MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Filtering by Tag: Suburb

Creatives like Cities, Engineers like suburbs
True in office design as well as in urban design

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

It's a phrase that I somehow picked up in fifth grade or thereabouts and went around repeating it as a mark of erudition without any comprehension. It's a concept, now discredited, that implies that an organism's path from embryo to adult replicates all of its evolutionary forms.

Never mind. It's just that it came to me as I found a reference to a recent study about urban form.

That study found a pattern of differences in the location choices of creative organizations and science-based organizations. Looking at company location data for three of Canada’s largest metropolitan areas, the research showed that creative firms like urban locations and science-based firms like suburban locations.

The data presented show that firms in ‘creative’ industries tend to be located in dense, mixed-use neighborhoods near the city core, while ‘science-based’ industries tend to be concentrated in low-density, single-use neighborhoods in the suburbs.

The differences are actually quite striking across multiple characteristics. 

Urban Suburban
In/near core Near highway interchanges
Historic or older neighborhoods Newer developments
High density Low density
Diverse Similar
Walkable/transit Commute by car
Multiple use Single use
Diverse Nerdistan
Bars, coffee shops Conference rooms

The authors of the study speculate that communication patterns and characteristics may be at the root of these choices –

It is argued that these spatial patterns are related to the fact that inter-firm networks are more important in the ‘creative’ industries, while ‘science-based’ industries rely more heavily on intra-firm interactions and learning.

What we found interesting from our work is how aligned the choices that these types of organizations make in the design of the workplace are. It also seems not too far of a stretch to also find an alignment in the recent conversation about extroverts and introverts. 

The creative organizations we work with seem to like high-density, high-interaction working spaces interspersed with a mix of social and meeting spaces of different characteristics and services. Creative organizations have cultures that are naturally more collaborative and social. For example, creative work includes frequent “pin-ups” where work is openly discussed and evaluated. People tend to be more extroverted.

Engineering or science organizations seem to have cultures that are mostly introverted. Innovative work at these organizations has traditionally been individually authored and created in isolated or closed spaces intended to preserve focus for writing or for work on critical calculations. The engineering organizations we work with seem to cling to a hierarchical distribution of larger offices and formal conference rooms with closed service areas where one can get a cup of coffee but rarely stay to converse. 

It appears that perhaps at every scale – from office to neighborhood to city to region – the characteristics of organizational cultures derived from communications patterns define the form of the places they choose or develop to do their work.

Here, too.

Turned inside out by time

I have long had a theory that if the businesses in cities like Detroit initiated a culture of a 2-hour lunch break, we would immediately restore the life of the city. But first, a bit of background.

Image by Tom Vigar

We were surprised recently when a member of a client’s staff, invited to a workshop in our offices, asked about our address—where was the street we are on? The street we are on is the most historically important street in the city, an artery that begins at the river and runs 20 miles into the suburbs, and is 2 blocks from our client’s offices. This condition of not knowing the basics of the city and the names of streets just a few steps away from your place of employment is generated by some very specific conditions of defensive development and occupation.

The key underlying context here is the fear formed around a faulty memory, but certain reputation, of urban crime that has driven much of the planning and design in the city. Very few people who are employed in the city live in the city. Most of those from outside the city who are employed in the city fear it.

Employers who have made noble attempts to play a civic role by locating headquarters in the downtown area entice staff to their jobs with promises of security. Each of these enlightened moves to the city has been accompanied by models of planning and design that create inward-turning multi-use centers where the basics of the day are fully provided for the staff who make their way into the city.

Major employers provide transportation by company bus from suburban pick-up lots; their employees drive from suburban home to suburban mall, and then are bused directly to the corporate offices. Those who drive have been given parking privileges in decks that are part of their office buildings. Once there, employees have fast food restaurants and subsidized meals to satisfy the need for a cup of coffee or a sandwich. There is nothing to cause or invite a foray by them outside of the buildings where they work. It is truly an 8 to 5 town, defined by transportation and the limits of corporate amenities.

To save our city, I imagine, instead of capital intensive building programs, simply a mandatory two-hour lunch period. I image a length of time that is too short to go home but too long to stay at your desk.

I imagine a period of time that initially evokes boredom, but eventually causes exploration. I imagine people finding a way out of the office onto the streets where the visibility of their presence and their need provokes others to invest in sidewalk carts, then maybe cafes and restaurants, perhaps a bookstore or two, and then more.

I imagine even a bit of inappropriateness—perhaps initially a couple of small hotels where two hours may be just enough time—but then a reconciliation to norms and the development of pied-a-terres, then real housing to meet an expanding demand for a place to live nearby the office of a company that provides too much time in the middle of the day.

I imagine then a place where, without the need to flee on a schedule defined by the company bus or a departure defined by the hour in the car on the freeway before the expected arrival home for dinner with the kids, the day finds a natural end, and a social end, in cafes and restaurant bars, in extended conversation and a rich development of community.

I imagine the eventual loss of memory and forgetting of fear in a place where buildings have been turned inside out by time.

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