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Work in the City: Urbanization on the Edge 

The lines between traditionally segregated cities and suburbs are blurring as the breakdown between the spatial orders of work and lifestyle advances.

Conversations about urbanization tend to fixate on how the already large “mega” cities, like Lagos, Shanghai, and Mexico City, are swelling in response to global population growth and urban migration. The most urgent question then becomes: how do we prepare our cities for the momentous changes underway? But there is another detail to consider: According to the 2013 Census, many top-tier cities—New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and their European counterparts—are actually shrinking, while areas on the periphery, long considered second-tier cities, are experiencing significant growth. People are moving to these new urban clusters in search of a better and more affordable life. This migration of people from urban cores to edge cities, and the consequent densification of peripheral spaces, is part of what distinguishes the current centennial as the “Urban Century.”

The shrinking differential between cities and suburbs is symptomatic of the narrowing space between the places that we live and work. People can live and work more or less where they choose, without sacrificing the capacity to stay “connected.” This mobility offsets ingrained disparities, as individuals and cities alike seize their own potential and learn to channel it effectively. The value of each—city, company, and individual—will be a unique answer to meaning, wellbeing and economic innovation furthering the acceptance of diversification.

This series’ last post on urban diversification looked at how the realms of work and city are converging. With the independence of the knowledge worker from the physical office, workplaces are starting to urbanize—mimicking their urban environments in design and culture—and redefining their relationship with the city. Becoming cognizant of their changing role, cities are also adapting to the emerging work culture; they are being reformed by sharing economies—supporting proximity, mobility and the collaboration between business, education, community, and individuals. As both companies and cities become more responsive to the needs of their people, the common ground and motivation to attract and retain talent between them is rapidly growing.

At home in the proverbial American West of big, sprawling and low-density cities and suburbs, two of Gensler’s Texas offices are seeing how this dynamic of densification is blurring the distinction between urban and suburban settings, and is creating a new urban typology in the process. The single-use suburban model is a totem of the live/work dichotomy, and the segregation of urban and suburban in general. In that model, buildings—a hospital, for example—are planted on a site and left to stand alone in the company of a parking structure. People travel by car from silo to silo.

But things are changing. As Peter Merwin in an interview for Dialogue 26 put it, the changing mindset is about “taking the suburban land model … and going, guess what? All those office workers want to go eat lunch. Why don't you put some restaurants down there? Why do people have to drive across town to work here? Why don't you let them live here? The change is about realizing that the one working and the one living are the same person and asking: What do they need? This is a fundamental shift from providing buildings that house people to creating working environments that serve them. If while addressing the need for restaurants, parks, shops, you invite people to walk around; and if you curate enough, and provide enough choice and transit options, the people working in these places are more apt to live there. It is this connected critical mass that, when sustained, generates a viable urban center.”

In this vein, Gensler’s Dallas office sees a new urban living/working prototype forming between the boundaries of traditional urban centers and suburbs. As much as suburban spaces are becoming more “urban,” perks of the suburbs are being brought into the city through lifestyle options to make them more livable. Both are changing, becoming more versatile and rich. There is a mutual unfolding that, at different scales, aims for greater intensity of use and, hopefully, more urbanity.

The breakdown of spatial orders established around the assumed division of one’s work and lifestyle is giving way to a more fitting urban sensibility, centered on principles of innovation, sustainable communities, and radical choice in lifestyle. The Dallas office speculates that by 2025, the grandfathered urban/suburban paradigm so definitive of the American experience will have become a network of urban clusters that are each organized around single industries, inspired by Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Mass. Far from being isolate campuses, these varied city-scaled innovative milieus aim at total livability and will be genuinely walkable and interconnected via public transit. The proposal establishes Dallas-Fort Worth as a walkable urban environment where social interaction and the spontaneity of human expression are possible—where people can engage with one another, and, unstuck from polarizing archetypes, enjoy choice in where and how they live and work.

Acknowledging the growing social concern around health and wellness in their city, Gensler Austin proposes developing an urban cluster around the future University of Texas Medical Center. To support the increasingly sought-after crossover between industry and education, biotech and other related companies they foresee the emergence of a health and wellness cluster in Austin. By 2025, the days of the isolated hospital are long gone. The area would also include green space, a mixed-use block at the center, and finally, residential and hotel uses, addressing the dynamic needs and population around proactive and reactive wellness programs.

The urbanization we are witnessing signals a new era, in which previously detached areas—geographic and in our personal and collective lives—are being knit together. But density and transportation integration alone are not the point: a place can be urban and connected without being urbane. There is something ineffable at the root of this distinction—the walkability and authenticity of a place, and our clients and the people who visit the spaces we design sense it by the presence of vitality and a sense of community. That’s the catch: People don’t want to live or work in manufactured or single purpose environments anymore. Making the leap to genuinely offer diverse and accessible options on how to integrate ones’ work and lifestyle is a key concern of many cities today as they strive to sustainably attract and retain people and businesses—companies share a similar concern. Design and spatial overlap is the underpinning of this decision making process, before life takes over—and that is where urban synergy either happens or doesn’t.

Shawn Gehle is a Design Principal and Studio Director of a cross-disciplinary studio in Gensler's Los Angeles office. In late 2013, Shawn was designated the Global Curator for Gensler’s Reimagining Cities: Work in the City effort. As the curator for this effort, Shawn is organizing and synthesizing a body of work produced by industry experts and designers across the firm regarding how they see a rapidly changing set of workplace values impacting our cities and their residents in the future. Follow him on Twitter at @shawngehle.

Reader Comments (1)

never let it be said that Texans don't always have a counter viewpoint -

'Center for Opportunity Urbanism' Think Tank Launched in Houston

a statement from the organization in describing the think tank's agenda: "The center offers a counterpoint to current thinking on smart growth, forced densification and opposition to suburban development..."




their website:

03.19.2015 | Unregistered CommenterRives Taylor

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