The relationship between housing prices and distance from the CBD has inverted since 1980. A new study from a team at Columbia University for the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that commuting time is at the core of the shift. The working paper suggests that "this development can be traced to greater labor supply of high-income households through reduced tolerance for commuting." It appears that a lack of supply in many suburban locations is causing people to look at options in central cities.
While others point to factors such as restrictive zoning to explain this inversion, Leonid Bershidsky, writing in the Boomberg View, support the paper's theory. He echoes that more people seek the center city because of a leisure deficit – commutes take too much time in an already time-scarce life.
He goes on to take companies to task for not allowing white collar workers to work from home, thereby reducing the time deficit. He says, "I can see no reason for this other than employers' inertia. People's need to socialize isn't a good excuse: If they stop commuting, they'll only have more time for social life. Actively getting people to stay at home for work could pay off for cities and families, and it would do companies no harm."
The benefits of "socialization" at work have been well-established. Workers who have the spaces to relax and have conversations with each other at work tend to trust each other more, collaborate more effectively, and remain engaged in the work of the company. Being social at work, especially in preparing and eating meals together, is a major factor elevating the performance of workers.
Employers redesign the workplace to encourage socialization because the conversation that takes place at work is the socialization that improves the performance of the company. I think that Bershidsky makes an error, then, in implying that meeting in social situations in any location, neighborhood or office, is equal.
I think that Bershidsky, and most of my colleagues designing the workplace, also err in using a limited definition for socialization. Ikujiro Nonaka put forward the SECI (Socialization, Externalization, Combination, Internalization) framework that influenced new ways of thinking about the design of the workplace. This has led to the more commonly evoked mix of workmodes as Socialization, Learning, Collaboration and Focus. These ideas have supported the introduction of the cafe into the office environment in an attempt to bring people back from the "third places" of Starbucks.
In Nonaka's framework, however, socialization is not so much the chat about the game over a cup of coffee, but is instead the thoughtful unveiling of an idea to others who can help judge its validity, contribute to its development and support its rollout.
A good social life in the suburbs may contribute remotely to the performance of the people at the company. But that socialization is not the deliberate idea exchange and assessment that companies have been seeking and that leads them to redesign the office into a place where people actually want to go.
I like Bershidsky's concern about time scarcity, and certainly the value of leisure in quality of life. But I wonder if people are actually finding that greater opportunities for leisure are found in the efficiency of a well-designed city. I think that those who theorize about the issues of zoning in the inversion may be more on point.