What is the architecture of work/life balance… in Silicon Valley?

I am leaving aside the political and societal arguments of high tech companies in the Silicon Valley — like Apple, Google, Facebook, etc — busing (or ferrying) their very well-paid employees to and from San Francisco to Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Redwood City and other Silicon Valley towns.

From a business proposition level, there are huge inefficiencies involved: while the employees might be productive — to some extent — while sitting in buses or trains commuting many miles to and from San Francisco, there has to be a real time loss involved.

The largely-young employees living in San Francisco want to live in a hip and dense urban setting, not in a bedroom community near San Jose. But what if these tech giants actually invested some of their billions to building denser, more urban communities close to their headquarters?

The folks at First Cultural Industries have taken a first pass at this, with these renderings of company housing right on the properties of Google, Apple, and Facebook. They lack the detailed treatment of related amenities — like restaurants, museums, schools, public transit — but consider these a starting point for imagining a densification of Silicon Valley: bringing the urban to Edge City. (Click images to expand.)

facebook city

itown

googleplex

To generalize this a bit, the rise of urbanization has been leading many large companies to open smaller offices in dense city centers, while at the same time keeping older, larger headquarters in areas of lower land values. This leads to commuting for some, because hipsters don’t want to live in a ’60s split level ranch in San Mateo where they have to drive to do anything other than watch TV.

Is it possible for a reverse urbanization to happen? Would Google be willing to undewrite not only the construction of these towers on its Googleplex, but the wholesale creation of a dense, urban cityscape within and around it? And if they did so, would employees want to live there? Could Google offer them the space at a big discount to do so?

I can speak a bit from own experience in Reston Virgina, where I lived for almost 20 years. Reston is one of the first planned communities, like Levittown NY, started in the mid ’60s. It had a dreadful sort of sameness when I first moved there, but by the time I left in 2011, a small urban core had been created at Reston Town Center, surrounded by the regional headquarters of Oracle, PWC, Accenture, and many others. While still relatively small, and lacking some obvious amenities, progress was being made. And the new Silver line of the regional Metro is now open in Reston, allowing commuting into DC, and soon to connect to Dulles Airport.

The shape of our cities and surrounding has a large impact on the work/life balance, and my belief is that businesses have a strong incentive to decrease commuting of their workers. So the tech giants have to decide: will they buy extremely costly land in dense urban centers and accelerate gentrification and the social costs associated with that, or will the invest in creating new dense city-ettes around and on their suburban campuses? And could these giants link together the various city-ettes with a light rail, creating a network of connected urban oases?

This is a large social question, and one not easily solved. One thing is sure though: these companies have the money to invest in either course of events.

The First Cultural folks also consider the idea of combined coworking spaces with apartments, so in principle, those renting or owning the apartments would have access to a coworking space in the same building, which seems like another great way to architect work/life balance.

Cafe-or-Startup-with-housing

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Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Lead analyst, future of work Gigaom Research and stoweboyd.com

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