Making Spaces Work for People is the Same Inside and Out

There were many reasons I signed up for a full-time office space at CoCo Minneapolis. It’s not because co-working is trendy, and Streets.MN readers know it isn’t because of the great urbanism of Downtown East.

The two biggest ones were the physical and social feel of my entire day — not least including my commute.

Working at CoCo

Working at CoCo (photo credit Negstad Consulting)

Let’s start with how designers addressed the work space of CoCo. The the physical space feels makes me (and hundreds of other people) want to be here.

Long ago, they designed the soaring ceilings, the beauty, the brightness from big windows, and the openness of the space. More recently, they added umbrellas to define space — to make it feel somewhere — while maintaining the openness. You don’t feel exposed. The permanent spaces where I now sit have semi-transparent dividers encouraging you to not bother but allowing you to get to know your neighbors. Maybe they read Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building and Newman’s Defensible Space?

It’s harder to see the social space in the picture, but there are hints. The physical set-up encourages people to meet at the reception/waiting area/central coffee station – it creates a central point of activity with a purpose. The clear delineation of quiet and social work spaces ensures that people who want to focus have a place to do that — it also gives those who want to interact permission to strike up a conversation at tables where you face strangers as you work. There are some informal social events (Beer ‘n’ Chat Tuesday afternoons), and slightly more formal lunches or launch events to encourage mixing with just enough structure that it’s OK for the introverts.

My commute takes some of the same great design concepts out-of-doors. Biking to CoCo from my home is rather lovely, to and along the beautiful Cedar Lake Trail all the way to the Mississippi, with only a few blocks of less-busy downtown at the far end. (This is true the parts of the year this steep hill isn’t a one-way the wrong way.)

But this hill is steep enough it turns into a one-way uphill during snow/ice season.

Why is it so hard to make a steep hill look steep in a picture? This one is steep enough it becomes a one-way uphill during winter.

My neighborhood streets are narrow enough to be defined by the homes and boulevard trees edging them, not set too far back. The Cedar Lake Trail is open and grandiose prairie, but space is clearly safe (“Look, no cars, ma!”) and clearly defined as “trail” or “prairie” or “Target Field.”

Another thing high on my “experience of the day” list is avoiding biking or walking across a parking lot to get in. People keep asking me if I’m moving to their Uptown location once it opens, and I say, “Nope! I’d have to cross a parking lot to get into the building.” I’m happy to trade a longer, more pleasant bike commute against the evil of braving a no-mans-land full of tons of steel.

Plus, these bike racks provide a great place to meet fellow downtown workers – you’d be surprised how much conversation comes up while you’re locking up a bike. (I assume it’s not just because I’m a woman in work-appropriate dress, but correct me if I’m wrong, guys.)

    Nicely Located (if inadequate in number) Bike Parking

Nicely Located (if inadequate in number) Bike Parking

The pleasant, car-lite, greenery-filled commute mirrors the way the office space feels.

So, why does this post belong on Streets.MN? Because what makes this office space feel good, and what makes this commute preferable to a shorter one informs how we make our public streets feel good. And because what encourages interaction in CoCo — the kind that works with a bunch of strangers — can also work on our streets.

  • How do you make physical and social spaces places people want to be? CoCo is a practical place to work AND uses beautiful architecture.  We’ve got some beautiful walks, but fewer that go to useful places. We’ve got some useful places, but they’re not always beautiful.
  • What strategies make them welcoming and comfortable to everyone, regardless of personality, interest, gender, race, etc.? CoCo has smiling people at the front door. Jeremy was spot on that it’s not about “security,” although it is about feeling secure.
  • How do you allow enough excuses for serendipity and interactions to happen AND enough “invisibility” for people to feel comfortable? Maybe being a public space is enough.

What are your favorite — specific — strategies?

Adapted from a post at flisrand.com.

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5 Responses to Making Spaces Work for People is the Same Inside and Out

  1. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg October 1, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    Sorry Janne, it IS because you are a woman biking in work-appropriate dress…:)

    But you are right, beautiful architecture goes a looooonnnng way to making people want to be in a place.

    • Janne Flisrand
      Janne Flisrand October 2, 2013 at 8:49 am #

      I do also smile and say hi to strangers walking by if they catch my eye… so I start some of it on purpose. That it isn’t creepy probably [certainly] is about being a woman.

      • Sam Newberg
        Sam Newberg October 2, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

        My wife looks quite fetching riding her Dutch-like bike in her dress clothes commuting to work. In an alternate universe I’d probably stop to talk to her – in this universe I’d stop to talk to her. I hope that isn’t creepy, it’s why we live in the city!

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke October 1, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    It IS hard to take a picture of something to make it look as uphill it is. yes.

  3. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell October 2, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    Great post.

    When we look at a hill in person our brain’s gyro tells us about it’s slope—our brain knows what in real life is level, up, or down. Photo’s don’t convey that without some clues. If you shoot across the street a bit and catch some trees and houses you’ll get some of these clues in the photo.

    I loved your comment about beautiful walks that go no where and where’s that aren’t beautiful! I wonder if, like how we’ve segregated residential, office, retail, and industrial, we’ve also segregated beautiful things from useful things. Designers and engineers seem to sometimes get in a mindset of one or the other, never both.

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