Dear India Currents,
To the Community Leaders –
Please do not try to rush back to the pre-Covid normal. Indeed, drop the idea altogether. It will be the best thing you can do for the planet, for your residents & employees, and for the overall US economy.
To the Mayors of large metros –
Many of you are leading your cities to become more environmentally friendly and demanding Congressional leaders take bold action to protect our planet. One of the boldest actions you yourself can take for the planet is to stop pushing for businesses and people to come back to your city as soon as possible. Your large metropolises have for decades drawn resources from the surrounding areas facilitated by cars, buses, and trains – each mode of transportation relying predominantly on fossil fuel. Cities can facilitate lower carbon lifestyles, being densely packed they reduce miles traveled for city-dwellers and most of that travel is on public transport, which is easier to electrify. However, there is a serious counter-balancing externality of daily travel in and out of cities for suburbanites. The same engine that has spurred your cities’ spectacular growth has also imperiled the planet and choked areas with air pollution. Scientists had been warning about the potential of a global pandemic, now they are warning us that going back to pre-Covid normal, when normal is what has brought us to the brink of disaster, is simply untenable. We don’t have much time left and your actions/inactions will help seal the fate of our planet. Why must you then push for an anti-planet agenda?
Your cities haven’t just fueled climate emissions; they have also been funnels of economic activity sucking jobs and wealth from their surrounding suburbs. In many ways, your cities have imbibed the logic of the market with competition dominating the sphere. In pre-Covid times, the country was littered with listless towns, their sole purpose being feeders of human resource to your illustrious cities. Covid-19 changed that. Suburban house prices have gone up all across the country, especially as many city-dwellers flocked to the suburbs in search of more spacious housing. People already living in the suburbs, unencumbered by the rush of getting to work each morning and returning exhausted at night, find themselves with time to relax, so they spend it enjoying their own neighborhoods, eating out more often, revitalizing their own localities. Our own little Long Island town’s Main Street is buzzing like never before; even during weekdays and weeknights, when it used to be nearly deserted before, is now swarming with people at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the vibe is superb. If these people are again forced to go back to their sordid commutes, it may bring more economic activity to your cities, but it would be at the expense of the suburbs. Why is it that for the benefit of your large cities so many small towns across America must suffer?
To the CEOs of big corporations –
For decades, there existed a model of business and management that assumed employees’ physical presence in an office a prerequisite for growth and profitability. Covid-19 has finally proved this to be a fallacy. Corporate profits are skyrocketing and an overwhelming majority of employers acknowledge that remote work has been successful. The best example of remote-work success is the software/tech industry. This success is now possible because by 2020, the technology to work remotely had matured in the form of high-speed internet access and myriad video conferencing software. Any remaining kinks in technology will soon be sorted. Towering skyscrapers with their gleaming glass offices have already started to resemble monuments of the past. Many employees have discovered that not having to spend 2-3-4 hours each day driving in rush hour traffic or riding on trains & buses offers a much higher quality of life. Sleep deprivation has been a major detriment to the health of long-distance commuters, napping being the most common commuting activity. Imagine having an extra 2-4 hours added to your daily life; you can sleep more, play more, spend more time with your kids, have more time to think creatively, or just ponder. This prized gift of time improves productivity and makes for happier employees. Why would you then try to upend this superior work-life balance?
Of course, some employees, especially young people, might want to come back to the office. Others, especially older ones, who have homes & roots in the suburbs and/or are raising young children may vastly prefer to either fully or mostly work from home. It is not so difficult to find ways to facilitate these shifts. Those who do not desire to go back to a daily commute should be allowed to come to the office once or twice a week as per need, potentially for a day of meetings or if a new employee on-boarding requires physical presence. Even those employees who would mostly prefer to work in the office are more likely to appreciate being able to work from home 1 or 2 days a week, especially if the home is no longer a cupboard size apartment. Pre-Covid, the living arrangement in some of these “wealthy” cities was close to inhumane for most people, tiny apartments carved up into “flexes” converting living rooms into extra bedrooms to add another roommate. The sole objective of renting such an apartment was to get away from it for most of the day. Facilitating more employees to live and work from homes in the suburbs not only adds to their quality of life, but it also relieves housing pressure in cities allowing the employees living there to be able to afford humane housing conditions. Why not embrace this win-win for both employees and employers?
To all reading –
You might ask the fundamental question – if people start working right where they live and if corporations close offices in large cities, what does it do to the stature of a big city? What would “New York, New York” mean if the suburbs in New Jersey, Long Island, and the other NYC boroughs no longer funnel all their resources to the tiny island of Manhattan?
While you may not like the answer, the truth is that there is nothing sacrosanct about the stature of a big city. History shows that crises and disasters have always set the stage for new paradigms of thinking and living. Mega-cities have long been considered the engines of human progress, but they have also brought immense misery to countless areas through depopulation & brain-drain, and commuting to and from cities is a huge source of sleep deprivation and carbon emissions. For far too long, scientists’ warnings have been ignored by governments and corporations alike, both unable to see beyond the next fiscal quarter’s growth figures. And the abomination of “business as usual” has continued unabated.
Covid-19 has brought the world immense tragedy but it has also given us a glimpse of new possibilities. It has shown us that even cherished old paradigms have an expiration date. For the sake of the planet, our own well-being, and for the greater good, we are counting on you for the right kind of leadership.
Swati Srivastava and Mark Bartosik
Long Island, New York
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