September 27, 2010

Why Suburban Retrofits Matter, Part II

Earlier I posted a quick list of reasons why suburban retrofits are more than just a matter of taste, and today I turn my attention to the outward migration of jobs and office space, from city to suburbs.

A local example of this shift made headlines earlier this week: Clorox, the Oakland-headquartered cleaning product empire, is moving as many as 700 jobs to a new campus in suburban Pleasanton. Clorox plans to enlarge the campus, formerly occupied by Washington Mutual, by 65,000 square feet, and sell its existing Pleasanton campus. It will also be looking for new tenants to occupy the bottom 12 floors of its Oakland skyscraper, though the company has stated intentions to remain headquartered there. After the shift, both locations are expected to house around 900 employees.

Clorox's suburban migration is not an isolated case. In a 2000 report by the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institute, author Kenneth Lang found significant growth disparities. A picture is worth a thousand words:

Lang goes on to distinguish between suburbs categorized as Edge Cities and those that are more appropriately termed Edgeless Cities.

Edge Cities--like Walnut Creek, CA, or Tysons Corner, VA--are well defined places, always with favorable highway access, usually in proximity to transit to urban cores, that have a successful mix of suburban single family homes ringing a well-to-do business district. In short, they are centralized places at the edge of metropolitan areas. They have boundaries.

Edgeless cities, as the name implies, are more entropic. They are rather like San Ramon: made up of free-standing buildings, office parks, or small clusters of buildings of varying densities. They usually lack a center, and are not considered destinations, though they may meet utilitarian errand-running needs.

With this distinction in mind, here are more data:

As Lang writes, "People increasingly commute from dispersed locations to dispersed locations." I do not doubt this, but it would be interesting to learn more about what metrics tip a city from Edge to Edgeless. In Lang's report, Edgeless Cities are "highly dispersed clusters featuring less than 5 million square feet of space." So cluster of office space greater than 5 million square feet is an Edge City--this seems like an oversimplification.

The implications of these shifting trends are hard to enumerate in a satisfying way. What's clear is that while central cities are still growing, most growth is spreading outward. But instead of far-flung housing developments that retain established centers as their point of reference, the new office developments fold the system outward in unexpected ways.

My takeaway is that suburbs are increasingly trapped between the use their design would predict--bedroom communities for an urban core--and what they are increasingly used for--a source of employment and whatever kind of civic life can be found. The outward spread of office space, especially in such a dispersed manner, makes transportation planning more difficult and traffic patterns more multi-nodal. With increased auto dependency comes greater segregation of uses, fewer public gathering places, and fewer occasions for pride in or ownership of one's built environment. If there's nothing there worth identifying with ... then what?

I think the rootlessness of these places is what gets to me the most, but what's a planner to do? Dispersed office growth just makes planning well-used and well-liked areas that much more challenging. The former destroys density, the latter needs it. My worry is that it seems condescending for a planner to say, "sure your development is functional, but here's are some changes you should make to improve your quality of life." It seems more reliable to stick to "improve your tax base/traffic patterns/air quality."

Which is my way of saying that I wish Lang's report had quantitative data about the effect of suburban office growth on tax bases/traffic patterns/air quality, rather than leaving me to surmise about the qualitative unsavoriness of living in one of the ascendant Edgeless Cities.

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