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.

Chapel Hill vs Carrboro

Chapel Hill and Carrboro are related but they have significant differences. I love them both like family. I feel like their little brother constantly annoyed with one or the other but will remain steadfastly in love with them both till the day I die.

Many of my fellow Chapel Hillians do not understand these differences. They see Franklin Street and Main Street in Carrboro as one long business thoroughfare. It’s not. I don’t mean to pick on Chapel Hill residents, both students and townies, but if you don’t spend a lot of time in Carrboro you wouldn’t know. The Towns have very unique histories that contain deep seated differences forged in race, class, and ideology. All fueled by the money and intellectual power of the University of North Carolina.

Yesterday I had a great conversation with several Chapel Hillians. They where a retired Town of Chapel Hill employee, a downtown business leader, a few University employees, and others who I do not know well. Our gathering was random.

At one point someone said, and I paraphrase, “Why does Chapel Hill and Carrboro have separate fire and police departments?” A smart gentleman that knows what he’s talking about said, “When we’ve discussed it the final conclusion has always been, ‘Hell no!’.” I took that as a definitive answer from a real source in the know. It also happens to be how I feel about the situation.

For the past four years I’ve been running a small business in Carrboro. It would NEVER have launched without the Town of Carrboro. A Alderman, a Economic Development Director, and the Mayor and other Alderman made it possible. Though the Town of Carrboro Revolving Loan Fund I was able to give this business a real go. This is a resource the Town of Carrboro has had since 1986. The Town of Chapel Hill just got a Economic Development Director a few years ago and gave out it’s first business loan recently.

The best way for me to sum this up is Chapel Hill follows Carrboro’s lead. Carrboro sets trends in numerous areas. The arts, environmental protection, economic development, transportation with many bike lanes, and more.

As far as I can tell the major start of Carrboro’s leadership is in the 1980’s when a few liberal folks where elected to the Carrboro Board of Alderman. Previously the board was dominated by local white men who held much more traditional values. Before the Carr Mill closed for the last time Carrboro was primarily a working class white Town. In the 1970’s it’s affordable housing attracted ex-students and others to migrate their from Chapel Hill and beyond. Soon a very new type of community formed in Carrboro and made it a very different place.

I need to do more research on this. To my knowledge there are no documents that explain just how Carrboro came to be the visionary leader it is. I only surmised this by knowing Carrboro didn’t always have the liberal reputation it has now. With that rep came a big dream for the future. One that has come true in many ways.

Note: For those who have lived here longer than I and know more historical facts I welcome your tweaks and corrections to my assertions about our local history.

Christiania of the Carolinas

For a few decades now people have been calling Carrboro, NC the “Paris of the Piedmont“. I won’t go into its origins here. Some folks are pretty fed up with the phrase. We never like being pigeonholed it seems.

Here I offer a new phrase to replace the old. One a bit more obscure.

The Christiania of the Carolinas

Learn more about our new namesake here and here.

Christiania, also known as Freetown Christiania (Danish: Fristaden Christiania) is a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood of about 850 residents, covering 34 hectares (85 acres) in the borough of Christianshavn in the Danish capital Copenhagen. From an official point of view, Christiania is regarded as a large commune, but its relation to the authorities has a unique status in being regulated by a special law, the Christiania Law of 1989 which transfers parts of the supervision of the area from the municipality of Copenhagen to the state.

High-speed Internet must be a part of Carrboro's infrastructure

People who live, work and visit Carrboro love the free wireless Internet. But the Town of Carrboro’s wireless is a victim of its own success. I’ve heard from a lot of people who have problems with it and wish it worked in their homes. Fact is, the area the wireless signal covers is too small, the connection is unreliable and the bandwidth is too little. Now is the time for the Town of Carrboro to take the next step. I propose the town support the construction of fiber optic Internet connections to buildings within the downtown business district.

The idea of building a fiber optic network in Carrboro isn’t farfetched. Matter of fact, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NC DOT) and the Town of Chapel Hill are already working on it. The Town of Carrboro and the Town of Chapel Hill share an old copper-wire traffic-signal system. Last year, the Town of Chapel Hill budgeted $50,000 toward a joint investment with NC DOT to replace this old signal system with fiber optics. One strand is planned for traffic signals and another is for the town’s use. Little has been publicly discussed about this project, which is slated for completion in 2012.

The small size of Carrboro’s downtown makes the cost of extending the network practical – primarily because the distances from traffic signals to local businesses are short. Right now, the Town of Carrboro rents the signal system from the Town of Chapel Hill. If Carrboro isn’t a full partner in this resource, they may not have the power to build our future access. Supposedly, the NC DOT is trying to squeeze the Town of Chapel Hill for more money to build a fiber loop. Now is a good time for Carrboro to put in.

There’s already a large customer base for high-speed Internet service in Carrboro. We have five planned new construction projects, including a mixed-use hotel, office and retail space. Public safety organizations like rescue, fire and police also could use the bandwidth, not to mention other creative and talented people. Fiber optic Internet can provide reliable upload and download speeds in excess of 100 Mbps. We can do a lot with that!

Diversifying our community’s tax base to relieve stress on property tax has been a goal for years. One way to do that is by enticing new businesses to move here and convincing existing ones to stay. A major bit of bait can be fiber-speed bandwidth for data and voice. Now is the time to invest in building the last mile of high-speed infrastructure in Carrboro. Not later, after the recession has killed development projects. Not after the Town of Chapel Hill gets around to doing something, but now on the cusp of major national infrastructure projects promised by our new president-elect.

Brian Russell is founder of Orange Networking, orangenetworking.org

(The above is an article I wrote for the Carrboro Citizen.)

The Journey to Build a Coworking Space

More specifically its a journey to build a sustainable coworking space. By sustainable I mean it should financially support itself and its operator (me) plus employees. I’m doing the best I can to document this unique journey. Mostly on the biz blog at carrborocoworking.com.

So far I’ve recorded five videos. Hope to do more. You can watch them here carrborocoworking.com/category/topic/video

This one is the latest.
[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/ga4O0+g1AA%5D