How teleworking is changing neighborhoods

Not everyone wants to commute © Keystone/Gaetan Bally

Working from home has become commonplace thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the work is no longer tied to one place, many people are able to escape from the city to the countryside. What effects does this have on housing planning in Switzerland?

This content was published on February 10, 2022 – 09:00

Spatial planner Paul Schneeberger and urbanist Joris Van Wezemael have written a book about how the pandemic could lead to more “decentralized living” — or living outside of urban centers — and less time to commute. The authors of Decentralized Switzerlandexternal link (Decentralized Switzerland) say that the Covid-19 crisis is a catalyst for important changes in the way we live.

SWI You say we are at a turning point. Why?

Joris Van Wezemael: The Covid-19 pandemic has changed our lives. Thanks to the ability to work from home, many people now work where they live. Technologically, this would have been possible ten years ago. But working from home has just become part of everyday life.

SWI: The pandemic will eventually end. Will working from home also come to an end?

Van Wezemael: Several studies show that this change is sustainable. We assume that most people will work from home between one and three days a week in the future. There will be no “back to normality” in the sense of a full-time presence in the office.

Paul Schneeberger: The crisis has shown that working remotely is possible. No one can ever claim it doesn’t work again. About 40% of jobs can be done from home.

Zurich, the largest city in Switzerland. Christian Beutler

SWI: But if people move to the countryside and stop commuting, won’t that increase urban sprawl in Switzerland?

Schneeberger: That’s already happening. In recent years we have seen strong employment growth in cities, while population in rural or semi-rural areas has exploded. In that sense, the pandemic hasn’t created a new trend—it has reinforced it.

SWI: So nothing has changed, except that people now commute less.

Schneeberger: Exactly.

Van Wezemael: Urban sprawl has always been considered undesirable, but the pandemic has shown that we can use existing infrastructure more sustainably. When people work remotely, they spend more time on activities like eating out and shopping in their own neighborhoods than in the cities. Decentralized living is only sustainable if we commute less. We just have to use the existing infrastructure differently.

Schneeberger: What is considered a place of residence today will become a place of residence.

From farming village to commuter town: Egerkingen in the canton of Solothurn. keystone

SWI: What exactly does that mean?

Schneeberger: When people spend more time in their own neighborhoods, they boost the local economy. They stop by the local shops and the gym around the corner instead of visiting these places on the way to and from the office.

Van Wezemael: That doesn’t happen automatically, of course. We need to encourage trends that support decentralized living and mitigate trends that are unsustainable, such as the desire for a larger home or additional office space. That is up to us as a society and up to politics.

SWI: But an office chair or stacks of unfinished work in the bedroom can be annoying, so more space would be useful. What other options are there?

Schneeberger: A good alternative to larger apartments are well-designed living quarters in which you can rent workspaces by the day or by the hour instead of an additional room in the apartment. Not only in cities, but also in suburbs such as Meiringen or Scuol, coworking spaces have emerged everywhere, in which people from different professions do their work.

SWI: How should spatial planners react to this new demand?

Schneeberger: You have to adapt to the new reality. The pandemic has changed our lives and living spaces. For example, what do we do with residential areas that are no longer just for living, but also for working? This requires new creative ideas. Living and working spaces should become the norm.

Van Wezemael: We also have to redesign green spaces. Forests in metropolitan areas not only remain fallow on the outskirts of a residential area. They will be converted into central parks to the delight of the surrounding communities.

Strolling in Ringlikon in Zurich. © Keystone / Christian Beutler

SWI: Switzerland has always been a commuter country, where people prefer to live in the suburbs. Does that make it different from other countries?

Schneeberger: There are countries like Switzerland and the Netherlands that are better suited to decentralized living. Things are very different in Germany with its large open plains, even more so in the USA and Canada. All of Switzerland is like one big decentralized city with a population similar to the city of New York.

Van Wezemael: As a rich country with a federal system, Switzerland has a very good infrastructure even in the most remote valleys. It’s not just about traffic control, waste management and ubiquitous convenience stores. It is also our living and working space. We don’t have desolate areas like other countries; The whole of Switzerland was urbanized. Therefore, the difference between rural and urban areas is not as great as in the US.

Biel/Bienne in northwestern Switzerland. Keystone / Jean-Christophe Bott

SWI: If full-time telework becomes the norm, could we also work in less developed countries?

Van Wezemael: The pandemic has shown that hybrid work is the most productive. I think we will see a mix of remote work and office presence in the future. In some parts of the world, telecommuting offers the opportunity to build a local workforce. Geographical barriers are apparently being broken down by the ubiquity of video conferencing.

Schneeberger: This development could also pose a risk for a high-income country like Switzerland. But back to room planning. Even without the pandemic, Switzerland would have become more decentralized. More building land has been allocated in rural areas than in the cities, so that more building construction will take place there in the next few years. But coupled with remote work, the impact will not be as negative.

SWI: So no more traffic jams and overcrowded S-Bahn trains, even though more people live in rural areas?

Schneeberger: Well, in an ideal world, there will be less traffic jams and less crowded trains (laughs).

(From the German by Billi Bierling)

Paul Schneeberger and Joris Van Wezemael

Paul Schneeberger studied history, political science and constitutional law. He worked as a journalist for the German-language daily newspaper The New Zurich Times for many years. In 2017, Schneeberger obtained a postgraduate degree in spatial planning from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich. From 2018 to 2021 he headed the transport policy department at the Swiss Association of Cities.

Joris Van Wezemael studied economic and urban geography as well as spatial planning at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich. In his dissertation he linked spatial planning with real estate. Today he is a lecturer at ETH Zurich and managing partner of the spatial planning and design office IVO Innenentwicklung AG.

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