The Original Googleplex: The Economic Benefits of Downtowns

For centuries, downtowns in communities large and small have developed because face-to-face interaction is essential for economic and social development. When I heard about proposed Apple and Google campuses in California’s Silicon Valley, I was struck by how the supposedly innovative designs of these campuses and their focus on encouraging face-to-face interaction borrows heavily from the essential elements of downtowns.

Apple’s proposed Campus 2 in Cupertino consists of a 2.8 million square-foot doughnut-shaped glass building, nicknamed by the former Cupertino mayor as the “mothership”, that can house over 14,000 employees along with a separate fitness center, auditorium, and visitor center. The main building includes a transit center, an employee restaurant and dining area with outdoor terraces that can seat nearly 4,500 people, and a mile-wide central area with apple orchards and trails.

Proposed Apple Campus 2 in Cupertino, California

Proposed Apple Campus 2 in Cupertino, California

Google’s proposed Mountain View headquarters resembles a traditional research park with multiple buildings and open space, but as with its current “Googleplex” headquarters, there is a strong focus on places to meet and have fun. The campus will feature a gourmet cafeteria, a yoga studio, a zip line, courtyards suitable for outdoor meetings, and a rooftop vineyard. Pedestrians and bicyclists can travel to other buildings using elevated pathways.

The Apple and Google campuses are the latest variation on the Silicon Valley research park, a legacy that began in the 1950s when Stanford University used the college campus as a model for a new office development project. The Stanford Research Park’s low-density, park-like setting was replicated over the Silicon Valley, across the United States, and around the world. Silicon Valley is now one of the most successful economic regions in the world, but much of its built landscape does little to foster interaction. Research parks often lack pedestrian connections to surrounding uses and meeting places found on college campuses and in downtowns.

The new Apple and Google campuses bear more resemblance to a downtown than past research parks because they focus on (1) gathering and (2) connecting people with similar interests. Apple and Google want employees to meet and socialize face-to-face because they recognize the importance of these places in fostering collaboration and, ultimately, innovation (though Morris Newman argues that Apple’s circular mothership may not be as collaborative as Steve Jobs intended). Despite the hype about laptops, tablets, and smart phones enabling people to work anywhere, urban economist Edward Glaeser argues that face-to-face contact is becoming more critical in industries such as high tech because professionals must work through increasingly complex problems.

Nevertheless, the Apple and Google campuses are different from downtowns in several ways. They lack a mix of uses; Google scrapped plans to include housing in the final design. The buildings are dense but the overall campus is not compact. They have limited pedestrian connectivity to surrounding uses. These differences allow Apple and Google to maintain closed environments, where employees only interact with other employees. Apple and Google are large, mature companies that are able to develop a strong internal innovation climate.

Many tech companies have opted instead for existing urban locations. In upcoming entries, I will be writing about the development of urban tech districts in Silicon Valley and Downtown Las Vegas.

The development of modified research parks and urban tech districts signals a different paradigm in working environments for the tech industry and possibly for other industries. The central business district model that was shunned more than a half-century ago has now been embraced again and reinterpreted. Despite their isolation from surrounding uses, the Apple and Google campuses show that pedestrian-friendly, higher-density places are as relevant as ever for economic development.

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