Why do companies want to be downtown so badly?

A study by Smart Growth America and Cushman & Wakefield identified 500 companies that moved to urban centers in the past five years.

Hundreds of companies like local biotechnology firm Biogen have moved downtown in the past five years to strengthen their corporate culture and attract talent. Has it worked?
Hundreds of companies like local biotechnology firm Biogen have moved downtown in the past five years to strengthen their corporate culture and attract talent. Has it worked? –The Boston Globe

In the past five years, there’s been a shift in where American employees want to work. Work in the suburbs was once appealing for its ample space and drivable access, but has been replaced with a longing for a walkable downtown work center. And businesses are responding.

According to a recent study by Smart Growth America and global real estate advisors Cushman & Wakefield, over 500 companies moved downtown between 2010 and 2015. The research partners interviewed representatives from 40 of those companies to figure out why, and found that companies thought moving would attract talented workers, build company culture, and support creative collaborations with other local businesses and the neighborhoods themselves.


Has it worked?

Local biotechnology firm Biogen was one of the companies that relocated from the suburbs, moving company headquarters to Cambridge’s Kendall Square in 2014 after spending four years in Weston.

Chris Barr, Biogen’s associate director of community relations, told Boston.com that relocating was originally a strategic decision to bring the firm’s management team back into contact with the research and manufacturing work, which was already conducted in Kendall Square. But other benefits soon followed.

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Boston.com’s top large places to work from 2014:

So far, the move back to Cambridge’s tech hub has been a success, Barr said, with the walkability and proximity to other science and tech firms paving the way for innovation. Microsoft and Google have nearby offices, for example, with Google engineering and sales workers posted up in a shiny Kendall Square building.

Biogen has partnered with neighboring Harvard Medical School and MIT’s Whitehead Institute for research into novel therapies across a vast range of disease areas, including genetics, neurology, and immunology.

“I love it,’’ Barr said. “If I have lunch at one of the new restaurants like Area Four or Catalyst, you’re going to run into five or six people from Biogen or other companies and you’re going to share ideas and learn about what’s going on.’’


Barr said the downtown location’s proximity to public transit is also attractive to young workers who like finding alternate means of transportation. He estimated roughly 40 percent of Biogen workers don’t drive. Some simply don’t have cars, while others like being able to walk or bike if they live close enough, Barr added.

The Smart Growth America study also found that, after relocating, many of the companies’ average “walk scores’’ leapt from 51 to 88. Walking rather than driving to work has been shown to improve employees’ health and mitigate stress.

What else has been shown to alleviate stress? Helping others.

Biogen hasn’t just forged corporate partnerships, but neighborhood ones as well. The Community Lab is the company’s dedicated laboratory classroom, open to local middle- and high-school students free of charge. It’s seen over 20,000 students since it opened in 2002, and its goal is to show students the different careers available to them in science and biotechnology.

“Some are now even employees here,’’ Barr said. Attracting diverse talent has proven tough in STEM fields, but the community lab is a good way to tap into students’ aspirations while they’re still figuring out their future.

Biogen doesn’t have any plans for expansion in the near future. Barr said they’re pretty happy with their current spot.

Biogen at 225 Binney Street in Cambridge. —The Boston Globe

“[Biogen’s] a vibrant, energetic place,’’ he said, mentioning that workers no longer leave work to go home, but leave work to grab dinner and drinks nearby. “Some of that comes from the city atmosphere. You feed off that energy.’’


The 500 businesses included in the Smart Growth America study represent over 170 different industries, including manufacturing, education, finance, food production, and software development, and their sizes range from just a few employees to thousands of workers.

If their downtown experiences are anything like Biogen’s, it’s not hard to see why they moved.

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