“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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Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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