IDEA | Workability

Posted on 15/07/2011

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When we talk about our cities, we often talk about liveability and lifestyle in a way that’s intended to promote a semblance of work/life balance. If our cities are vibrant, then there is a better chance of attracting and retaining smart young things to live and work in a place. However, it occurred to me that in the thinking about liveability, we sometimes don’t spend a lot of time addressing considerations of work in its specificity and generality. Sure, we delineate employment nodes and various kinds of activity centres, but do we really address them in ways that might bring about consideration of ‘workability’? In other words, do we see our liveable cities as workable cities ? It brings me to hover on this notion of workability, as a distinct aspect of liveability. What triggered my thinking about this was an image of the distribution of jobs compared to the distribution of population in the Brisbane Statistical Division as per the 2006 Census. I caught myself asking ‘how workable is this?’ when I investigated the journey to work data.

I am very aware that many aspects of workability are in the mix of placemaking, planning and design. For example:

  1. The VAMPIRE Index provides a picture of people’s vulnerability to fuel and mortgage stress, thus impacting on their ability to commute to work while also providing an indication of housing affordability as it applies to lower income earners.
  2. Transport planning is intended to ensure that working people are able to get to work. However, congestion remains a major problem in cities especially during peak hours as does public transport linkages to many employment nodes. Many cities draw their workforce from catchments of 200km or more.
  3. Telecommunications planning to enable telecommuting, home based enterprise, co-working facilities etc
  4. Creation of employment nodes – somehow disconnected from access to transport and located in areas which are remote from more affordable housing
  5. Programs like ‘Jobs in Suburbs’ enable access to employment throughout the city
  6. Transit Oriented Development enables access to transport as well as offers lifestyle advantages
  7. In an industrial development project I worked on, the developer went to significant lengths to design a project that enable the engagement, health and wellbeing of people working on the site.
  8. The use of third spaces, like coffee shops, for business meetings and gatherings is a recognitions of the social and informal aspects of work
  9. Regionalisation and regional development strategies aim to enhance and diversify job and enterprise opportunities in regions, thus enhancing their workability

While largely evoking the relationship between land use and transport, there is a sense here that our cities are not particularly workable for those who work. Flexibility in the workplace and economy is not necessarily matched by flexibility in the urban environment. And there is perhaps little, if any, scope with current planning and development regimes to rethink our ideas about work. This highlights the idea of workability in multiple ways. In one way, it refers to how the city works or does its work in bringing people together for all kinds of exchange and industry, and in another way it refers to the ability of people to work in the city and do the work of change in the city – how their working lives are enhanced and facilited by the city. If the city does not enable work then the city is not doing its work. Workability as a reconfigured and reconfiguring idea, then, is an important consideration in design and planning.

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