Working from home, but away from home

Being able to influence my surroundings in order to achieve a better future has always been one of my main motivations to get into Transport Planning. For me it means proactively tackling things like the climate crisis, air pollution, or obesity, and very often, simply trying to and make the spaces we use every day just a little bit more liveable and enjoyable. 

To achieve these objectives, I would walk around the neighbourhoods, mingle in the streets, and above all, talk to the people who use these spaces. It could end up with simply sitting on a bench, observing how we use public spaces, or together with colleagues reimaging the functions of a place on a site visit. It also means engaging with local residents, businesses and stakeholders, asking them about their needs, understanding how you could improve their lives. For me, engagement and walking the streets/having local knowledge are really two cornerstones of transport planning. 

After a few years of working in local government, visiting the places you want to change and talking to locals about these changes have really become central aspects of work. In a sense, these aspects have become so familiar that it feels like a ‘home away from home’. As we are now nearing the end of the second month of the lockdown, I am still cooped up in a flat, having to deal with reorganised work flows and paused projects. I am not even that far away from the Borough I currently work at, only 4 miles, but it feels like I could be on the other side of the world.

I have fond memories of walking through neighbourhood streets with representatives of local stakeholder organisations, organising pop-up events to engage with high street shoppers or simply attend a site visit with colleagues to look at a section of public realm. However, for these cornerstones of transport planning, it is simply not possible to go back to pre-Covid-19 business as usual. As the pandemic forces us to adapt to social distancing for the foreseeable future, and working from home will remain the norm for quite some time, my ’home away from home’ feels more distant than ever. 

Luckily, there is not only dark and gloom in this area of transport planning. Technology allows us to innovate and deliver the same services, albeit it in a different way. A simple example is Google Streetview; 10 years ago, site visits were an absolute necessity to get a picture of local surroundings. Now, it can take 2 minutes online. It will never replace going on actual site visits, but for a quick check, it can suffice. 

Similar innovations in engagement are starting to harness the power of the internet as well. Online meetings can be organised via Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts and other applications. I have already seen Councils starting to host public meetings online so people can listen in. Secondly, we are also seeing a rapid shift from conferences and seminars to online webinar. In my social media stream, I encountered lobby and stakeholder groups organising impromptu talks on Facebook or streams on Youtube, where you can dial in with the press of a button.  Stakeholder engagement sessions and presentations to the community could be delivered using the same format and platforms. Third, businesses such as Commonplace or Project Centre host online engagement forums. These forums enable people to feedback on proposals, leave comments on a map of their local area or provide vital feedback to decision-makers. 

The reality is that the Covid-19 virus will impact our society for a long time still as we are only nearing the recovery phase, and there are fears about a second wave in the Autumn. It means we all have to get used to a new status quo. We are only just experiencing how this new normal would look like or how it would function, and surely many changes are still to come. The crisis does however present an opportunity to innovate and make the most out of the tools available to us to plug the gaps in our service. It might feel like we are far away from the familiar streets and faces we have grown accustomed to, but I am confident that these technologies will bring that ‘home away from home’ least a little bit closer.


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