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Work in the City: Urban Diversification

Image © Gensler

It is no secret that the global population is exploding, or that the majority of that growth is urban. Cities will inevitably have to accommodate populations that are not only larger but significantly more diverse. This diversity will be expressed across the board, from demographic and international migration patterns, to economic practices, evolving ideas about work and the workplace and the make-up of individual lives. Diversification is a defining feature of the world we live in. Cities are where diverse cultural and lifestyle strands mix, collide, and spur changes that affect many aspects of human life, including work.

The nature of work and the composition of the cities are changing together. Beyond the detachment of work from the traditional workplace, tech-enabled mobility implies a shift in emphasis, from where you work to responding to how you work. (This is especially true for knowledge workers.) The customs of 20th century office culture are being challenged by ones that allow people and businesses to work most effectively regardless of their physical location. The extreme of this trend is the rising number of contract workers, who perform services on an ad hoc basis. By 2025, contract workers are projected to compose nearly 70 percent of the workforce. Many of these “free agents” will enjoy more leeway in choosing their own work and lifestyle; others will come to terms with stitching together more dispersed careers.

Without the support of traditional work structures (a single workplace, an assigned desk, career ladder, etc.), this international generation of freelancers will be tasked with finding a means of security outside of the career job. But what is lost in security will be made up for in many other ways. Open source economic models that engage this growing community are being conceived as robust alternatives to the traditional conglomerate, capable of fostering cohorts of disparate entrepreneurs, for whom work meshes with personal and community lives, and who rely more on social networks than formal work organizations. Cities are recognizing the need to support such informal social networks, which are reshaping our collective definition of contemporary urban life.

What we are seeing is the emergence of a culture of choice. As work and the other aspects of our lives blend, lifestyle becomes the primary lens through which all facets come into focus. In this light, individuals are taking more ownership of their own life and work choices. More individuals are choosing to live in cities and subsist via an ongoing series of temporary work relationships. What they expect in return, from the urban communities they call work and home, is a lifestyle conducive to their 21st century affectations. They want to customize every aspect of their lives and they want the power to do so to spring from technology.

Gensler’s Los Angeles office sees that on the workplace scale, the culture of choice takes the form of a completely new typology of workplace, one which goes beyond the open office and addresses the changing workplace and worker needs. The days of the uniform office plan are numbered; in its stead we will see flexible work environments that can take the form of each work mode. Personalization and diversification go hand-in-hand. With the ability to work anywhere at any time and the increased integration between work and personal life, the physical boundaries that define work spaces will continue to erode, while new work modes and specialized stations evolve—within and without office walls. Now that the tablet computer constitutes a mobile work station, the future creative workplace will assume a nodal model that embodies the nature of the decentralized city.

This changing nature of work means that work is integrated into the city rather than located within it. But the city has to be brought up to speed with the changing cultural landscape. To do this, our Raleigh office identified 100 acres of residual downtown space, left-over during this past century of sprawl, which they propose filling-in with flexible mixed-use developments. In their proposal, previously unused and neglected spaces will be refit to spawn a dense and vibrant environment. These infill sites can host all sorts of activities: empty lots become sports venues by day and with the help of a few props beer gardens by night. Temporary retail outfits, offices, studios, restaurants, and gardens can start to grow the city from within.

The growing complexity and diversity of urban life means more innovative environments. Elaborating the benefits of interdisciplinary partnerships, Gensler’s Baltimore office put another spin on mixed-use development. They proposed an innovation landscape where government, industry and higher education create partnerships with and become anchors for the larger city, a city where entrepreneurs and students of the future will want to live and work. The proximity to research institutions and an architecturally rich array of existing buildings prime Baltimore Street to be a neighborhood where working, living, and learning happen in concert, and together form a strong foundation for emerging generations to thrive and contribute to their cities, fields, and the world beyond.

Diversification is a trend impacting the core of who we are and how we conduct our lives. By imagining longer lifespans, Gensler’s Chicago office explores the future of choice in an urban context. How would we choose to live? What would change? If experiences were to drag on for five centuries, our daily life might seem monotonous, and the linearity of life may morph into different patterns. This is already happening with lifelong learning and ongoing education as a competitive necessity, with people taking second careers and hobbies becoming professionally supported endeavors.

Seeing life in this diverse way brings the question of choice and variety into relief. We see there is space to change habits, professions, and to chart our own paths. We embrace change and seek differing points of view. More than choosing from different options, the point is that this charting is about grasping our own capacity for directing and even generating them. We remain curious about how can we plan our cities and adapt ourselves to accommodate this lifestyle shift?

Shawn Gehle addresses convergences of seemingly disparate entities and the consequences these convergences hold for physical space as part of the Los Angeles office’s multi-disciplinary studio. His diverse experience, including professional practice and teaching, coupled with his insatiable curiosity about the physical world make him an invaluable resource on emerging materials and technologies within the studio. Follow him on Twitter at @shawngehle.

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