Demand for urban office space is changing: cities need more flexibility

A co-working space. Image: StartupHub/Wikimedia Commons.

What does a good office look like? When cities are thinking about intervening in their city centre office market, the temptation will be to simply build more office space. This will be the right call in some cities, but others may already have a plentiful supply of offices. In these places, the quality of the existing city centre office space will be more important, as well as the extent to which it supports the growing trends for co-working and flexible space.

But before deciding how and when to intervene, cities need to first figure out the specific gaps in their local office market where private developers aren’t responding to existing demand. There’s no single national office market, and the quality of offices on offer varies a lot across the country.

The map below – using data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Building Blocks: the role of commercial space in Local Industrial Strategies – shows that while 39 per cent of offices in Southampton city centre is of a high quality, this drops to only 9 per cent in Coventry and Leicester.

Source: Non-Domestic Energy Performance Register 2018.

But while this data shows the quality of office buildings, it doesn’t tell us much about what occupiers want from offices. The value of offices is determined by the location, condition, and the amenities they are able to offer to occupiers, and understanding the services occupiers are demanding is key for any office market.

One growing trend in office space is the rise of co-working. Collaborative spaces such as WeWork have recently expanded in London and Manchester and in other large cities around the world.

These have two main advantages for businesses – knowledge spillovers and more efficient use of commercial space. Freelancers can rent desks in these offices, devour free snacks and coffee, and meet and do business with other enterprises who have sat down right across from them. Start-ups and larger firms also use the flexibility to easily acquire (or reduce) desks as their needs change, squeezing as much value as possible out of city centre locations by not paying for excess commercial space.

But it’s not just the big cities which are seeing office space change. In our research for the Building Blocks report, we were struck by how many other cities across England and Wales are already responding to occupier demand by providing features such as co-working or ‘easy in, easy out’ flexible leases. Warrington, Bradford, and Bristol are all embarking on co-working spaces of their own.

Demand for these innovations in office space is therefore widespread across the country. For instance, the non-profit IndyCube provides co-working office space in London, but also in cities like Wakefield, Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and over a dozen towns in Wales. Even in urban areas with very small economies such as Rhyl and Abertillery, it is possible to rent a desk, just as you can in the most up-to-date offices in large cities.

Each city should identify any weaknesses in their office market, and justify whether they should respond to them through their Local Industrial Strategy. In some places, this might be providing more high-quality buildings, and in others, it might just be more co-working and innovative space.

Crawley, for example, has a city centre which lacks large offices of 5,00m2 or more, while the average city has roughly a quarter of its office space in buildings in such large offices. Based on the evidence Centre for Cities laid out in our report on the Economy of the Gatwick Diamond, this suggests Crawley could perhaps justify intervening to supply more office space. Other cities such as Preston, by contrast, may have plenty of large offices – but have a shortage of high-quality buildings or innovations like co-working.

When it comes to interventions, cities should only act when it’s clear there is a market failure and the private sector is not responding to existing demand. Huddersfield and Derby have both supplied small amounts of new office space with features such as co-working, one step at a time so as not to swamp local demand, in response to a shortage of office space in the city centre and a lack of new private sector supply.

This is not to say that “build and the jobs will come” justifications for risky speculative office schemes will work – they won’t, as cities should be intervening in commercial property to respond to demand, rather than trying to create new demand. Improving skills and transport provision will be more important than shiny new skyscrapers in most cities.

But in cities where there is an existing kernel of high-skilled work, making sure this activity has the office space it needs in the city centre is an important step for improving local productivity. As work changes, cities should recognise that their commercial space will need to evolve too.

You can explore city-by-city data on office space with the Centre for Cities’ commercial property dashboard.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.


Urban safety is as much about social relations as it is about technical fixes

New York City, 2005. Image: Getty.

Creating safe and secure urban spaces is a core concern for city managers, urban planners and policy workers. Safety is a slippery concept to pin down, not least because it is a subjective experience. It incorporates our perceptions of places and memories, but also norms in society about who is expected to use spaces in the city, and who is considered to be out of place.

The experiences of people with disabilities offer important insights into the complexities of urban safety, because of the varied encounters with space that impairment can bring. Their experiences show that safety is a fluid concept. Places city planners may consider safe can actually make some people feel unsafe, and what is safe for one person might not be for another.

Over the past two years, we have been carrying out research to understand how people with disabilities in Ireland – including people with visual, hearing and mobility impairments - experience urban safety and the impact it has on their everyday use of different spaces. We have found that issues of inclusion and the idea of who “belongs” in particular spaces are important and should be considered alongside more traditional approaches to urban safety.

Reducing crime by design

City planners have often been criticised for prioritising “situational responses” to urban safety. These focus on a technical understanding of urban safety as a problem to be solved. Greater police visibility, more lighting and CCTV and the idea that we can design out crime from our cities are all examples of situational responses.

While these initiatives may have a place, they often focus on the public realm at the expense of the smaller spaces of people’s lives. They also do not reflect how safety, or a lack of safety, is understood by different groups of city dwellers. There is no neat match between what crime statistics might say about the safety of an area, and how people actually feel fear and safety in that area.

Our study, conducted across three cities in Ireland, revealed that feelings about fear and safety very much shape disabled people’s experience of their urban environment. In some cases, they can prevent them from using different spaces. People identified a range of spaces and places in the city that felt unsafe. These included public spaces such as transport hubs, bars and nightclubs, shopping centres and deserted spaces.

The presence of people they didn’t know or trust, crowds and the inaccessibility of the built environment could make people feel vulnerable in these spaces. In some cases, the absence of people contributed to feelings of insecurity. Others described feeling more unsafe in their homes. This was due to isolation, poor housing design and location and, in some cases, domestic violence.

Changing perceptions

What is key here is how people interpreted spaces in terms of fear and safety. Spaces were not fixed as safe or unsafe. One person’s unsafe space could be another’s refuge. Neither can we say that people with disabilities are a group who feel inherently unsafe. The people we spoke to described fear and safety as a result of a range of different of factors coming together at specific times and places.

One man with a visual impairment, for example, described feeling fear in spaces which others might consider to be safe. He recalled an incident when, crossing the road in an urban space in the middle of the day, his concentration was distracted by a group of young people who repeatedly teased and shouted out to him that he shouldn’t cross when he stepped out using a white cane.

Many people had developed strategies and routines to ensure they felt safe in different spaces. This included using learnt transport routes, going out at certain times of day, and only visiting places that they felt were welcoming. These places included restaurants and specific shops where staff knew them, or made an effort to accommodate their needs. Other people only went out accompanied by someone, or used specific technologies when out and about. This included mobile phones, but also – in cases where people had been subject to hostility – the wearing of bodycams as a deterrent.

Thinking about safety in urban planning and policy is more complex than situational responses give credit for. Providing a wheelchair ramp into a building, or better lighting, may indeed assist in creating more welcoming, safer, cities. But it is equally important that urban safety strategies respond to issues of inclusion and justice, by addressing the attitudes which can exclude disabled people from the spaces of their local communities.

The work of Scotland-based charity I Am Me on disability hate crime is an example of this. It works to challenge discriminatory attitudes towards disability in schools, while also encouraging service providers and businesses in local communities to sign up to be safe spaces in case a person with a disability feels under threat when out and about.

Urban safety is as much about changing social relations as it is about technical fixes. Disabled people’s experiences show us that it is only by challenging assumptions about who has a right to inhabit urban space that we can create more inclusive, just and safer societies.

The Conversation

Claire Edwards, Lecturer in Social Policy and Director of ISS21 (Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century), University College Cork.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.