“Wherever you go will be the same”: how the over-curated city may mean the boring city

Living the dream: the WeWork coworking space in Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Co-workspace is not a new phenomenon in London: well-established workspaces such as the Trampery have been running for the best part of a decade.

What’s changing however, is that many co-working spaces are no longer just about work. Rather, it’s about offering a certain aesthetic, ideals, and experience, carefully curated to appeal to a specific clientele. The result is a space where tenants can work, eat, socialise and exercise without ever leaving the comfort of the office.

Of course, the co-working lifestyle has numerous perks, especially for start-ups who value workspaces that run beyond the 9-5, and who can gain from being surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs. What works for people, however, does not always work for places. Cities thrive on compromise, on spaces that offer endless opportunities for uses. Over-curation, no matter how well intentioned, can jeopardise this. 

The co-working movement extends not just to how we work, but to how we live, too. Co-working behemoth WeWork recently launched WeLive in New York and Washington DC, offering studio apartments complete with shared laundry facilities, ping pong tables and hot tub. There’s no excuse to miss to chance to network, with an app to keep tenants up to date with activities taking place in the building.

The co-living model has arrived in London too: purpose-built PRS developer The Collective opened its first development in Acton in May 2016. The building offers sets of “twodios” – two bedrooms sharing a kitchen as part of a “community of like-minded young people”.

Tenants don’t even need to do their own linen, and there’s prescribed quite time. It’s basically like living with your mum, or student halls, but with more neon writing and better wifi. These add-ons, for the sum of £1000 a month in total offer tenants the “perfect platform for life in the city”, complete with a disco launderette.

The city, in its un-curated form, however, often seems to be of secondary concern to co-live and co-work spaces and their residents. The offer of a lifestyle that prizes convenience over genuine experience of the city, and community over any real sense of belonging to a greater whole, risks dismissing the rest of the city as background noise – at worst a nuisance, at best a minor distraction. The promise of many ‘co’ spaces is that wherever you go, the offer will be the same.  Concessions to location, heritage and community outside the workspace are on par with MacDonald’s concession to Japanese consumer habits by selling teriyaki beefburgers. But still, at least you know what you’re getting.

Yes, cohorts of young Londoners may miss out on the saga of crap landlords and never-ending agency fees. But by signing up to workplaces or accommodation that comes complete with a curated lifestyle, ranging from film screenings, literary talks and food trucks, they may also miss out on all in London that is incidental and accidental. In the search for the like-minded, we risk ruling out the opportunities for chance encounters, for excitement, and for genuine exploration. Co-working and co-living may offer opportunities for serendipity, but tell me, with so much programmed activity, marketing and deliberation, what exactly are we leaving to chance?


But it’s not just those inside co-working and co-living spaces that risk losing out in life in the capital. Co-working and co-living spaces risk becoming the urban equivalent of the cruise ship, or the all-inclusive holiday, with “community managers” little more than better-dressed redcoats and engagement with the local economy and community limited to excursions and away-days.

What happens, for example, to our high streets when our social amenities are increasingly located in private or semi-private spaces? What happens to our public realm when we divest the responsibility for neutral spaces of socialising, leisure and play to the private sector? Yes, locating an entire business ecosystem into one vast building can make life easier for those inside the buildings; but writ large, it could have drastic consequences for the look and feel of our streets and cities.

Of course, not all such spaces are inward-looking, any seek to engage with local communities and ecosystem through apprenticeships schemes and supply chains. But the more you champion exclusivity, authentic, and the exceptionality of the creative or entrepreneur lifestyle, the more you risk creating a hierarchy of place. 

It says something that it takes real estate developers to sell to individuals the value of space for communal activity, and in forging connections with those around us, primarily on the basis of convenience or networking. It’s what cities have been doing for centuries – and while our public spaces may not be bespoke or boutique, they should be championed nevertheless.

Kat Hanna is Research Manager at Centre for London and co-author of the Another Storey report. She tweets as @HannaFromHeaven.

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Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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