Published:  01:14 AM, 12 July 2017

One thing Silicon Valley can't fix


'Silicon Valley is the only place on Earth not trying to figure out how to become Silicon Valley," Robert Metcalfe, an inventor of the Ethernet, once wrote. Every year, hundreds of people, tourists and entrepreneurs alike, come to the Bay Area hoping to "see Silicon Valley". So much so that an article in the Mercury News last year suggested that the Valley is giving Alcatraz, the Golden Gate and the Bay Area's other tourist attractions a run for their money.

But what does Silicon Valley look like? Where could one send tourists - or even locals, for that matter - hoping to "see" it? The HBO show Silicon Valley solves this problem by depicting the Valley as an animated graphic of clustered corporate campuses. Still, what would a technophile in search of the holy grail seek out?

The mythic Hewlett-Packard garage in Palo Alto? The procession of venture capital offices lined up along Sand Hill Road? Or maybe, judging from what's most common on Instagram, the signs in front of campuses of companies like Facebook and Google. Those unremarkable but symbolic signs are perhaps the closest representation of the real thing in a region built so heavily on the virtual.

In actuality, the real thing doesn't look so good. I've spent the last year researching the future of the corporate campus - not with the goal of accommodating the desires of all those curious tourists, but through the lens of urbanism.

The project has explored how the Bay Area's workplaces might become more socially, economically and sustainably efficient, but also how applying new ways of thinking about the design, form and location of these buildings could help create a sense of place. It's become somewhat urgent - the world's leading innovation region is seeing many warning signs that its continued success is not a given. (Some companies are offering employees thousands of dollars to "delocate" from the region and move somewhere more affordable.)

Solving this isn't rocket science; it's common sense. Don't design buildings that function only as pristine objects with no relationship to their surroundings. Don't put workplaces in locations inaccessible to transit. Do consider the broader context.

The built environment of the Valley does not reflect the innovation that's driving the region's stratospheric growth; it looks instead like the 1950s. Looking at aerial views of midcentury campuses like the Eero Saarinen-designed Bell Labs next to contemporary ones like Apple, it's nearly impossible to tell the midcentury structures from the 21st-century ones.

Designing job centers this way contributes mightily to the region's ever-worsening traffic. If you found yourself stuck on Highway 101 between San Francisco and San Jose, you'd really see what Silicon Valley looks like for many. Building campuses on isolated suburban tracts guarantees long commutes, and this is one of the worst in the country.

In a region where the disruption of existing norms is everything, why does this decades-old paradigm of the office persist? In 2011, when asked by a City Council member what benefit the new Apple headquarters would have for Cupertino, Steve Jobs responded that it'd get to keep the company there. And that's about the extent of what it got. A project like the new Norman Foster-designed Apple Park shows a blatant disregard not only for the citizens of Cupertino, but also for the functionality of the region.

Every modern building is at some point described as looking like a spaceship. This building actually succeeds at it, but there's too much that makes it incredibly backward thinking (and not just its lack of child-care facilities). The circular structure has not only nearly three million square feet of office space, but also about three million square feet devoted to parking spaces. For a company investing no small amount of its significant capital on driverless cars, that's incongruous. There is much to emulate at Apple - but not that almost 1-to-1 ratio of office to parking.

Making the commute less car-dependent, for starters. But to do so would have necessitated a change in zoning requirements that forced Apple to provide about 11,000 spaces for 12,000 workers. Apple could have pushed harder to press for fewer spaces; Cupertino should re-examine policies that make driving the easiest option. It seems obvious to build a large corporate office near a transit stop, but very few Bay Area jobs (only 21 percent) are within a half-mile of a regional rail station. If you take San Francisco out of the equation, that percentage drops to 5 per cent.

This situation isn't getting better. Because of the Bay Area's chronic underinvestment in housing and transit, home prices escalate and congestion worsens. In 2015, for example, the amount of time San Franciscans spent commuting amounted to more than $5.3 million in lost productivity, a 55 per cent increase over 2011. The median home price in San Francisco is now a jaw-dropping $1,194,300; in Cupertino, it's $1,847,800.

NIMBYism exacerbates an already terrible situation. Zoning makes building near transit difficult if not illegal and makes a mix of uses (like housing, retail and work) nearly impossible. Most agree the region needs more housing; no one wants it in their town. Some cities, like Palo Alto, tired of the traffic and avocado toast, have proclaimed they are leery of adding jobs. All this is happening within a culture that claims to have a fix for everything. Not incidentally, a recent report found that fully 90 per cent of philanthropic dollars from local donors leave the region.

The research I've done with my 'Rethinking the Corporate Campus: The Next Bay Area Workplace' colleagues at the urban-planning think tank SPUR explores in depth the history and context of the region's surprisingly counterproductive landscape - and opportunities for reshaping it.

This includes encouraging local governments to allow growth in downtowns (as Seattle has done with Amazon) and in areas next to rail stations (the cloud content management company Box did it in Redwood City); identifying suburban locations that can be retrofitted with not just big office parks but also housing, stores and restaurants (Google has been trying to do this in Mountain View and is reportedly looking to install 300 units of modular housing there); and reducing the number of people driving alone in their cars to work and improving other transportation options. The goal should be reducing congestion and carbon emissions while increasing competitiveness and quality of life.

Why do we remain so wedded to the old suburban, car-dependent model for workplaces? If autonomous vehicles (or even flying ones) are truly imminent, why are we building millions of square feet of supposedly soon-to-be-obsolete parking spaces? With so many studies touting the benefits of walkable, bikeable and transit-accessible environments, why are we designing in such a way that makes long, painful commutes inevitable?

One can't point a finger solely at the companies themselves; the public sector, the community and the private sector all need to collectively tackle these problems. And these aren't Bay Area-specific issues (though they may be felt most acutely here). As cities everywhere - Reno, Nevada or Oklahoma City - clamor to be "the next Silicon Valley", they would do well, frankly, to take some lessons from this region to learn what not to do.


The author is a writer on  architecture and design  and opinion pieces


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