A recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, The Weeds, is about the future of remote work. On this episode, Adam Ozimek, an economist who studies remote work, made a couple of points that confirmed some of my suspicions about what’s coming next for a post-pandemic Fredericksburg.
First, he suggested that one likely outcome of the growth of remote work for white-collar workers is that it will make the peripheral suburbs of the “supercities” which have been our employment powerhouses for the past 30 years into more desirable places to live. Suburbs that are one or two hours away from the “supercity” can offer a lower cost and easier pace of living than closer-in suburbs, and when workers are going into the office only a few times a month, the longer commute doesn’t matter as much.
Second, he suggested that “quality of life” is going to be an increasingly important factor in which places thrive and which don’t. When workers’ housing choices are less dictated by their place of employment and by their commute, they will pick places that have better “amenities” relative to their cost (which he seems to define pretty broadly). It makes sense that if your housing choices are increasingly untethered from your workplace, you’d choose where you want to live based on how nice a place it is. But also, if you’re working from home … or at least, not working in a traditional office … you’d want to live in a place you really like because that’s where you’re going to be spending all your time.
This all suggests to me that Fredericksburg is poised for a period of rapid growth as we pass out of the worst phase of the pandemic. We are geographically well-positioned to take advantage of a trend towards remote work, because we are close enough to DC that an occasional commute into the city isn’t that big of a deal. Plenty of people do the commute daily, but I bet the universe of people who would be willing to make the 50ish-mile slog once a week or a few times a month is exponentially bigger. And indeed, the big investments that are being made in the 95 express lanes and in the VRE expansion are only going to strengthen our location advantage by making that occasional commute quicker and more convenient.
Fredericksburg also offers the kinds of “quality of life” amenities that lots of people are looking for, in spades. Between our outdoor activities, our dense walkable downtown, our cultural attractions, our beautiful built environment, and our vibrant shopping and dining scene, lots of remote workers would find Fredericksburg a highly desirable place to live within the broader orbit of DC. Not everyone would necessarily choose Fredericksburg … plenty of people might want to take advantage of remote work to pursue the pleasures of rural life, for example … but enough would that they represent the possibility for potentially explosive population growth. And although Fredericksburg is expensive and getting more so, it still looks affordable for newly mobile remote workers coming from points north.
I draw a couple of conclusions from this analysis of potential post-pandemic trends. The first is that we need to prepare for the shift to remote work. This could mean a lot of things: building out our broadband infrastructure, pursuing educational initiatives that help close the digital divide, or even encouraging the creation of coworking spaces downtown so that remote workers can conveniently patronize our shops and restaurants. With the proper investments and the right kind of infrastructure, we can gain enormous benefit from this shift.
The second thing we need to do … and this is the harder thing … is to plan holistically for that growth. It’s not a question of whether Fredericksburg will grow or not, but whether we will grow smartly. Will we grow with a plan that harnesses that growth into making Fredericksburg a better place to live, or whether we we grow haphazardly, allowing the growth to swamp us and erode the things that makes Fredericksburg so great? Anti-growth policies won’t work any more, because the growth is coming, so we need to anticipate it and make it work to our advantage. Planned correctly, a Fredericksburg with 40,000 or 50,000 inhabitants can be a better, more prosperous, more equitable, more diverse, more environmentally sustainable, more cosmopolitan version itself, while retaining everything that makes it distinct and lovable. But if we pretend that a more populous Fredericksburg isn’t coming, then that growth will make it more sprawling, more congested, more unequal, less sustainable, less diverse, and less unique. Let’s embrace the future and make it work for us.