The Remote Frontier

South Boundary Ave. in Aiken, SC, where I live. Photo by Frank DiBona.

I don’t recognize his name, but I know his work. Richard Florida’s 2002 book Rise of the Creative Class both encouraged and predicted the urban renewal sparked by young professionals moving in to city centers. Now Florida has written a new book about the problems caused by rapid gentrification and rising income inequality, The New Urban Crisis.

In an interview in Vox, Florida and Timothy B. Lee discuss the urban crisis, its probable causes, and possible solutions: “The author of Rise of the Creative Class is grappling with its dark side”

At the end of the interview, Lee brings up the idea that frontiers promote equality. First the American West, then the suburbs were places where folks of little means could stake out some equity and build for themselves a decent quality of life. Lee asks Florida what he thinks our next frontier is. Florida isn’t sure, but he admits we need to find one.

The Perspective of a Creative Classmate

I consider myself a member of the “creative class” Florida wrote about in his earlier book. I began my career as a web designer in an urban center (Atlanta), but marriage ultimately pulled me away. I’ve lived the last dozen or so years in a medium-sized city, then a small town in South Carolina. I’ve watched the rise of the creative class from both the inside and the outside.

I’ve seen job opportunities for creative professionals get better and more plentiful for those willing and able to migrate to urban centers. I’ve seen cities where I used to live — Atlanta and Charlotte — become the urban playgrounds I wished for back when I lived there: International restaurants! Quirky little boutiques! Sidewalks! Trains! Downtown farmers’ markets!

Meanwhile, I’ve followed along the best I can, taking what jobs are available nearby. Occasionally, though, I’ve had to move and wanted to keep my current job (my husband is a physicist, and he has to go where the lab equipment is). My employers have always let me telecommute part-time since the early 2000’s. So whenever I’ve had to look for a new job, I’ve always kept in mind that a 60 mile commute is doable as long as I don’t have to do it every day. The ability to telecommute has really widened my range of job options. Since my work is all done via networks and servers, physical location doesn’t matter so much.

Now I’ve noticed something recently, just within the last year. I always keep my eyes open for good opportunities, browsing Authentic Jobs and reading The Muse newsletter to see what type of creative jobs are in demand. Within the last few months, I’ve suddenly seen a lot more jobs available that enable employees to work remotely.

I’ve been working remotely out of necessity, since I live in a small town. I’ve grown to enjoy the convenience of working from home. Now it looks like more and more “creative class” people agree with me. Why suffer through an hour-long commute or pay ridiculous rent for a shabby apartment when you can live in an affordable house and get rid of your commute entirely? The maturation of technologies such as Skype and Google Docs and numerous other online collaboration tools have made this possible.

The New Frontier

I believe I’ve found the new frontier Florida and Lee are searching for: It’s in a small city or town where the quality of life is high, the cost of living is low, and reliable broadband service is available. I meet people all the time who say they chose to move to my town just because they liked it — they could live anywhere and do their job, but Aiken is friendly and inexpensive, with decent weather and good schools.

In the coming years, I predict that cities and towns that want to take advantage of this new “Remote Frontier” will need to focus on three main things:

  1. Cost of living: This will be the main factor driving people out of urban and suburban areas into smaller municipal areas.
  2. Quality of life: This includes good schools, good infrastructure, and social opportunities (e.g. local festivals, restaurants, parks, sports).
  3. Broadband access: This allows creatives to work anywhere, and is really the one part of the equation that looks problematic to me. Most small towns and cities have a single broadband provider. If the local monopoly throttles bandwidth or is hostile to people using VPNs or charges ridiculously expensive rates, that area won’t be able to attract the sort of remote workers who will bring economic growth.

Creative people will still want to live in close physical proximity in urban centers; I don’t think that will change any time soon. But the gentrified urban lifestyle isn’t available to everyone, for many reasons from cost of living to family to a simple preference for a more rural lifestyle. For these people, the remote frontier offers the opportunity and security found in the American frontiers of the past.