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We've built millions of suburban office parks. Now what?
Quote of the Moment
Never forget, if you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan cities for people and places, you get people and places. Plan for the city you want.
| Fred Kent
Kent’s admonition is very apt for today’s big story, The Rise and Fall of the American Suburban Office Park.
By the end of the twentieth century, America's suburbs contained more office space than its central cities. | Louise Mozingo
Andrew Curry, another substacker whose writing I admire, profiles a new series by Hilary Cottam called The Work Project, one that I touched on recently. Curry pulls out different takeaways than I did, so it’s a good complement, and Cottam is fascinating.
In World-building in hybrid organisations Lee Bryant cites an idea from Alex Dalco:
We talk a lot about the responsibility of leaders to create and curate an environment in which their teams can thrive, but what does this mean in practice? One metaphor from the huge gaming and movie industries is the idea of world-building, as outlined in this post by Alex Danco. In some ways I find this a more practical and richer frame of reference than tackling just purpose, ‘values’, culture, etc. as individual components, which could help us think through how we create hybrid work models that combine the best of online working with our innate need to work together in co-located groups.
As Alex writes,
"System problems cannot be fixed in one step, nor can they be fixed in a sequence of linear steps. Why not? Because when systems find a steady state – which is probably where you’re encountering them, if you’re setting out to change something – they’re ‘steady’ not because they’re static, but because they’re dynamically held in place by feedback loops. If you try to change one variable, you can apply as much effort as you like, but the minute you let go, the system will just snap right back to its original configuration.”
Kylie Foy looks into the interactions of AI and humans playing games together:
In a new study, MIT Lincoln Laboratory researchers sought to find out how well humans could play the cooperative card game Hanabi with an advanced AI model trained to excel at playing with teammates it had never met before. In single-blind experiments, participants played two series of the game: One with the AI agent as their teammate, and the other with a rule-based agent, a bot manually programmed to play in a predefined way.
The results surprised the researchers. Not only were the scores no better with the AI teammate than with the rule-based agent, but humans consistently hated playing with their AI teammate. They found it to be unpredictable, unreliable, and untrustworthy, and felt negatively even when the team scored well.
It seems that AI can make moves that humans don’t understand, and humans don’t react well to that:
The Lincoln Laboratory researchers found that strange or seemingly illogical moves were the worst offenders in breaking humans' trust in their AI teammate in these closely coupled teams. Such moves not only diminished players' perception of how well they and their AI teammate worked together, but also how much they wanted to work with the AI at all, especially when any potential payoff wasn't immediately obvious.
Even when the moves might be later seen to be smart, people get mad. This is a real problem area since we will have to learn how to dance with the robots.
The Rise and Fall of the Suburban Office Park
In Lonely Last Days in the Suburban Office Park, Emily Badger probes the economics, aesthetics, and urban ecology of suburban office parks, which are increasingly being deserted.
Without us really thinking much about it, over 50 or so years of American capitalism created a gargantuan, sprawling, disconnected landscape of suburban greenery, parking lots, and uncountable numbers of office buildings, and even more quickly we turned off the lights and the lawn sprinklers and walked away.
The people left. The chairs stayed.
In their prime, suburban office parks offered a modern alternative to cramped office towers, and easy car access when mass transit was faltering. They promised, in the place of seemingly noisy, congested, unpredictable downtowns, a quiet space to sit in a cubicle and concentrate.
Prepandemic, these parks were being rejected in favor of more urban settings.
As one aspect of the diaspora of knowledge work from the cities to the ‘burbs, and the hollowing out of urban centers from white flight and other factors, suburban office parks represent the high-water mark of what Louise Mozingo called Pastoral Capitalism1, and she also pointed out the astounding fact that ‘by the end of the twentieth century, America's suburbs contained more office space than its central cities’.
In the past thirty years, the pendulum swung back, as companies and their workers were eager for a more urban experience, and suburban office parks and their acoustic tile ceilings, beige carpets, and enormous parking lots seemed very, very 1980s.
The transition to distributed work — where a growing slice of knowledge workers are working from home — may spell the end of this late 20th-century trend.
Allstate recently bought an office building in downtown Chicago, although for what it hasn’t announced yet. The company no longer needs the suburban headquarters it has had for 55 years, it said in a statement, because 75 percent of its employees now work remotely, and 24 percent split their time between remote and in-person work. At a company where most workers went into the office daily for decades, today 1 percent do.
It is unlikely that we will be returning to suburban office parks as a place to work, in the future. There’s no there, there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland. There’s nowhere to get a real lunch, join a happy hour, or mail a package.
And existing office parks are aging.
[Commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle] estimates that 57 percent of suburban office space nationwide is so old as to be functionally obsolete. In the New Jersey suburbs of New York, that figure is 72 percent, among the highest in the nation.
Lots of curved surface parking and square buildings.
What will America do with so many abandoned office parks?
“It was absolutely shocking to many people that you would take an office building and knock it down, like we used to knock down factories,” said James W. Hughes, a professor at Rutgers. “Now it’s routine.”
But in many places, that idea is still settling in. It will mean taking land long zoned for offices, and allowing townhomes to be built among them, or permitting apartments or industrial-scale warehouses for the first time. Amid a nationwide housing crisis, many obsolete office parks could be ideal sites for denser housing.
The housing crisis in the U.S. is enormous: the country is short seven million single housing units according to many experts. According to one analysis, ‘Fully two-thirds of all office space added in the last 20 years in the U.S. was in the suburbs — totaling more than 1.2 billion square feet across nearly 18,000 properties’.
Note that this is just the increase over the past 20 years, not the entire range of all existing office parks, and this doesn’t include the tens of billions of square feet of parking. At an average of 888 square feet for an apartment, remaking the former office parks could in principle translate into tens of millions of single-family apartments.
I am reminded of a line from my friend, the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling:
The frontiers of the future are the ruins of the unsustainable.
Also, the history of habitation teaches us one thing:
“In general in the built environment,” Ms. Mozingo said, “no type of thing completely disappears, ever.”
That’s been true of factories, tenements, mills, canals. In some form, it’ll be true of the 20th-century suburban office park, too.
Louise A. Mozingo, Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes (2014)
From the publisher:
How business appropriated the pastoral landscape, as seen in the corporate campus, the corporate estate, and the office park.
By the end of the twentieth century, America's suburbs contained more office space than its central cities. Many of these corporate workplaces were surrounded, somewhat incongruously, by verdant vistas of broad lawns and leafy trees. In Pastoral Capitalism, Louise Mozingo describes the evolution of these central (but often ignored) features of postwar urbanism in the context of the modern capitalist enterprise.
These new suburban corporate landscapes emerged from a historical moment when corporations reconceived their management structures, the city decentralized and dispersed into low-density, auto-dependent peripheries, and the pastoral—in the form of leafy residential suburbs—triumphed as an American ideal. Greenness, writes Mozingo, was associated with goodness, and pastoral capitalism appropriated the suburb's aesthetics and moral code. Like the lawn-proud suburban homeowner, corporations understood a pastoral landscape's capacity to communicate identity, status, and right-mindedness.
Mozingo distinguishes among three forms of corporate landscapes—the corporate campus, the corporate estate, and the office park—and examines suburban corporate landscapes built and inhabited by such companies as Bell Labs, General Motors, Deere & Company, and Microsoft. She also considers the globalization of pastoral capitalism in Europe and the developing world including Singapore, India, and China. Mozingo argues that, even as it is proliferating, pastoral capitalism needs redesign, as do many of our metropolitan forms, for pressing social, cultural, political, and environmental reasons. Future transformations are impossible, however, unless we understand the past. Pastoral Capitalism offers an indispensible chapter in urban history, examining not only the design of corporate landscapes but also the economic, social, and cultural models that determined their form.