Work in the City: Polycentric Cities 
Shawn Gehle in Work in the City

Gensler New York's The Guild. Image © Gensler

In a recent Financial Times article, Kate Allen chronicles the rush back into urban centers from the suburbs built a generation earlier with the promise of being oases from the congestion of the city. Because of this kind of reverse migration and thirst for urbanity, the population of metropolises around the world is nearing record highs—but without the housing and other resources to match. That situation, compounded with the rising mobility of work, are creating a counter push. So while major cities accommodate growth by adding density to the traditional urban core, growth is also happening immediately outside of it. Suburban centers, for example, are urbanizing, generating jobs and attracting commerce from communities that fall within their own orbits; the same holds true for small cities and neighborhoods that fall outside of the center.

The rise of these urbanizing centers is due precisely to the un-livability or unaffordability of the old urban core and the time and cost of commuting there. People gravitate toward areas that offer a better quality of life. Once there, they naturally look for ways to detach from long daily commutes by working remotely, for example, or favoring companies that collocate near where they want to live. By bringing the trappings of their old haunts, like familiar cafés, shops, and restaurants over time these places establish a walkability and familiarity that includes the variety and choice once consigned to big cities alone. Technology helps connect people, but it can’t substitute for the kind of compact, walkable places that let people naturally interact.

Some companies are large enough to establish themselves in multiple locations, creating destinations that house a substantial number of their employees. Others have a “mothership” headquarters or campus connected to smaller offices in many cities. This is still seen as “the usual pattern,” but the emerging one, tracking the rise of multiple urban centers, may be *for everyone else—companies that can’t call their own real estate shot and entrepreneurs who want to do their thing near where they live.

This emerging pattern led two Gensler offices to propose ideas for helping new urban centers jumpstart their ability to support the smaller companies, startups, and individual entrepreneurs in their midst. As they urbanize, it takes time to develop a critical mass of collocated activity. So how do you foster that?

In the central United States, second- and third-tier cities are growing faster than the hub cities, like Chicago. La Crosse, Wisconsin, is an example, and the Gensler office there proposed The Hives, a network of co-working spaces across the city that would serve a broad swathe of working adults, from remote employees and contract workers to freelancers and entrepreneurs to startups. The Hives are different from other co-working spaces in that they actively connect freelance workers with one another and with companies that, to keep overhead low and access to high talent, increasingly hire on a project-to-project basis. In that way The Hives help to synch individual workers and smaller communities with the larger economy and social networks of major metropolises.

New York, an exemplar of a city that is in the midst of remarkable change, is growing in multiple directions. In the wake of 9/11 and then Hurricane Sandy, there was an acknowledgement that the city center needed to diversify. That trend has seen the emergence and evolution of urban centers outside Manhattan. The traditional downtown and midtown centers in Manhattan are evolving, reflecting workforce preference for greater urbanity.

That preference is also reflected in Gensler New York’s proposal for the Guild, a network of co-working and social spaces modeled on medieval guilds, where people would go to learn and master a craft from more experienced artisans. The Guild takes an evolving workforce and provides opportunities for professionals to meet and to grow. By supporting knowledge- and skill-sharing for a hands-on alternative for education, they also look towards the growing interface between continual learning and work. The Guild also takes advantage of New York’s existing resources and density, and so is already more urbane by nature. At the physical core of all of these activities is the Guild Hall, where members can get together as a community. That social cohesion, wrought through the active cooperation of its members, might ensure the long-term resilience of these centers.

Both proposals anticipate the direction that work in the city is taking in the 21st century. They are first responses to the way that urban forms are changing. The old hub-and-spoke model of a dominant city with a dominant central business district to which train- and busloads commuted daily is giving way to multiple urban centers, some big enough to have their own spokes and culturally vibrant enough to have their own say.

But the changes in urban forms reflect at a larger scale changes in the way, and where, we work. Increased portability and connectivity makes it possible for people to work and to initiate their own projects from almost anywhere. Because of that breakdown of their silos, in the 21st century, work will increasingly happen anywhere business, learning, and community converge. The primacy is on the convergence; the real places have to be designed to support it. What the Hive and the Guild point towards is an opportunity for real estate, a new kind of work-learn-social space rooted in a locality and, by virtue of that grounding, connected to other localities that together form a multi-nodal network that mirrors the urban topographies that we are seeing emerge.

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.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (
See website for complete article licensing information.