The Telecommuting Town

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

Planetizen readers, I have an idea I'd like your opinion on. As managing editor for the past year, I've become increasingly aware of how skilled and professional our readers are. Comments on articles are almost always civil, engaging and thoughtful, something that can't be said for the majority of websites. We have a community of experts here, which is why I bring my idea to you.

The gist is: The Telecommuting Town.

SUMMARY: The promise of the telecommuting future- where workers could work from home, creating a zero commute and allowing people to live where they like- has failed to completely germinate. On the one hand, certain job sectors have moved to a 'gig' economy, where individuals can run small businesses from home and in practice work for a number of employers part-time. On the other, larger businesses have come to distrust the concept of telecommuting as a few bad apples have exploited the practice. The lack of face-to-face contact also poses a challenge, as employers and co-workers miss the direct connection and sense of community that comes from sharing an office.

Meanwhile, a movement is afoot to revitalize Main Streets around the country. Small towns from Waterbury, Connecticut to Baker City, Oregon have worked to restore their main streets through smart growth and economic development strategies. Many of these small towns have the type of well-preserved infrastructure that Smart Growth advocates are promoting. And 30% of people surveyed by the Pew Center indicated that they would like to live in a small town. Lack of access to jobs is the greatest impediment to restoring these small towns.

This project proposes to create a blueprint for the Telecommuting Town, a new community for the future building on the past. Using GIS and demographic surveys, we'll select the Top 20 Towns ripe for creating a telecommuting hub. We'll survey telecommuters around the country to understand their needs. We'll work with economic development experts to explore tax incentives and small business loan programs to attract entrepreneurs and telecommuting workers.

Possible outcomes of the project might be proposals for retrofitting city halls and town centers with wifi, videoconferencing, and meeting rooms to be paid for through small business taxes. Other options might be pairing up with local business owners to create new public spaces that meet the needs of telecommuters and create new customer bases for local cafes, printers, etc. Telecommuting towns might also find that convenient connections to airports or train hubs are important, and create transit shuttles or systems to meet those needs. 


So Planetizen readers; what is your expert opinion? Impractical? Missing an element? Voice your opinion below.

Tim Halbur is communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).



generational telecommuting issues

I believe it's the perfect time to start planning such towns, but it may be premature to begin building them by about a decade. Two crucial technological components remain unsatisfied:

1. Virtual conferencing/video connecting has not hit critical mass yet. When video connections are as common as walking to the next desk, then the technology will be adequately prepared for large groups of workers to use it.

2. The early acceptors of telecommuting need to get a bit older. I watch our new grad out of college. She is technologically able to do her work independently in a telecommuting environment but isn't mature enough to know the difference between work and social networking, though she is learning quickly to leverage the social side from a marketing standpoint. Regardless, she will need about another decade before she is in a sufficient leadership position to telecommute without it being seen as an opportunity to shirk responsibility.

Many have documented the issues with isolation, lack of supervision, or technology. One issue that hasn't been adequately addressed is the issue of training. Regardless of how work is actually done, both the work and the life-skills that accompany it must be taught face to face. The only exceptions are those who are naturally entrepreneurial and they rarely need supervision for anything.

This is not to say that a town couldn't be built around telecommuting, but it will require that companies think through a cradle to grave strategy to address these issues. It will also take a different corporate mindset about work--a strategy that more closely follows the pattern in the rural communities in which they can thrive. To go forward, we must look at farm structure, where some work must be done with unnerving consistency while the remainder of the work comes in and goes out on a more cyclical pattern. Financial benefits come and go with the attention to both facets of the work pattern. Laziness is its own punishment, while diligence provides consistent reward. In the end, those who have been raised in a rural lifestyle may be best trained to do this kind of work.

There are several social organizations that may be ideally suited to providing the social support necessary to facilitate this transition, and one of the best would be a church. Many churches (at least in the southeast) are vacant during the week and have ample space and printing capacity to support this kind of work. One of their primary organizational "missions" is the training of the young and they could be well suited to training the character traits that facilitate telecommuting success.

Although some industries can't be done through telecommuting, I don't see that as an impediment. All it takes is 20-30% of the population employed in a major industry to have an economically sustainable town. One must not assume either that the advent of telecommuting will mean the demise of physical travel. At least 60% of household trips are done for shopping or social purposes and the wider digital connection will drive a desire to connect with those people in person.

Personally, I believe whether telecommuting towns are planned or not, telecommuting will become a consistent pattern for a significant segment of the workforce, whether that means full time, part time or in flexible schedules. Ultimately the sustainability of the current suburban environment may hinge on the transition to telecommuting.

Patricia C. Tice, PE, AICP, LEED AP
Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin, Inc.

Purpose-built towns for telecommuters is a silly idea

Building a town around telecommuting seems silly and even maybe a bit oxymoronic. The concept of telecommuting largely revolves around the appeal of living wherever one wants, be it on Central Park South, at the top of Russian Hill, in the middle of the Nevada desert, or in the north woods of Minnesota (with the added desirable benefit of less physical commuting). Why do we need purpose-built towns for telecommuters and why would anyone want to live in one anyway…? Sounds boring and unnecessary.

Why build more towns at all…? There are hundreds of thousands… even millions… of vacant properties scattered across the USA… why build more…? If a telecommute-opolis needs to be built, why not recycle someplace like Detroit or Cleveland or Buffalo (or Phoenix or Las Vegas or the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans…!), where there are hundreds or thousands of abandoned properties, instead of the (incidentally) not very sustainable practice of plowing under yet more land for more buildings and pavement…?

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

Reuse is the idea

Chrisinsobe, my proposal is not to build new towns, it is to retrofit existing towns.

And while I understand your point that the point of telecommuting is that it can happen from anywhere, I believe that the right towns could attract small businesses if they let it be known that they have created the infrastructure to simplify their lives (great internet access, public spaces that accept laptop plugs, excellent public space).

it might come down to quality of life

I practice a form of telecommuting myself, working from a shared space in my chosen city (Portland) for an employer that's based in California. Over the years I've known a number of other folks who have tried one or another version of telecommuting, whether from home, cafes, a 'time-share' setup, or some combination thereof; people of various ages, and in various careers.

Based on that experience, my hunch is that telecommuters are, and will be, pretty diverse in what they want of the locality where they live. I could work from anywhere in the US, but I choose to 'telecommute' from Portland because I have strong social and professional networks here, and the lifestyle suits my needs. I know another telecommuter who was perfectly happy to work for over five years out of the basement of his suburban home -- a situation that would have made me crazy. One friend who consults on sustainability matters has been working from a gorgeous house in the woods, but is moving back to the city to be closer to friends. Another is temporarily working happily out of home and cafes, albeit looking for a shared space.

The point is, I can't imagine there's much a city or town might do to attract telecommuters in the way of infrastructure (other than a good high-speed internet network, which is usually privately-provided anyway) beyond what they should do to build up "quality of life". Not in these days of high-speed home internet, cheap laser printers, and a FedEx|Kinkos or wifi-enabled Starbucks within a 10-minute drive of almost the entire adult professional population.

The most important part of your study may well be the survey of current telecommuters to understand their needs; I'd suggest it ask questions not along the lines of "What kind of infrastructure do you want in a telecommuting town?" but rather "What are your most important considerations in deciding where you will live as a telecommuter?" I'll wager that proximity to family & friends, a major airport, a major university, good public schools, other factors beyond the control of municipalities will far outweigh the things that towns *can* control.

Daniel Lerch

PS- A shared space for telecommuters here in Portland recently went under -- might make for a good case study:

telecommuting town

I think this is an interesting idea. I work for a small municipality with a traditional downtown, including a Village Hall that has way more space than we need. We have toyed with the idea of creating a business incubator in this space to service start-up businesses. We hadn't thought of telecommuters, but it seems logical to pair these two groups. But I definitely think the surveys would be key to determining the practicality of a "telecommuting hub". The survey should answer questions about telecommuters' preferences, as noted, but perhaps should also look at employers' preferences as well. Maybe some employers would be more comfortable with telecommuting in this proposed "office" environment.

"Telecommuting" Town or "Entrepreneur-Friendly" Town?

Great discussion. I'm wondering what the desired impact is on telecommuters, freelance folks, etc. Would the goal be for them to actually pick up and relocate to one of these towns? Or would they be incentivized to move from the outskirts inward? Have a "shorter telecommute" to a central facility? Or to finally give a shot at launching that new business idea they have? I agree that what plagues many of these workers is the sense of isolation. There's a great new "co-working" space in my town ( where people pay $100/month for a guaranteed work space, high speed connection, and networking opportunities. Could incentivizing more spaces like this--through forming cooperatives, some kind of zoning initiatives, loans--result in places where people want to be (that is, where rents don't tend to already be too expensive as it is)? I think for any downtown, making it attractive/affordable for entrepreneurs to 1) locate there, 2) help them focus on their business, and 3) provide synergistic connections to others can only help these knowledge workers and ultimately the vitality of the downtown.

I Like This Idea

The biggest problem concerning telecommuting in my opinion is the isolation of the worker.

I wonder if it would be possible/desirable for a large company with a population desiring to telecommute to identify small towns within a two, three or say four hour drive/train commute and let their workers know about them.

This might alleviate some of the isolation by having your co-workers living in a small, but walkable town. I'm thinking, say Galena, IL., as a model, but there are hundreds similar around the Midwest.

Basically, mini-cities.


While I prefer to do a majority of my work independently, I do experience issues with isolation if my work involves zero personal contact. I think it would be an improvement if telecommuting could happen even part time, so you could have the freedom to work from home part of the time and the rest, you have the chance to interact with coworkers and clients.

Re telecommuting not taking off, I have experienced mixed opinions about this from employers. Some employers, in both the non-profit and public sectors, scoffed at the idea of their employees working remotely. I guess they want to see that you or working, don't believe the job can be done from your home, or, if they have to work in the office, then every body better work in the office!

Also, I think in person meetings and dialogue are still important. We shouldn't solely just be in front of our computers all the time, with no "real" contact/communication.

Changing the work practice of flying all over the place for meetings and conferences would be a significant dent in work related carbon outputs.

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