Why Sprawl Kills Coworking

Note: This post first appeared on Medium. Thanks to Matt Fields for editing assistance and my amazing wife Ruby Sinreich for so much support.

Towards the end of 2011, I closed Carrboro Creative Coworking. It was a third place. Not home, not work, but another place where we could come together, be creative, and get work done. A community within our greater community.

I started and ran Carrboro Creative Coworking as a business, but its purpose was to be more communal than a traditional business. I dared to combine the financial rigueur of business with the heart of a community organization. Sometimes I wonder whether I focused on the right part of that combination.

It’s now spring 2013, and I’m thinking more generally about Coworking: I might say, the philosophical concept of Coworking, instead of the individual coworking space. Specifically, what causes a Coworking space to succeed or fail. To me, it’s not just a mental exercise, but an investigation into how humans get along in small groups. Here’s something I found:

Sprawl kills Coworking and other similar community based “third places”.

I’m speaking not just of my own space, Carrboro Creative Coworking, but also of other third places, like TechShop Raleigh-Durham. While I have no inside information on the business side of TechShop, I know enough about running a business and fostering community to know what its challenges are.

This North Carolina location of the TechShop franchise was a place for people to use all kinds of equipment they may not be able to afford. Guests and members took safety courses and classes to use tools that ranged from basic wood tools to laser cutters and computer controlled milling machines. TechShop Raleigh-Durham closed April 20, 2013.

There are three reasons I think sprawl is bad for Coworking.

1) If we live in sprawl, we are not Neighbors: We are “Others”.

For example, the many towns and cities that make up the Triangle region of North Carolina are very spread out. We have several unique cultural identities based on historical reasons. This keeps us apart from each other physically, ideologically, and even spiritually on some level. No one really considers people in Raleigh neighbors with someone who lives in Chapel Hill. In sprawling areas, people can easily become the “Other” person who we can easily ignore. This is bad when you are trying to build a community between connected municipalities, if for no other reason than that you need a large quantity of people to support a “third place”.

2) When we are too spread out, we look out for ourselves first.

When you struggle to prosper your primary concerns are self and family. The struggle is so hard that there is little time to think of your neighbors. This selfishness has consequences. Our lack of concern for our fellow human increases the difficulty of our struggle, both in wealth generation and in happiness. Because we are social beings, collaboration is a prerequisite for success. Sprawl insidiously keeps us at arms length, just far away from each other to prevent a real intimacy that fosters collaboration and empathy.

3) Commuting reduces the amount of time we have to give to the community.

Because we live relatively far away from each other, it is time consuming and expensive to commute to other places to commune with our neighbors. While you’d think there would be enough people in each individual Town or City combined to support a “third place”, like a TechShop, the numbers don’t prove that to be the case. The costs of maintaining the “third place” are now greater than the revenue generated from people willing to travel to be with others. The biggest costs being real estate and payroll.

In the example of Carrboro Creative Coworking, I determined that the maximum distance most people were willing to travel one way to cowork was twenty miles. That may not sound like much, but in the Triangle area it’s about the distance from eastern parts of the City of Durham to the Town of Carrboro. That area includes a lot of people but leaves out at least 1.1 million people who live in the Raleigh Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Cary.

I discovered this distance by plotting the location of survey participants on a map. These were people who said they like the idea of coworking. It showed a good number of people: enough to give me confidence that there were potentially enough customers to support a coworking business. But the number of people who actually drove a round-trip 40 miles and spent money to cowork was much less. In reality, very view people traveled from Durham or Raleigh to cowork in Carrboro. The majority of Carrboro Creative Coworking’s customers lived in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

For a “third place” to succeed, it requires that we know our neighbors, or at least feel some connection with them. We must be connected to one another so we believe our neighbors are our family. I believe this will occur when the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill/Carrboro Region has more dense and connected communities. Walking, biking, and ubiquitous public transit to “third places” must be possible for coworking to thrive.

2 thoughts on “Why Sprawl Kills Coworking

  1. I agree completely with this sentiment: “For a ‘third place’ to succeed, it requires that we know our neighbors, or at least feel some connection with them.”

    Churches and other similar community centers seem to thrive in urban/sprawling regions. How do you think they tackle these challenges in ways that many coworking spaces aren’t?

  2. Very good question Alex.

    Many churches in suburbs have giant parking lots and use Hell as a motivator… Coworking, to me, is inherently about positive self improvement as motivation and sustainable transportation modes.

    Large numbers of people driving to church every Sunday isn’t ecologically sustainable. Maybe my vision of a transit oriented coworking space is too ahead of its time in a suburban and exurban environment. It could be Coworking may not thrive in suburbs until those places become more urban.

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