But, while co-working might have primarily become associated with WeWork and its recent crisis, it’s still fair to say that regardless of WeWork’s fate, the trend of more flexible, service-centred and data-informed office space will continue to evolve. There is clearly a market for it and the technology to deliver it is ever more available.
So, WeWork aside, for architects, planners and public policymakers, the need remains to understand the medium- and long-term impact of not just how these purposefully fluid and flexible buildings and spaces are designed, built and occupied, but also how they are changing the way we plan and indeed the very fabric of the places we plan for.
Planning for shared spaces
Urbanists at Connected Places Catapult – who in previous roles as public sector planners and urban designers sat across the table from co-living and co-working applicants – have reviewed their schemes and know all too well the challenges the planning system presents for these kinds of developers and developments for planners and policymakers. All too often, when the system fails to fit a square peg into a round hole, it eventually tries to just ram that peg in.
In their defence, however, there is still ambiguity around the role and function of these shared spaces within the built environment. For example, is a co-living scheme purely residential or, by virtue of its ability to offer a range of communal spaces and social activities, something else? And if so, what?
The lion’s share of the blame for this ambiguity could be levelled on the current use class orders. These came into force in 1987 as a little more than a revision of those from 1972, and so it should come as no surprise that they don’t really reflect the way our cities are developing in 2019. Therefore, regulators and providers alike can’t be blamed for the grey zone in whether or not to apply standard planning controls like minimum space standards for room sizes and the requirement to provide affordable housing as part of its offer apply. And, if not, what regulations should?
This is why cities such as Barcelona have sought to regulate Airbnb after seeing the impact on property prices and tourist taxes. It’s also why Connected Places Catapult has been looking at this issue in some depth exploring ways to bridge the gap between SPaaS providers and regulators.
At the moment, the SPaaS world is still quite fragmented – co-living, co-working, meanwhile spaces, peer-to-peer house-sharing and who knows what next? – and yet no one has brought all the players together to openly plan their own futures, let alone how they might align those futures with the regulators. There has been little recognition of the fact that they are in fact part of one sector – a single community with shared challenges.
So let’s do that now. If SPaaS is indeed a sector – and a rapidly growing one at that – that is posing challenges, and has no intention of simply going away, then those challenges need to be faced head-on. Only then might the regulatory system evolve the flexibility and adaptability needed to not just handle these trends, but to actively nourish and nurture them.