As the Public Realm Merges With the Workplace, How Will Our Cities Change?
A report produced by WRNS Studio, edited and excerpted here, suggests how work culture could and should influence the fabric of our cities.
During the 2015–16 academic year, the Architectural Design program at Stanford University, the School of Architecture at Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design, and WRNS Studio collaborated on a yearlong research project called “Situated Work + Public Life.” The students’ work, taken as a whole, pointed to two key benefits sought by today’s knowledge workers: flexibility and work/life integration. From these concepts arises a third opportunity: the need for a new kind of platform to better support them—the public mesh, or a blurring of lines between the workplace and the public realm.
As the U.S. economy shifted from the labor-intensive modes of agriculture and industry to knowledge-based work, the modern workplace underwent fundamental change, as evidenced in its evolution from farms and factories to the private offices, cubes, and open plans that proliferate today. These changes in the workplace have inflected the built environment in different, often significant ways: Compare the functionally honest construction, large blocks, and infrastructural connectedness of the industrial city with the honorific and tall buildings of the clerical city. Both development patterns create a clear demarcation between the workplace and the public realm.
While the term “knowledge work” remains broad in definition, it is largely associated with creativity, innovation, and problem solving, the “products” of which—books, software, data analyses, forecasts, strategy, and the like—come from people’s minds. Business management and workplace design have responded in kind with work models and environments that support two key conditions of knowledge work: the ability to interact with others in order to conceive, share, or develop information, and autonomy over the processes of one’s work. Greater flexibility in not only space but schedule allows people to integrate work with life, especially when equipped with the right technologies and plugged into transit and other support networks that make it easy to write from home, sketch out a new idea in a café, recharge on the run, pick up the kids from school, or take work into a courtyard shared by the neighborhood.
Likewise, the ubiquitous open office—great for collaboration—now increasingly addresses the need for focused work, giving people more choices in where and how to interact, think, and be creative. But adapting the workplace to meet the expectations of today’s knowledge workers with renovations or improvements to the workspace itself has been eclipsed by a significant real estate proposition: The ongoing capital investment in both cities and suburbs, where existing buildings are being reconfigured, new buildings are going up, and campuses are being wholly reimagined, suggests that the race to attract and retain top talent is still very much on. But knowledge workers want something more.
Parks, plazas, courtyards, and semi-public places like cafés are often full of people working. There are many reasons one might choose to work in the public realm. Perhaps the dissonance of experiencing something new—different people and ideas—opens the creative mind, sparking curiosity. Knowledge workers require significant flexibility in where and how they conduct collaborative versus focused work, and they need spaces to recharge; the public realm may help meet these demands. While an understanding of the motivations that drive knowledge workers is best left to further research, their participation in the public realm is undeniable, reflecting its value in the creation of intellectual capital.
Bearing witness to these dual market pressures for autonomy and public engagement, workplace design is poised for a substantial merging with the public realm, creating a hybridization of owned space. In many ways, the public mesh has already begun.
The intersection of the workplace and the public realm emerged in concept with the open office taking cues in its organization from the public realm. “Streets,” “neighborhoods,” “town centers”—these are the metaphors of today’s open plan, implying known social codes and intended to foster interaction and community.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the modern workplace is evolving to recognize the value knowledge workers find in the public realm by merging with it. The public mesh is an ecosystem, or network, of publicly accessed places, mutually defined by public and private entities, which happens at different scales and through different territories of public and private ownership. It presents a radical shift toward the blending of the workplace and the public realm, with compelling and complex implications for the built environment and one’s experience of place.