Alternative spaces have always been part of cities. These peripheral, unregulated, often temporary spaces host projects and foster ideas that fall outside of the status quo but often end up going mainstream. Think of pop-up shops, farmers markets, makers forums like Etsy, and food trucks.
Alternative spaces sit dormant with latent potential and, when found, serve as sandboxes for grassroots movements that organically grow out of the contemporary culture of urban communities. Co-working spaces are a quintessential example of this resourcefulness—a phenomenon that began around 2000 as the dot-com crash turned “third spaces” like coffee shops into communal workspace for a cohort of free agents.
The Great Recession of 2009 revived free agency in the workforce and made third places germane. This time around, however, the global tech and knowledge economies that fueled the recovery added a new spirit of entrepreneurship to what had been a purely freelance phenomenon.
During the past five years, people have begun to actively seek out third places not just to get a day’s work done, but to develop businesses of a new kind and establish themselves as part of a real-time conversation of diverse entrepreneurs. This collaborative and incubative approach recognizes the synergy of sharing ideas and space, and the positive influence of being among others in the development process.
Alternative spaces are neither equal nor uniform. As part of our firm’s Reimagining Cities: Work in the City campaign, Gensler offices from around the globe posed ideas about how future alternative spaces might impact our cities.
"Co-working space" is the term du jour for one alternative work setting—a fusion of office, coffeehouse, theater, and laboratory. The majority of co-working spaces reside in urban areas, and much like the zip codes they call home, co-working spaces revolve around the idea of community and shared success. The rise of co-working spaces mirrors the increased prominence of cities as centers of innovation.
In their proposed Co-Revolution space, Gensler Morristown imagines how co-working environments could strengthen a sense of community. Each Co-Revolution hub would house a range of areas tailored to specific uses, from individual focus and meeting rooms, to kitchens and game rooms, and outdoor seating. This approach uses spatial precision and diversity to reflect the range of people and work they do.
Co-Working spaces also impact surrounding communities. They generate increased foot traffic, among other things, and that generative activity is part of their appeal. The collaboration and community they cultivate seeps beyond their own walls and into the city proper. They model how individuals and groups can organize and make a go of their ideas, and the activity they support helps form needed infrastructure along the way.
Traditional office and third spaces intersect
Gensler’s London office observed that as the use of third spaces took off, they became more industry-specific. This drive towards greater specificity reflects workers’ desire for environments where they engage with like-minded peers, learn, and develop ideas; if leveraged, can also advance companies in an economy focused on innovation and delivery.
Aside from attracting staff with an abundance of amenity offerings, companies are resetting their offices to resemble alternative spaces: informal, community oriented, and flexible. In so doing, they are simulating the attraction of alternative spaces. In some ways, the diversiform urban experience becomes the model for the new office.
Yet, a disjunction between the corporate office and 3rd spaces still remains. Where they overlap is in the city itself, but they have to be united by design. To create this bridge, Gensler’s London office takes the concept of Co-working spaces to its furthest conclusion, by curating the city’s work topography. A “work community curator” takes an inventory of all of the under-used spaces within an area, which are then curated as alternative spaces and made accessible to all neighboring offices and individuals. Companies would offer employees memberships to other workspaces, and could also open parts of their own spaces to collaborators. This fluid exchange is a way for companies and 3rd spaces to link up for mutual advantage.
Urban market: alternative spaces and the human scale
As they introduce variety and new ways of thinking, alternative spaces restore the human scale of the city. To bring small business and pedestrian life back downtown, Gensler’s Charlotte office has another interpretation of alternative spaces. They propose an “open access market” where small businesses, individuals and staff of corporate offices set up shop and pursue passion projects. Alternative economic forums like Crowd-sourcing give these ventures a chance of succeeding and help people to support projects they believe in; such open-source initiatives add another level to the dynamic between community and alternative spaces in the activities they sustain.
In-between spaces: work in the city’s new typeset
Alternative spaces by nature skirt and redefine boundaries to include liminal and unused spaces. Underlying the trend of alternative spaces is an expanding imagination about what work can mean, where it can happen, and its relationship to the urban context. In other words, the most progressive alternative spaces know no limit. When integrated with the overarching urban fabric, they begin where the known limits end.
Gensler Hong Kong sees the potential future of work in their city in all the in-between places: beneath flyovers, in the slim space between buildings, or a repurposed phone booth. The vertically-oriented metropolis has innumerable platforms for work. When surveyed about their ideal work scenario, most Hong Kong residents replied: Outside! So Gensler Hong Kong conceived portable packs that convert into work pods that can be placed, and just as easily packed up, wherever one chooses to work for the day—on a beachside cliff or in a park. This solution speaks to the needs of the mobile worker: a defined space with the props necessary to working well, in an inspiring environment of one’s choosing.
Alternative spaces naturally have a compelling sustainability angle. By taking advantage of what is discarded and undesirable, or simply furthering the usability and desirability of a space beyond its original intent, opportunistic workers are developing un-seen possibilities and animating the city in unexpected ways. This resourcefulness is both spontaneous and sacrificial and is about more than capitalizing on fallow spaces; it is as much about expanding the notion of work as an office-only activity to include “non-office” spaces and modes—inching closer to the possibility that work is where and what we make it.
About the author
Shawn Gehle addresses convergences of seemingly disparate entities and the consequences these convergences hold for physical space as part of the Los Angeles office’s multi-disciplinary studio. His diverse experience, including professional practice and teaching, coupled with his insatiable curiosity about the physical world make him an invaluable resource on emerging materials and technologies within the studio. Follow him on Twitter at @shawngehle.