“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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“Black cabs are not public transport”: on the most baffling press release we’ve seen in some time

An earlier black cab protest: this one was against congestion and pollution. I'm not making this up. Image: Getty.

You know, I sometimes think that trade unions get a raw deal in this country. Reports of industrial action almost always frame it as a matter of workers’ selfishness and public disruption, rather than one of defending vital labour rights; and when London’s tube grinds to a halt, few people will find out what the dispute is actually about before declaring that the drivers should all be replaced by robots at the earliest possible opportunity or, possibly, shot.

We should be a bit more sympathetic towards trade unions, is what I’m saying here: a bit more understanding about the role they played in improving working life for all of us, and the fact that defending their members’ interests is literally their job.

Anyway, all that said, the RMT seems to have gone completely fucking doolally.

TAXI UNION RMT says that the closure of the pivotal Bank Junction to all vehicles (other than buses and bicycles) exposes Transport for London’s (TfL) symptom-focused decision-making and unwillingness to tackle the cause of the problem.

So begins a press release the union put out on Thursday. It’s referring to a plan to place new restrictions on who can pass one of the City of London’s dirtiest and most dangerous junctions, by banning private vehicles from using it.

The junction in question: busy day. Image: Google.

If at first glance the RMT’s words seem reasonable enough, then consider two pieces of information not included in that paragraph:

1) It’s not a TfL scheme, but a City of London Corporation one (essentially, the local council); and

2) The reason for the press release is that, at 5pm on Thursday, hundreds of black cab drivers descended on Bank Junction to create gridlock, in their time-honoured way of whining about something. Blocking major roads for several hours at a time has always struck me as an odd way of trying to win friends and influence people, if I’m frank, but let’s get back to the press release, the next line of which drops a strong hint that something else is going on here:

TfL’s gutlessness in failing to stand-up to multi-national venture capital-backed raiders such as Uber, has left our streets flooded with minicabs.

That suggests that this is another barrage in the black cabs’ ongoing war against competition from Uber. This conflict is odd in its way – it’s not as if there weren’t minicabs offering a low cost alternative to the classic London taxi before Uber came along, but we’ve not had a lengthy PR war against, say, Gants Hill Cars – but it’s at least familiar territory, so it’d be easy, at this point, to assume we know where we are.

Except then it gets really weird.

With buses stuck in gridlock behind haphazardly driven Uber cars – and with the Tube dangerously overcrowded during peak hours – people are turning out of desperation to commuting by bicycle.

Despite its impracticality, there has been an explosion in the number of people commuting by bike. Astonishingly, 30% of road traffic traversing Bank Junction are now cyclists.

Soooo... the only reason anyone might want to cycle is because public transport is now bad because of Uber? Not because it’s fun or healthy or just nicer than being stuck in a metal box for 45 minutes – because of badly driven Ubers something something?

Other things the cabbies will blame Uber for in upcoming press releases: climate change, Brexit, the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870, the fact they couldn’t get tickets for Hamilton.

It is time that TfL refused to licence Uber, which it acknowledges is unlawfully “plying for hire”.

Okay, maybe, we can talk about that.

It is time that black cabs were recognised and supported as a mode of public transport.

...what?

It is time that cuts to the Tube were reversed.

I mean, sure, we can talk about that too, but... can you go back to that last bit, please?

RMT General Secretary, Mick Cash, said:

“RMT agrees with proposals which improve public safety, but it is clear that the driving factor behind the decision is to improve bus journey times under a buckling road network.

“Black cabs are an integral part of the public transport system and as the data shows, one of the safest.”

This is all so very mixed up, it’s hard to know where to begin. Black cabs are not public transport – as lovely as they are, they’re simply too expensive. Even in New York City, where the cabs are much, much cheaper, it’d be silly to class them as public transport. In London, where they’re so over-priced they’re basically the preserve of the rich and those who’ve had enough to drink to mistakenly consider themselves such, it’s just nonsense.

Also – if this decision has been taken for the sake of improving bus journey times, then what’s wrong with that? I haven’t run the numbers, but I’d be amazed if that wasn’t a bigger gain to the city than “improving life for the people who take cabs”. Because – as I may have mentioned – black cabs are not public transport.


Anyway, to sum the RMT’s position up: we should invest in the tube but not the buses, expensive black cabs are public transport but cheaper Ubers are the work of the devil, and the only reason anyone would ever go by bike is because they’ve been left with no choice by all those people in the wrong sort of taxi screwing everything up. Oh, and causing gridlock at peak time is a good way to win friends.

Everyone got that straight?

None of this is to say Uber is perfect – there are many things about it that are terrible, including both the way people have mistaken it for a revolutionary new form of capitalism (as opposed to, say, a minicab firm with an app), and its attitude to workers (ironically, what they could really do with is a union). The way TfL is acting towards the firm is no doubt imperfect too.

But the RMT’s attitude in this press release is just baffling. Of course it has to defends its members interests – taxi drivers just as much as tube drivers. And of course it has to be seen to be doing so, so as to attract new members.

But should it really be trying to do both in the same press release? Because the result is a statement which demands TfL do more for cab drivers, slams it for doing anything for bus users, and casually insults anyone on two wheels in the process.

A union’s job is to look after its members. I’m not sure nonsense like this will achieve anything of the sort.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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