PPS’s Nate Storring explains how a coworking space in Toronto, inspired by the tenets of Jane Jacobs, can be a model for new geographies of placemaking and innovation.
My first real job after graduating from the Ontario College of Art & Design wasn’t a job at all.
It was a desk.
Today, coworking and colocating have become hallmarks of the geography of innovation in cities, but at that time, in 2011, I had only heard whispers about these models. I knew that coworking meant sharing an office and equipment with other organizations and individuals, and that colocating meant sharing a building and its resources with a mix of tenants, but that was just about it. I had no idea the gift that had been dropped in my lap.
The coworking space that I called home for the next year was City Builders Lab, located in the heart of 401 Richmond St W in Toronto, Canada. Often referred to as “a village in a box,” 401 Richmond is a colocating space that pulsates with life. Busy galleries, shops, a daycare, and a café keep the first floor buzzing with people. Plants cover every sunlit surface and fill every available pocket: desks, floors, a lush courtyard and roof garden, even stacked rows of planters under UV lights in the middle of the hallway. If you wander through the warren of corridors on the fourth floor, you may even stumble across a room-sized bird cage. Just follow the tweets.
The ecology of 401 Richmond extends beyond the natural kind, though. The offices and studios above and below the first floor also host an ecosystem of tenants: artists, artisans, designers, consultants, architects, developers, tech companies, magazines, a maintenance contractor, a green energy co-op, a dance studio, a therapist, and nonprofits of all stripes. Margie Zeidler, president and founder of Urbanspace Property Group, has made a point of cultivating this rich mixture of uses since she first purchased the building in 1994. For her, it comes down to resilience. “Diversity is really important in natural ecosystems, as well as in city systems,” she tells me, echoing the words of her close family friend, the late Jane Jacobs. “It just makes sense. If you’ve got a monoculture in a city or a building, it’s very susceptible to problems. Whereas if it’s really diverse, other things can take over, and one blight won’t destroy the whole forest.”
Margie compares her approach at 401 to the real estate trend that emerged during the Dot Com bubble of the early 2000s. Everyone told her that she could make millions if only she would focus on Dot Com tenants. Then it all came crashing down. “That’s how we bought 215 Spadina,” says Margie of her company’s second building, the first home of the Centre for Social Innovation. “The owner had rented out to a big Dot Com, and they went down. He had 30% of the building rented out to them, and had put so much money into restoring it for them. Then there was nothing.”
This ecosystem benefits the tenants too. Around every corner, you might find new inspiration, a solution to an old problem, a collaborator, or just a friend. In my experience, nowhere was this more true than City Builders Lab. When I first moved into the coworking offices, it was just me and the small staff of the Centre for City Ecology, whom I got to know very well. Over the next year and a half, however, the coworking space grew to include an alliance of Toronto parks groups, a multicultural arts nonprofit, and a transit design firm, which specializes in gondolas (think cable-propelled transit, not oar-and-opera-propelled transit).
Of course, the most basic way that we benefited from one another was the fact that we shared the cost of the space, equipment, and office supplies. This is often what first draws organizations to coworking spaces: it lowers the overhead for nonprofits, as well as for young, innovative for-profit enterprises.
However, our interdependence ran much deeper. The everyday interactions that happen while eating lunch, learning to use the coffee machine, bouncing ideas off whoever is nearby, or trying to work out a particularly knotty problem slowly built up the social capital between us. As a newbie in the world of city building, I particularly benefited from this social capital as a source of informal education—what anthropologists call a “community of practice.” If it weren’t for this second education at City Builders Lab, I would never be working in the field I am now.
Perhaps most significantly, our proximity and working relationships gave us new opportunities to solve each other’s problems, to collaborate, and to inspire one another. As a freelancer, I likely benefited the most from this dynamic. I came into the space working on one project part time, and quickly began to pick up a graphic design gig here, a videography project there, and finally a position curating Urbanspace Gallery, also in 401 Richmond. But the most significant collaborations in these clusters are the ones that enable new kinds of work that never would have been done otherwise. Economists call this innovative activity between clusters of diverse organizations “Jacobs spillovers” (named after you know who). They are more rare, but some believe they are the goose that lays the golden egg of innovation.
Places and Workplaces
So what does place have to do with all of this? Well, much as Jane Jacobs observed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the physical characteristics of a place—and who gets to shape them—can stimulate or hinder this web of working relationships. In the workplace, many employers have attempted to reinterpret the lessons of Death and Life in their office designs. Through the increasingly ubiquitous—and increasingly despised—open-plan office, they hoped to encourage trust, communication, and innovation among their employees.
Recent studies now tell us that, in fact, for many companies open plans have reduced productivity and worker satisfaction due to distractions and a lack of privacy. Ironically, later in life even Jacobs herself denounced the open office trend. In a 2004 speech at City College, she noted that many offices “are now deliberately designed to maximize contact and understanding among people and departments within the organization. They have become self-involved to the point of becoming introverted. They have also become attractive and interesting to the point of becoming narcissistic, if buildings can be said to be narcissistic. I think they can.”
Meanwhile, the social capital, learning, and opportunity I benefited from at City Builders Lab could never have happened without the coworking space’s open office plan. Why?
Margie thinks it has a lot to do with the size of the organizations. “Large organizations don’t need to interact with other organizations because they have everything in-house,” she says. Their tech, marketing, and legal people, and all their equipment fall under the same organization and the same roof, “whereas if it’s all small organizations, both for social reasons and for financial reasons—they don’t have a photocopier or whatever—they work with the guy next door. They might buy one together, or one uses the other’s. And that has happened a lot at 401.” In other words, an open office plan can nourish a diversity of small organizations that need things from outside themselves to survive, but it can also throttle the efficient, self-contained divisions of labor that a single large organization needs to survive. At the City Builders Lab, those mundane, day-to-day outside needs became the foundations of our social capital and deeper collaboration.
Sure, social prosthetics like networking events or mentorship programs can build new working relationships, just like heavy policing can keep a street ‘safe,’ but at what cost? A place built with people in mind, where the people who use it are empowered to shape it collectively, can build social capital more deeply, casually, equitably, and inexpensively, and with more room for the unusual, the unpredictable, and the unprecedented.
From its inception, Margie renovated 401 Richmond and the City Builders Lab inside it with tenants in mind, and tenants have had a strong and lasting impact on the building. The building’s labyrinthian floor plan is practically a diagram of this process—the result of gradually carving out the right amount of space for each new tenant piecemeal, rather than planning a perfect pattern in advance. The building feels more tended or cultivated than designed, like a protected swath of jungle, dense with details and layers.
Old Buildings, Gradual Money & Place Governance
Margie purchased 401 with another Jane Jacobs axiom in mind: “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” Margie wanted to create a place where people had the freedom to experiment, especially in arts and culture—not always a high-profit venture—and much like coworking arrangements, old, rundown, run-of-the-mill buildings provide the low-overhead that such low- and no-profit enterprises need to survive. Back in 1994, 401 Richmond was just one building in a district of under-rented industrial buildings, ripe for creative reuse. That cheap urban real estate made 401’s innovative model of colocating and coworking possible.
Initially, Margie’s training as an architect kicked in. Inspired by the building’s beautiful bones, she and her father (a well-known Canadian architect) set about designing elaborate renovations, like converting the courtyard into a glass-enclosed communal space. But they quickly realized that these “lovely dreams,” as Margie calls them now, would subvert Jacobs’ whole point: “It would have cost so much money that there was no way artists could afford it. It would have to be lawyers and accountants.”
Instead, Margie has made improvements to the building with great patience, slowly saving up profits to reinvest in the building, and keeping conscious of how much additional cost her current tenants can bear when raising rents, usually a dollar or 50 cents per square foot at a time. She tells me proudly that last year (two decades after she bought the building) they were finally able to replace the old boiler, and add a second street-facing entrance.
Unfortunately, however, a familiar story is beginning to unfold in the neighborhood around 401 Richmond that undercuts Margie’s efforts to keep things affordable. As adaptive reuses and new developments have started to turn around the formerly underused neighborhood, escalating gentrification has started to push out the very uses that made it attractive in the first place. But Margie does not see this as an inevitable market process. To her, it’s a direct result of poor governance.
She explains that in Toronto, as in many places, landowners pay property taxes based on a market assessment of the land’s “highest and best use”—in other words, based not on what’s there, but on the most profitable use that could be there. This is exacerbated in Toronto by the fact that in Ontario, conflicts regarding development are resolved by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), a provincial-level court of appointed officials that can overrule localities. Like most courts, the OMB makes decisions based on precedent, so whenever city planners in Toronto make a decision about a unique place, that exception can quickly become the rule.
For example, Margie tells me that when the Toronto International Film Festival decided to build the TIFF Bell Lightbox near 401 Richmond, the City allowed it to help pay for the public amenities it offers by building a 40-story condo development above—a height unprecedented for the neighborhood, but arguably for a good cause. Immediately, however, other developers began proposing other 40-story buildings. The City of Toronto refused, since they offered no public amenities, but the OMB overruled their decision based on precedent. Now, 40-story luxury condos have become the norm for development near 401 Richmond—and the “highest and best use” for 401’s land has been upgraded accordingly. Recently, Margie tells me, the City made another tactical decision to allow a developer to build a 90-story development designed by Frank Gehry in the neighborhood, in exchange for building two towers instead of three and saving a few beloved buildings underfoot. Now there is a new precedent for the OMB to enforce. The flood of 90-story proposals has already begun.
Since 401 Richmond could be a 40-story condo tower, Urbanspace Property Group now pays half a million dollars annually in property taxes. Those costs are inevitably passed down to tenants; if they weren’t, 401 would go out of business. Ironically, at the very time that the City should encourage affordable housing and workspace in the pricey neighborhood, the city’s property taxes encourage a standardized, luxury monoculture. This system not only puts pressure on residents of modest means, but also on the innovative low- and no-yield enterprises that occupy places like 401. It’s the same story for any landlord who might want to buck the trend—whether because of their beliefs, like Margie, or more often because of social or family connections to tenants. In response, Margie has contemplated shifting her development company from a B Corp to a nonprofit, but she laments a system that compels everyone in the private sector to pursue the highest possible profit or fail.
This predicament illustrates the problem with governance that ignores the complicated ecology of a specific place. Legal-like precedent and property taxes based on “highest and best use” are simply the wrong models for regulating development. They are both one-size-fits-all solutions that kill the diversity that makes a place function well, and discourage the many tactical decisions that a responsive local government must make to protect that diversity. When governance begins with place, on the other hand, these problems become obvious, and solutions based on local knowledge become possible.
Whether it’s on the scale of a city, a building, or a single workspace, placemaking plays a vital role in the social conditions that drive innovation. When people from diverse backgrounds trust one another, share ideas, and share burdens, new kinds of work become possible. While the words “place” and “placemaking” may sound to some like something warm and fuzzy, even sentimental, they are actually the most efficient and effective tools we have to bring people together.