Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Instead of devoting square-footage solely to co-working, a handful of organizations are making space do double duty.
As cities scramble to build, many are looking to accrue space where it seems to be absent. It’s not a matter of alchemy; sometimes, it’s hiding in plain sight. In New York City, some developers have tapped space under the sidewalks, in the form of a submerged, subterranean park; in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, communities have invigorated the alleys winding behind and across more-trampled thoroughfares, putting them to work as retail hubs and community gathering places. The common denominator: squeezing utility out of every conceivable square foot.
But what if you needed to look no further than a restaurant at off-peak hours?
To cater to the habits of a free-range workforce, accelerating the demand for co-working spaces, some cities are looking to make existing spaces more flexible, serving different purposes—for different users—throughout the day.
Designated brick-and-mortar co-working spaces are eating up a lot of urban real estate, and their numbers are projected to grow. The number of these spaces nearly doubled between 2011 and 2012; that push is forecast to continue. A new report from Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, a New York-based real estate firm, found that co-working spaces had amassed 1.1 million square feet in downtown Chicago by the end 2015; that number is expected to swell to 2 million square feet by the end of 2018, Crain’s Chicago Business reported. But some co-working start-ups are exploring what it would look like to borrow existing square footage that sometimes lays unused, instead of annexing space expressly for this purpose—a project that involves thinking of buildings as dynamic spaces, instead of static objects.
Offices in restaurants
Even active spaces aren’t uniformly bustling throughout the day. New York City has upwards of 24,000 restaurants—among them, some up-all-night delis and take-out joints, but also some that only open for dinner, sitting shuttered all morning and afternoon. There may be chefs in the back, chopping vegetables and prepping for the evening rush, but the dining area is empty.
Preston Pesek, the founder of the co-working startup Spacious, wondered if he could use those tables during the lulls. Pesek, who has a background working with architects, developers, and commercial real estate firms, aimed to turn the sparse front-of-house into an on-demand co-working space.
In his eyes, spaces should be supple, bending to fit different users’ needs throughout the day—and, he found, they can often be transformed without much athleticism. Spacious retrofits its partner restaurants with a few amenities: a high-speed wireless router, ample power cords, and a self-serve water and coffee station, which the company sets up and breaks down each day.
Spacious has inked deals with three restaurants in New York, including DBGB Kitchen and Bar and L’Apicio; each offers at least 180 seats. Pesek says he’s laying the groundwork for a network of drop-in spaces; instead of booking a desk at a specific co-working location, users will order a $95 monthly membership that allows them to duck into whichever happens to be most convenient. Speaking to Eater, Pesek described the company’s relationships with its participating restaurants as a “symbiotic” one: "Our customers become their customers, and their customers become ours."
Spacious has lofty goals, planning to expand at the rate of one new location per month in New York; the company is also eyeing expansion in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London. In addition, an Amsterdam-based start-up plans to host pop-up spaces in restaurants in the European city this winter. Popices intends to be, the owner previously told CityLab, “the Airbnb for desks.”
Desks in public libraries
For years, the third floor of the Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina, housed a reference collection that was gathering dust. Use of those particular library materials had slowed, and that corner of the building saw limited foot traffic, says Georgia Coleman, the library’s manager. The space itself was beautiful, Coleman says, offering sweeping views of the city. “It was my favorite view from the whole building,” she adds. “It was a shame that it wasn’t being used.”
Meanwhile, library staff realized that recent graduates from a nearby college of art and design lacked space to continue refining their portfolios and using creative suites; at the time, there were few co-working spaces in Columbia, and those that did exist weren’t likely to be feasible for cash-strapped grads.
So, in 2013, the library shuffled its collection and glassed in the space on the third floor, transforming it into a free co-working space. Usage has picked up in the last year, Coleman says. She estimates that it now caters to about 100 users each month.
Half of all public libraries in the U.S. offer space for roaming workers, Fast Company reported. Some serve as incubators, as well, earmarking resources for boot-strapping entrepreneurs learning to navigate new skill sets. Some critics argue that these new uses of space are too much of a departure from libraries’ role as hubs promoting literacy; the focus, they suggest, shouldn’t blur from books and reading.
But Coleman disagrees. The revamped space, she says, has introduced a young demographic to the vast range of the library’s resources, from e-books and audio materials and streaming video; it’s offered a foothold for forging ongoing relationships with the community. Its success, she adds, has paved the way for additional renovations aimed at a co-working clientele: a video-editing lab and maker space will open this summer. “The co-working center,” she says, “has opened us up to an audience that might not think about the library as a space where they belong.”
These new uses all nudge the sharing economy towards peak efficiency. That idea already underpins a lot of efforts: Car-sharing is predicated, in part, on the idea that personal vehicles spend most of their lives sitting parked and vacant. Ride-hailing keeps them on the road, and encourages owners to shed their personal vehicles. Reimagining uses for other similarly idle spots—restaurants and libraries, but also, in Tel Aviv, bars—is the logical continuation of that same push: serving many audiences and functions in the same amount of space.