In a way, it’s ironic. In the digital age, many of us can do our work from any place, as long as we have a laptop and high-speed internet.
Gone are the days when a central workplace anchored workers to a particular geography. As such, you could argue that in the digital age, place doesn’t matter at all. And yet, that’s not what we are seeing. In fact, the data suggests that place matters a whole lot.
But this truism plays out in different ways for different people. We hear most about the ways in which place matters to millennials and knowledge workers who are reportedly choosing an appealing place to live, and then figuring out how to make their work happen there.
In the game of retaining and attracting talent, it’s less about where people have to be, and more about where people want to be. Accordingly, businesses who want to attract knowledge workers should care a lot about making our community an appealing place.
Less often discussed is the way place matters to the many people in our community who are unemployed or underemployed, and therefore likely to experience poverty, poor education, and bad health outcomes. Many of the jobs these people seek cannot be performed on a laptop; they are more likely to have to report for work at a particular workplace.
After decades of suburban development and disinvestment in the urban core, our community is a place where suburban jobs are often distant from urban workers who could fill them. Public transit systems which have received minimal investment over the years often can’t get the people to the jobs, and when 1/3 of people living in distressed neighborhoods do not own a car, that’s a serious problem.
All this means that when it comes to connecting workers to workplaces, our place handicaps us. It inhibits the ability of our companies to grow; it prevents homegrown local talent from accessing jobs.
Many of the place-enhancing interventions that one might advance in order to attract and retain knowledge workers can also effectively connect workers to job centers, to the benefit of all citizens and businesses. Roads that are designed to accommodate bikers and walkers might encourage a millennial to choose this place, and they might also create viable options for an employee who doesn’t own a car.
Public transportation routes that intentionally connect neighborhoods to job centers make sense for everyone.
As our community talks more about improving place — making downtown more livable and interesting, better connecting neighborhoods, ensuring that this place works on many levels and not just for car owners — we have a golden opportunity to shape solutions that will improve our community on multiple fronts.
The first step is to open our eyes and minds to how place matters for all residents. When we do that, we can fashion transit options that appeal to millennials, connect workers to jobs, and create a vibrant, connected place that works better and feels better. ●
Christine Amer Mayer is president at the GAR Foundation.