What’s the secret sauce of successful public places? And could that secret sauce be used to improve other places, such as workplaces?
For the past few years I have been trying to figure out the secret sauce of public spaces, such as town squares, plazas, and parks, as well as quasi-public places, like coffeeshops, bookstores, and neighborhood diners and bars. Altogether these places form the fabric of creative communities. In the 1980s William H. Whyte studied the flight of corporations from big cities to the suburbs, and predicted many of them would eventually return to the city, where “truly critical negotiations” can be done “informally, on common meeting grounds equally accessible to both parties.” These places, Whyte wrote, “are at the heart of the city’s intelligence networks” and are “the genius of the place.”
Now those public places are being subjected to additional critical analysis. Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology has created a center for the “Future of Places,” aimed at defining the psychological, social, infrastructural, and environmental importance of public spaces. A doctoral student at Georgia Institute of Technology, Maria P. Roche, has gathered research that suggests “the actual physical capacity to connect people and ideas may, in fact, be one reason why cities, and some neighborhoods are more conducive for innovation than others.” A book published in October, 2019, Changing Places: The Science and Art of New Urban Planning, written by professors from Penn, Columbia, and DePaul universities, addresses how the science of urban planning can make cities healthier, more livable, and safer.
Physical public spaces could even teach the designers of virtual public spaces — the online platforms –a thing or two. Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble and an advocate of online democracy, has initiated a study of how urban planning principles could improve the quality of the “online public square,” where we spend an increasing amount of our time. (More on Pariser’s work and a link to his TED talk on this subject at the end of this piece.)
What seems clear to me is that the most beneficial public spaces or quasi-public spaces are not necessarily the most expensive ones or the ones with the most elaborate designs.
The physical space in which people work ‘is the biggest lever to encourage collaboration. . . . and serendipitous interaction.’ So why not consider the elements of a good public place when planning the workplace?
The same could be said for another kind of place – the workplace. Before I was thinking about public places, I was an entrepreneur building a business from a kitchen table operation into a medium-sized community news organization. I spent much of my time paying attention to the workplace — not just the physical space in which we worked but also the dynamics of how we related to each other and how we related to the community we served. As I found with public places, the critical success elements of the workplace were not always the most expensive. The happiest workers cared not just about compensation and benefits, but also about more subjective factors such as their contribution to the community at large, how much they were able to advance their professional standing, and the quality of their interaction with coworkers.
So now I wonder: Could some of the critical success factors for public places be adapted and applied to the workplace? The short answer is yes, and the bottom line is that I wish now I had studied public spaces first, and then applied that knowledge to my management of the workplace.