A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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Working in the Neighborhood

Saving Energy while Living Better

By Fred Gillette

The alien view

I have this fascination with trying to see things from different points of view. Mostly, it’s an inexpensive form of self amusement…with occasional side benefits.

I was slowly inching down the freeway the other day, imagining how this whole scene would appear to an alien observer. “Look at those life forms slowly moving about the planetary surface in rolling private chambers. Why is this happening? Why must they spend so much time and effort moving themselves to other locations? Their daily tasks seem to center around talking to each other, ingesting a startling variety of nourishment and other substances and moving information about. There are some manufacturers, builders and resource manipulators who apparently need to perform tasks at particular sites but the vast majority would seem to be able to carry out their functions without going far from their nests. Must be retention of some kind of a primitive foraging instinct which has outlived its use. Funny creatures. Cute though.”

The problem

Personally, I think the aliens were being a bit superficial in their analysis. Sometimes the good jobs don’t happen to be where you live. A working couple may have jobs far apart from each other and the living space was chosen as a compromise. Sometimes a place to live reflects the availability of good schools for the kids. And yet, general energy expense and scarcity is beginning to be noticed by many ordinary citizens. There are more cost-benefit analyses being brought forth and management solutions proposed, dealing with our broad energy uses, needs and desires. Many people support new approaches that they can apply to their everyday lives. Much energy conservation already goes on and it turns out that individuals have more control than they previously realized. Nonetheless, by far, transportation remains a huge energy user that seems most impervious to our control. Building rail lines and electric cars may be smart, but such things represent and involve very long time lines and the commitment to redirect vast resources. Perhaps even more disturbing, would it lead to a truly desirable life style?


I was visiting my son and his girlfriend in Taipei a few months ago. This was my favorite kind of traveling. Besides being with loved ones, I was seeing new things with the assistance of people who could help me explore the real workings of the everyday lives of the residents.

The country of Taiwan has a level of modernity and prosperity that went beyond my expectations. Many of the modern amenities actually work better than they seem to work here. Great transportation and communication systems. Sophisticated, prospering high-tech businesses. Social harmony at a level at which I was sadly unfamiliar. A vibrant democracy. In many ways it looked like the emblematic USA lifestyle that mysteriously worked better than in the USA. Yet there were aspects of life that were quite alien to me. I delighted in that as a tourist. But I also marveled at it as a social observer and student of community. There is a level of density that is among the highest on the planet. As I walk down the streets at all hours of the day and night, among shoppers and shopkeepers, children, old-timers and dogs running free, I feel the vibrancy of a life style that has evolved and been improved over the ages. We’re slow to take to density, but this is one solution to our energy problems…and perhaps even to some of our social problems. When people go to work they mostly ride together on the subway or buses or, on their motor scooters and bikes. The per-capita energy use is far lower than at home, as is the work commute time. The only unsettling part of this pleasant picture is, so far, my reluctance to fully embrace this life style. I like living in a neighborhood that’s more green than concrete. We do have a few neighborhood shops within walking distance and there are usually people strolling the streets, but there isn’t the level of density that supports having almost all of your needs met right in the neighborhood. I know that an ever-increasing number of us are finding that living in more dense neighborhoods has all sorts of advantages, from increased sense of community, neighborliness, convenience, physical and mental health to the economic and health benefits of using less energy. All of this causes me to continually reevaluate my own life choices. And yet, the path to a meaningful increase in density also involves those huge time lines and no small amount of economic investment. Things could be great in 25 years, but what about in 5 years? Or what about now? What can we do now…without rebuilding our entire infrastructure and superstructure? What can ordinary people do about this?

Telecommuting. an American solution.

Marilyn lives in Pendleton, Oregon. She used to work at Portland State University in the other half of the state. In fact, she still works there. But now, she works from her home computer, taking the train down the Columbia River every few weeks to connect with the on-site people and nurture some good old fashioned face-to-face working relationships. The University has managed to retain a person that is a true asset. She works in close collaboration with her colleagues, most of her connections being electronic. Files are transmitted and phone calls are used extensively for keeping coordinated. It works, to the satisfaction of both Marilyn and her employers.

To an ever greater extent, this model is being replicated around the county. It is seen as a way of not only saving commute time and energy but as a way of recruiting workers. The more typical model that has evolved is the part-time telecommuter, perhaps working a couple of days a week from home. Many managers have been exploring it cautiously, fearing a loss of productivity and a lack of a means of evaluating its effects. But as more research data is collected and disseminated, more employers are feeling comfortable allowing it to exist in a limited form. They are also being urged on by company policies that favor energy conservation practices, both at the job site and as practiced by workers. It is seen as an inducement for new workers and a reward for existing workers. In companies where there is a more substantial commitment to allowing or encouraging distant work, there evolve measurable and sometimes substantial resource savings. People coming in only a day or two a week can alternately share the same office, cutting down on the costs of maintaining the work site.

In a somewhat Orwellean development, there have also evolved new means of keeping track of the activities of distant workers. Monitoring precisely what they are doing at their computers, or even, in some cases, keeping a live camera on the distant worker. Fortunately, this level of distrust is the exception and will likely not thrive as part of the evolving, workable model.

But wait, is it so great for everyone?

As many people working at home have discovered, however, it’s often not quite what they had imagined or hoped for. Some of us find just being at home is a kind of serious distraction. It’s hard to ignore all those things that should be done around the house when they’re right next to you. If there are kids at home or others coming and going, that can easily pull attention away from work. And even when you’re working alone, that can, itself be a distraction. Many of us prefer to be working in at least the proximity of others. The loneliness of solitary work at home can be depressing, and even have negative effects on productivity.

Neighborhood work centers

This problem has been addressed by both companies themselves and others building a business devoted to solving the problem. Some companies have developed regional satellite work centers, often called “neighborhood work centers”. Instead of going 20-30 miles to headquarters, why not rent some regional office space where members of the same company (not even necessarily of the same division) can have a special work space, complete with all the technical support and supplies, the camaraderie of others and a coffee room?

Beyond this, some neighborhood work centers have been established as private business, renting out space for small groups within several different companies as well as to individuals. There are common areas for technical support and socializing.

The beauty of the development of more home offices and neighborhood work centers is that it provides answers to many of the economic and energy problems we face, using off-the-shelf hardware. We don’t need to invest in some huge infrastructure expense or expand the capabilities of public transportation. We can do it in a low-tech, small scale way and we can do it immediately.

There are benefits, beyond energy conservation and cost reductions, to living one’s life in a more geographically compact world. The difference in commute times is time available for other things…some of them more fun than commuting. It gives one more peace of mind to be more readily available should urgent issues arise at home or school. Working at or near home gives one a greater sense of connection to and familiarity with the local community. The joys of running into and even recognizing neighbors should be somehow placed on the balance sheet as well. Finally and simply… it can actually feel good to have a less geographically fragmented life.

How to make it happen for me

Rather than wait for your boss to come around to the idea of encouraging telecommuting or distance-working, why not make a proposal yourself. Instead of just asking “may I work at home”, carefully prepare and write up your case. Develop it like a business plan. State the objective of wanting to spend less time and money commuting. Point out potential company savings. Propose, as a solution, spending one or two days working at home or at a neighborhood/regional work center. Explain what types of work, that you do, that could most easily be adapted to working at a distance from the main office. Ask if there are costs or concerns that your boss sees that you may not. Ask to do it on a trial basis.

If you work in a group, consider jointly developing a proposal that offers all of you the opportunity to do some of your work from home.

If you feel like really putting together a major campaign, cite or print out some of the ideas from the references below to submit with your proposal.

Incidentally, although the main concern addressed here is energy conservation, one doesn’t really need to become fanatical about saving energy. We don’t have to totally give up the good things that stored, even non-renewable energy provides for us. Go for that Sunday drive. Imagine, while doing so, what it would be like if most driving was done for fun. Enjoy some guilt-diminished pleasures of having a good time while spending energy, well-earned through your efforts to save it.

Links and references:

“Telecommuting” from the American Health Information Management Association.


“Telework: The Advantages and Challenges of Working Here, There, Anywhere and Anytime” by Nancy B. Kurland and Diane E. Bailey


“Global workplaces popular in economic downturn” by Kelly McClurg from the Birmingham Business Journal


Print sources: Cost-Cutting, Tech Advances Spur Call for 'Home-Sourcing' Daniel Nasaw. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern Edition). New York, N.Y.:Dec 14, 2004. p. B.8

“Cost Effective Homesourcing Grows” by Stephanie Armour. USA Today, 03/13/2006.


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