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.

 
 
 
 

Every Disney theme park, ranked solely by their trains

The HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH (tm. Image: Getty.

Walt Disney: animation pioneer, ruthless tycoon, union crusher… and train fan. Ever since his childhood in the town of Marceline on the Santa Fe railroad, Disney had a lifelong fascination with trains. 

He not only included them in his films (most famously, the persistent Casey Jr. in Dumbo) but he built them too. After back injuries stopped him playing sport, he became interested in model trains, and in 1949, he built the miniature Carolwood Pacific Railroad in his garden. And every Disney park features some type of train transportation.

But which one is the best? This is the definitive ranking.

Before we start, let’s quickly set out what we mean by trains. No, rollercoasters don’t count, even if it pretends to be a proper railway (Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, I’m looking at you). We’re only interested in vehicles that run on some sort of rail, outdoors, under their own power. Lots of websites have ranked Disney parks by their rollercoasters, but only CityMetric will tell you which one has the best variety of rail vehicles.

6. Shanghai Disney Resort

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This is the best photo I could find of Shanghai Disney Resort station. More like, Dismal Resort. Photo: Baycrest/Wikimedia Commons.

The Disney park in Shanghai was supposedly specially tailored to Chinese tastes, and apparently Chinese people don’t like trains, because this park doesn’t have any fun ones. The only rail transport it has is a station on the Shanghai Metro. To be fair, that’s an impressive system – the second largest underground network in the world, but Disney doesn’t get the credit for that – and perhaps it explains why Shanghai residents wouldn’t think of trains as something to ride for fun.

5. Hong Kong Disneyland

You’ve got to admit – the windows are a neat touch. Photo: Hokachung/Wikimedia Commons.

At least this one has one train ride – the Hong Kong Disneyland Railroad which transports guests between the Main Street USA and Fantasyland areas – but unlike the equivalent railways in the other parks, the “steam” engines are just diesel locomotives dressed up with funnels and coal tenders. 

It also slightly one-ups Shanghai Disney Resort by having not just a subway station, but a dedicated line on the Hong Kong MTR system, and the trains on it rather charmingly have Mickey Mouse-shaped windows.

4. Tokyo Disney

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Just remember, even Tokyo DisneySea has a better metro network than Leeds. Photo: Garet/Wikimedia Commons.

From here on in, it’s nothing but good stuff. Tokyo may be on the bottom half of this list, but it still has a monorail which runs around the park and connects it to commuter rail services at Maihama station, a genuine steam-powered sightseeing train called the Western River Railroad, and an overhead electric railway in the DisneySea part of the resort. 

That said, it was a slow adopter of trains – under Japanese law, any railway line with more than one station used to be regulated as transportation. The monorail and the elevated line weren’t built until after that law was repealed.

3. Disneyland (Anaheim, the original)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/Monorail%21_%2827765576534%29.jpg

The far future, as seen from 1959. Photo: HarshLight/Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a lot to like here. The Disneyland monorail is a famous piece of retro space age engineering, while the steam railroad was directly inspired by Walt’s own model trains and those of his friend Ward Kimball, and the Main Street Streetcar is one of the few horse-drawn trams left in the world. More recently, the park has also added a tram that replicates the appearance of the classic Red Car streetcars (famous from Who Framed Roger Rabbit), although it actually runs on battery power despite having fake overhead wires.

Why doesn’t it rank higher? Well, the Casey Jr Circus Train is really just a children’s ride with only one station, and most of the others can also be found at…

2. Walt Disney World (Orlando)

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I should include a steam train somewhere. Might as well be here. Photo: Jackdude101/Wikimedia Commons.

Monorail? Check. Horse tram? Check. Steam railway? Check. No electric tram, but it does have a safari train, the Wildlife Express that runs through the Animal Kingdom, and the frankly bizarre Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover. 

Supposedly a vision of public transport of the future, the ride only actually has one station, rendering it completely useless as a people mover, but it is powered by linear induction, the same basic principle that pushes maglev trains along.

1. Disneyland Paris

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Keep your Space Mountains and your Pirates of the Caribbeans. This is all we want from a Disneyland. Photo: Remontees/Wikimedia Commons.

OK, there’s no monorail here, but there is another steam railway and another horse tram (and another Casey Jr). But there is also one thing that sets Disneyland Paris apart from all other Disney parks: le Gare de Marne-la-Vallée-Chessy. 

Buried underneath the park is a station with both local train services on the Paris RER and high-speed lines. TGV services from all corners of France call at the station, meaning you are just a few hours away from Bordeaux, Lille, Marseille, Nantes or Strasbourg. Even better, the station also gets trains from Eurostar and Thalys to destinations like Amsterdam, Brussels and, of course, London.

Some of Disneyland Paris’s direct train connections. It’s not such a small world after all. Adapted from a map by madcap/Wikimedia Commons.

The best most Disney parks can do when it comes to international experience is a quick boat ride through the pretend dioramas It’s a Small World, but from Disneyland Paris, you actually can travel to another country. And that’s why it’s the happiest place on earth, provided that your definition of happiness mainly involves trains.