How Cities Can Attract Remote Workers Worldwide

TThe largest and most accessible station in Europe is located in Leipzig, Germany. It’s a cosmopolitan metropolis of almost 600,000. Despite being lauded as the “new Berlin” and one of Germany’s fastest-growing cities, Leipzig’s global reputation is still catching up to its European one. I hadn’t heard much about it before my arrival there in October as part of a transatlantic delegation of experts studying the future of cities.

Walking through Leipzig’s retail and restaurant-adorned city center, you might easily overlook the fact that the city, roughly thirty years after German reunification, has a remarkable history of urban revival. Nearly 20% of the city’s population was lost to industrialization between 1988-98. The area has since been transformed into an academic, artistic and commercial center.

Over several days there on bike tours, during meetings with city officials, and while speaking with local activists and entrepreneurs, I kept asking myself the question, “Would I want to live here?”

Many executives and entrepreneurs have been freed from the confines of their offices since the outbreak of the pandemic.

It all started with myths of tech-obsessed San Francisco’s demise, but the rise and fall of Miami has caused a profound shift in how people think about geography and work. Cities have rebounded and the data shows that remote work isn’t going anywhere. The world will be filled with options for knowledge workers who demand the freedom to work anywhere they want.

If cities want to be able to attract the remote workforce in 2030, they need to focus their efforts on creating better transportation networks, dense housing supply and social infrastructure.

More transit options available

If cities want to draw remote workers, they should invest in accessible, sustainable, multimodal, and efficient ways of moving people. It’s both desirable and profitable. According to American Public Transportation Association (APTA), every $1 spent on public transit will net $4 returns. “Ease of getting around” and “public transportation options” were among the primary factors young millennials considered when choosing a place to live, a 2013 study by the Transportation Research Board found.

Rapid transit systems like the Tokyo Metro or Shanghai Metro carry the majority of the burden for big cities. They transport 16 million passengers per day. McKinsey’s 2018 study evaluated overall transit systems based on their availability, affordability and efficiency. It also considered convenience and sustainability. The top spot was held by Singapore, with London, Hong Kong and Madrid finishing in the middle.

Bus rapid transit (BRT), which is an alternative to metros, uses designated lanes as well as a network that includes lines and stations. It mimics metros and offers a better option than a metro. The world’s best BRT systems are in Guadalajara, Mexico, Curitiba, Brazil and Guangzhou, China according to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

It should be easier for bikers

Cities should improve the accessibility of public transport and make it easier to bike on streets. Congestion pricing is a method that charges cars to use certain areas of cities. However, it has been shown that congestion pricing reduces commute times. London, Stockholm and Milan all have efficient congestion pricing systems. Each of these cities has a successful congestion pricing system. The revenue from congestion pricing is reinvested in the transit infrastructure to increase the financial sustainability and viability of the entire system. Additionally, congestion pricing reduces the traffic volume and increases safety for cyclists. It’s linked with lower congestion in a 2019 list of the 20 most bike-friendly cities in the world. This list features cities from Europe at the top, including Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Bogota is South America’s only city, with Taipei and Tokyo representing Asia. Vancouver is North America’s only city.

Affordable housing is possible by building dense and affordable housing

Only a few areas have drawn as many human talents over the past 30 year like San Francisco Bay Area. Their culture of innovation, entrepreneurship and growth make them a beacon for housing affordability. For every two jobs that have been created in the Bay Area, there has only been one new unit of housing built since 1990. By 2015, the area’s three major cities, San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland, had the U.S.’s highest, fourth-highest, and sixth-highest rents, respectively. But the Bay Area isn’t alone. A sample of 200 cities was analyzed by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. It found that 91% of them had home prices more than 3 times their average income.

For cities to attract the best remote talent they need affordable and densely constructed housing. Density, preferred by millennials and Gen-X, is beneficial because it has been shown to lower per capita carbon footprints, decrease infrastructure costs, and increase proximity to retail, food, and entertainment–a driving force behind where young people choose to live. For remote workers, where they spend greater proportions of their incomes on housing, affordability is more critical.

One model of density and affordability is Singapore, whose densely built, government-subsidized high rise social housing system has produced one of the world’s highest homeownership rates.

Make investments in amenities and entertainment

There’s an adage that everyone should live in New York City in their 20s. In the U.S., it’s a favorite destination amongst college graduates. Part of what makes the city such a draw is its “social infrastructure,” the social conditions and amenities–from entertainment and restaurants, to diversity and nightlife.

Smart cities are those that embrace socioeconomical and cultural diversity. Research shows that racially diverse neighborhoods have higher productivity and economic growth and are linked with “prosocial behavior” including a greater willingness to help others. Racially and economically inclusive regions have “higher average incomes and educational attainment and lower homicide rates.” Among major cities, Miami, at 58 percent, has the highest share of foreign-born residents, followed by Toronto, Sydney, and Vancouver.

We cannot ignore the major social problems facing many cities. They’re grappling with major challenges around homelessness, crime and policing, education, and more. Still, for younger and more geographically-mobile workers, a city’s greatest asset can be access to fun. The last decade has seen the rise of the “night mayor.” More than 40 cities around the globe, from Amsterdam to Toronto, have tasked city officials with improving their city’s nightlife, which is positively correlated with tourism and foreign direct investment, according to Resonance, a Vancouver-based branding consultancy. The night economy is a key focus. It has created experimental 24 hour districts, and reduced the burdensome regulations for nightlife. In 2018, Leipzig for instance, eliminated closing hours for nightclubs.

Cities don’t need to have the natural advantages or resources of New York, London or Singapore to attract workers. The choice of where to live is up to the individual. But while officials can’t make their cities more attractive by changing the number of days of sunshine or their proximity to the mountains, they can–and should–build a dense, responsive housing supply, focus on multi-modal transportation, and invest in fun.

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