Dateline New York: what makes a city a great place to work?

The tenth anniversary edition of the WORKTECH New York conference featured an expert panel discussing how the city has changed in the past ten years –revealing four pillars of the urban experience that shape work and life

Around 2000, few might have predicted that New York’s finance-dominated economy would evolve to be hospitable to the likes of Google and Amazon—yet it has. While much of the conversation around attracting employers tends to revolve around state and city tax incentives, that’s not the whole picture. Plenty of cities offer incentives, so what makes the Big Apple unique?

This was the topic of a panel, ‘Then and Now: A Decade of NYC’, convened by PLASTARC at the tenth anniversary WORKTECH New York conference, held on 9 May 2019. Experts discussed the simultaneous shifts that have powered New York City’s evolution—demographic change, technology, a focus on wellness, and improvements to urban experience. Though the session focused on changes specific to New York, these trends apply to varying degrees just about everywhere.

Led by tech

Any discussion of the evolution of a cityscape is set against the backdrop of rapid evolution of technology in the last ten years. Less than 20 per cent of Americans used a smartphone at the time of the first WORKTECH New York back in 2009, while over 80 per cent use one today (though, it should be noted, not all citizens have equal access). Mobile connectivity is now the assumed norm, which has a large impact on the way we work and live. For example, smartphone adoption has driven the growth of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. This has disrupted the traditional cab and car service businesses but is also increasing transportation access in previously underserved areas.

It’s likely that more changes are afoot. Charlie Miller, Senior Director of Connected Communities at Intersection (recently acquired by Google parent Alphabet), believes connectivity has the potential to further revolutionise city life.

Wellness, quantified

According to panelist Suzanne Nienaber, Partnerships Director at the Center for Active Design (CfAD),  NYC has been a leader in the field of healthy design. About a decade ago, under then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York introduced the Active Design Guidelines—the first publication of its kind that cited public health literature to show how urban design and building design can promote more physical activity.

More recently, this same ethos has led to the development of building certifications like Fitwel, which is operated by the Center for Active Design and advances a vision to optimise buildings and communities to promote health and wellness. This has become a healthy design movement, with cities worldwide taking note of NYC’s investments in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, parks and play spaces, and healthier buildings.

A major shift in the last 10 years has been a redefinition of public health priorities and metrics. Previously, the primary focus was on supporting physical activity to address rising rates of obesity and chronic disease. While that is still part of the wellness efforts of designers and planners, the health literature and the city’s priorities are much broader in scope.

Nienaber explains, ‘Today, we know a lot more from a research standpoint about how the design of our communities affects mental health, social connections, trust, and equity. The very definition of active design has become that much more holistic. Many of the same strategies still apply, but now we have a lot more information about how they’re benefitting all aspects of our individual, community, and even economic wellbeing.’

Home is where the train is

Talent pools are not static; they are impacted by changes in the employment landscape, demographics, education pipelines, and more. By collecting current and historical data, it’s possible to map these trends and forecast future developments, providing a useful guide for real estate decisions. This kind of advisory is one of the services provided by Savills KLG, whose Senior Managing Director Kevin Kelly appeared on the WORKTECH panel. Kelly underscored the significance of the sector shift from finance to technology which the city of New York has experienced.

‘While the San Francisco metro outperforms NYC in technological patent production and international in-migration, the most important advantage for New York may come as a surprise: cost. Manhattan is among the most expensive locations in the world, but housing costs decline significantly when moving further out into suburban regions. This the norm in most cities.’

Kelly continued, ‘In the 40 largest US metros, the most expensive housing is within 15 minutes of the population centroid, with cost falling off 45-60 minutes out. The exceptions are the San Francisco and San Jose areas, where cost is consistent across all time bands and the average home is over USD 1million. New York is unique because of its infrastructure—the wide network of subways, trains, buses, and ferries. Commutes can exceed an hour, but people are able to optimise their travel because they are not driving.”

These combined demographic and commute patterns are pushing the ‘young and educated’ population (those under 35 with a Bachelor’s degree) both to the west and south, toward Jersey City and Brooklyn. The best locations for attracting these workers moved from central Midtown in 2000 to lower Midtown in 2015. By 2021, they will have moved all the way to downtown Manhattan.

Pilot, then replicate

The design of public spaces impacts public life in multiple ways. Research has shown that access to nature has a positive impact on wellbeing, as well as on job performance and satisfaction. More attractive spaces can make an area more desirable to potential newcomers. For these reasons and more, there is a movement to make urban thoroughfares friendlier to pedestrians and bicycles.

The recent conversion of Times Square to a pedestrian plaza was a watershed moment. Ed Janoff, Senior Director of Project Development at The Street Plans Collaborative, explained that it was pushed forward by ‘tactical urbanism’—prototyping proposed changes in quick and low-cost ways to build support within the community.

As we wrote about in a recent article for Work Design Magazine, many cities are looking for opportunities to remake public space on a smaller scale. New York’s Street Seats program supports business owners who want to make improvements to their street frontage for public use. The availability of seating and greenery can make a positive contribution to the social fabric of a neighbourhood.

These projects and the many others unfolding throughout the city capitalise on an asset that may be easy to overlook: community engagement. The people and businesses in the city are highly involved in advocating for the kinds of public-private partnership that enables smart street design. Change-minded designers have a built-in interest group that wants to see their environment become more responsive and user-friendly.

Workplace evolution

The result of all these trends is that the workplace experience has evolved significantly in the city. The arrival of more technology companies has changed the kinds of work environments that people need and expect. This has evolved the office culture of the city while also fuelling hyperbolic growth of the coworking industry. From the employer’s perspective, a sort of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ now takes place in NYC: each firm must continuously improve its workplace experience to avoid losing talent. They’re less likely to lose a rising star to the competitor across the country than the one across the street.

This tech insurgence has also meant a shift in the population of NYC from a ‘corporate citizen’ perspective as well. The canyons of Wall Street are now filled with a mix of tourists and tech-creative firms, many who first began arriving post 9/11 due to the incentives that were put in place to redevelop lower Manhattan. Now, most West Coast brands with tech focus have established themselves somewhere in New York.

The complex web of relationships between landscape of cities, the people who live in them, and companies that call them home makes every urban environment unique and ever-changing.  Whether they’re advocating for a better workplace experience, pushing for better access to public space, or improving the underlying technology, it’s important to remember that designers and stakeholders are all operating in the same ecosystem, contributing to the long-term vitality of the environment.

Cities compete for companies; companies compete for talent. That talent then changes cities.

Melissa Marsh is Founder and Executive Director of PLASTARC Inc and head of Occupant Experience at Savills
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