton Post, 29/12/2020), I do not agree that the issue at the heart of the decline of downtowns is working from home. As an experienced town planner, I work with the dynamics of urban economics everyday and there are much bigger issues at play when it comes to ensuring healthy downtowns.

North American downtowns have been in decline for decades due to poor town planning practices that allowed ‘big box’ shops to open on the urban fringe at the expense of the existing downtown core. In Australia, where I practise my profession, we have not experienced this problem to the same degree due to significantly more restrictive land use policies which require new shops to be located within the existing downtown core. We do have some examples of poor land use planning, but these are relatively limited and few in number. I must make this point clear: the success or failure of any downtown will largely be dependant on land use policy. Whilst working from home may reduce the daily foot traffic, it is not the cause of the decline of downtowns and shouldn’t be made a scapegoat as such.

Mr Boudreau’s suggestion that employees and corporations who engage in working from home should be taxed more would be harmful to the economy (and ultimately the downtown cores that he is trying to protect) and would not contribute towards the achievement of any meaningful improvement of downtown areas in the long term.

In most places commuters can spend anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 hours in total travelling to and from work each day. In cities (where more than half the global population and 71 per cent of Australians live, which makes them the norm), working from home has allowed people to use those hours they previously spent commuting to enjoy more family time, walk to the local high street shopping strip, and reconnect with their communities. In fact, traditional high street shopping strips (similar to Sydney’s Charlotte Street) have seen a revitalisation because people now have spare time to visit, browse, and patronise these local establishments. Working from home can provide further flexibility, such as beginning work at 7am and finishing at 3, thus providing two hours for people to engage with their local community and the businesses therein. Working from home has provided a circuit breaker to the extreme congestion experienced in most cities, with business and the community benefiting from the increased productivity of our transport networks which are no longer congested with commuters but rather free for goods and customers to move about the city in an efficient manner.

If the majority of people lived in small towns like Sydney, there might be an argument for making them drive ten minutes to work in the downtown, but the reality is that most people live in cities and their commutes are very long and have a significant economic and social cost due to the large amount of time lost everyday during their commute.

I empathise with Mr Boudreau’s concerns but I do no agree with him that the answer is to tax those who work from home in an effort to ensure people continue to commute to the office, which can be a pointless trip in the age of paperless computer based working. There are significant economic and social costs associated with the massive loss of productivity we experience when commuters are sitting in traffic for two hours every weekday. People working from home absolutely do contribute to the economy whilst at the same time they also contribute towards a massive reduction in waste associated with needless travel to and from the office. Working from home will mean an adjustment for businesses but at the end of the day, the benefits will significantly outweigh the costs. The future success or failure of downtowns will not be determined by whether or not people continue to work from home but rather by the policy settings and decisions in place, especially as they pertain to land use.

I believe that working from home is here to stay. It is now time for business to adapt to this new reality and invest accordingly. Innovation by businesses is what is required, not taxation and government intervention to needlessly maintain the status quo. Working from home won’t kill our downtowns; in fact it will probably help them in the longer term.

This piece was originally published as a guest column on 4 January 2021 in the Cape Breton Post.