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.