The 15-Minute City and the Return of the Satellite Office

It's a new hub-and-spoke world.

Locaal coworking space
In the future, your office might look like this coworking space in Toronto.

Lokaal/ Scott Norsworthy Photography 

Five years ago, the suburban office building was dying. Dan Zak wrote in the Washington Post that "the old suburban office park is the new American ghost town."

"They are hobbled by changing work styles and government shrinkage. People telecommute. People move into the city or into faux-urban areas that are friendlier to pedestrians, that aren’t barnacled on a highway. Younger generations don’t want to be stranded in a 'Dilbert' cartoon. They want cozy nooks and nap spaces, walkable commutes, the tastes and conveniences of the city."

Not any more. Now nobody wants to get on transit, take an elevator, share an open office, and everybody is wondering what work will be like if and when we come out of this. We've been wondering too, and have been writing posts like "Is It Back to the Future for the Suburban Office Building?" and "The Coronavirus and the Future of Main Street," where we discussed the ideas that this could lead to a rebirth and revival of our Main Streets, our neighborhoods, and our smaller cities and towns. It's also why I got so excited about the idea of the 15-Minute City – a timely repackaging of Jane Jacobs, New Urbanism, and Main Street Historicism, in which daily necessities are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike.

A consensus appears to be developing among urban thinkers, designers and office managers around the idea of the 15-minute city, even if they don't call it that. A group of designers and researchers from global architecture firm HLW are Reimagining the Office in the Harvard Business Review, and are "revisiting the conventional wisdom behind the centralized office."

"A more distributed model throughout cities and geographic regions, we believe, would better support employee performance and organizational resiliency while contributing to the improvement of the urban landscape and local communities."

The authors note that despite all of the problems that came with working from home, there were also benefits that will be difficult to give up. But they can't all stay home, either.

"The office is not going to disappear, but it will require a fresh, new approach. People will still need places where they can come together, connect, build relationships, and develop their careers. The size, scale, and openness of the modern office can be detrimental to the quality of those relationships."

They note that CEOs are saying that “you can’t change a culture over Zoom,” but also that after a certain point, packing everyone into a single big office building becomes counterproductive. "One challenge of the traditional centralized office is that interpersonal communication across floors and buildings is seldom." Smaller workgroups can actually be more productive.

Locaal coworking spaces
Lokaal, my neighborhood coworking space. Scott Norsworthy Photography

Instead, they see a mix of office functions and amenities that would look and feel more like coworking spaces. "We argue that coworking-like options are an exemplary model for what a more distributed network of workspaces could look like." They see all kinds of uses being mixed up together, which is kind of what you find in many neighborhoods. There would likely be an expansion of coworking spaces into vacant retail and even shopping malls.

"At a community level, a distribution of organizations throughout multiple locations can bring new life to obsolete spaces in both cities and suburbs. One of the effects of the pandemic is the shuttering of retailers and small businesses throughout communities. Left unchecked, the increase in retail and other storefront vacancies will leave a void in neighborhoods. Converting storefronts, defunct retail space, or other large buildings to office workspace can help revitalize struggling commercial districts in order to help ensure their vibrancy. This solution can happen at the pedestrian scale in walkable neighborhoods, and it can also work in car-centric cities by re-orienting buildings to enable greater walkability."

Are Satellite Offices More Sustainable?

Inside co-working spaces at Locaal
Inside coworking spaces at Lokaal. Scott Norsworthy Photography 

Over at Greenbiz, Jesse Klein describes "what switching to satellite offices could mean for sustainability" She notes that companies are "are starting to reevaluate the necessity of maintaining their large corporate offices or complexes in congested, expensive places with prestigious addresses."

"But even if remote work becomes the long-term norm for every company post-pandemic, humans still like to work together. There’s still a part of us that wants to physically come together to collaborate and connect. So real estate strategies may turn towards smaller neighborhood satellite offices in multiple suburban locations, instead of one massive complex that serves an entire region or, in some cases, an entire state. These smaller satellite hubs could allow employees to come together a few times a week and supply high-speed internet and better backgrounds than a kitchen table for important meetings, while also being less crowded for social distancing concerns, giving employees shorter commutes and allowing for a quieter, more accessible outdoor environments than a typical bustling financial district location."

Klein suggests that there are "sustainabilities of scale" in big, centralized office buildings. "These technologies can be as mundane as better, more energy-efficient boilers, lights, heaters, filters and air conditioners." I am not sure that is true; in small buildings, you are not running ducts for miles, and dealing with huge pressure differences and stack effects. You don't have to pump water and have fancy fire systems or expensive elevators. You can have windows that open. You have lots of roof area in proportion to floor area and can cover it in solar panels. From a sustainability point of view, I suspect that a smaller suburban office building is far easier to design and build sustainably, especially since you can build them out of wood.

But the other key issue about sustainability is the transportation energy intensity, a term Alex Wilson of BuildingGreen uses, where he points out that far more energy is consumed (and more carbon dioxide emitted) getting to and from the office than is actually emitted by the office building, especially if it is a "green" building. In a 15-minute city's work environment, nobody should be doing those giant commutes that Richard Florida describes, spending hours in the car. The office can be in a ratty old storefront and it will still have a lower carbon footprint if people can walk or bike there.

Entry to Lokaal
Entry to Locaal coworking space. Scott Norsworthy Photography

I have been illustrating this post with images of Lokaal (Dutch for "local"), my neighborhood coworking space, designed by Dubbeldam Architecture + Design. Business Manager Kevin McIntosh told Treehugger early in the pandemic:

"Our goal at Lokaal was to attract freelancers and entrepreneurs who were looking to escape the isolation and distractions of WFH but be within a 5-10 minute walk to Lokaal. Now perhaps we’ll start seeing employees from larger companies looking for a space that is not home, but not far from home either."

Now he tells me that he is working with the local business associations to promote the idea of the 15-minute city. He's "been active in promoting the shop local program and we’re on the eve of launching a Corso Italia online marketplace where all our merchants and businesses can sell their product in one shared store (like a local Amazon)!"

It may well be that there will be a glamourous head office in downtown somewhere, the hub, but there may also be spokes all over the place in local neighborhoods. At the end of those spokes there might be many versions of Locaal, where you can walk out the door at lunchtime and hit the gym or the restaurant just like you do downtown, except it might actually not be part of some giant chain. It might actually be quite nice, and a lot more sustainable.