A few months ago I paraphrased Tolstoy, saying that all sprawl is alike, but every good city is good in its own way. I now think that idea needs qualification: there are two types of sprawl – new and old. New sprawl is seen in places like Phoenix and Houston, where very little existed before WWII. There were small to medium core cities, and perhaps some very small outlying towns, but the postwar boom led to a pattern of undifferentiated sprawl that is the overall fabric of the place. Old sprawl occurs where there were real cities before WWII, and often reasonably-sized towns or cities in the region. Suburban development filled in the spaces between these centers, but the historic centers and districts still retain their character, and are still a considerable percentage of the region’s area. A standard distinction that is often made about the underlying organization of an area is whether there was settlement before survey (e.g., most pre-modern places), or survey before settlement (egg., most of the US). Perhaps another useful distinction, applicable to 20th century growth, is city before sprawl, or sprawl before city.
There may not be much of a functional difference between new and old sprawl now – both are heavily car-dependent and oriented, the overall densities may not be that different – but I think they can offer very different experiences for the residents.
I grew up in old sprawl, 10 miles from New York City, so that east coast pattern of city before sprawl always felt normal to me. Once again, JB Jackson was essential to understanding this landscape, as he had clearly delineated the various types of car-oriented development that occurred in the different periods of the 20th century. I remember then visiting the east side of the Seattle area in the early 80s and being shocked – it was the first place I’d seen where essentially every road and building was younger than me. There wasn’t a recognizable pattern in place from the era of pre-automobile development – the patterns of postwar sprawl were the underlying system.
The Bay Area and Silicon Valley combine both types of sprawl. Around the Bay, and down the peninsula, there is old sprawl – with both big, older, gridded cities (Oakland, Berkeley, etc.) and smaller suburban cities (Palo Alto, Menlo Park, etc.). The new sprawl spreads south from San Jose into the Santa Clara valley.
We were staying with Dan in Palo Alto, and as we were a little burned out from navigating the whole country for the prior eight months, and as Dan’s knowledge of the Bay Area is encyclopedic and his interests highly refined, we were only too happy to let him do all the destination-selection, navigation, and driving for us. So our impressions of the area are more of the passive-passenger variety, rather than the how-is-this-place-organized-wayfinding variety. Mainly, we focussed on good restaurant destinations, and saw the region on our way to them.
Palo Alto has a few major commercial centers, which are excellent. Predominantly low-rise, but not uniformly so, with many buildings remaining from the 1920s. The streets are incredibly active, especially at night, when the sidewalks are filled with young people and families heading to restaurants and street cafes. It is a very mature place, where the environment has been refined over decades.
Those cities which were not as densely built-up in the postwar era have been consciously developing their downtowns in the era of the tech booms. Mountain View very consciously built a civic center, with a city hall, performing arts center etc., designed by William Turnbull (formerly the T in MLTW). Some of it is a little strange in its flatness, the color is disconcerting, and it is an illustration of why having one large complex designed by one architect, rather than a series of differentiated buildings, is not a very good idea, but a couple of decades later it is clear that it has had a positive effect on the area, and private sector development has transformed the downtown.
Cities that were even less dense, such as Sunnyvale, now have rapidly developing centers. This area has a major shopping mall, but it is not the suburban type surrounded by acres of parking. With land values and rents as high as they are in the area, the mall is surrounded by parking garages and new mixed-use buildings, with yuppie condos for tech industry workers above hip ethnic restaurants.
San Jose itself has been redeveloping in the past decades, with a combination of commercial projects and institutions. The city hall complex (by Richard Meier) is about ten years old, a classic duck, with the separate realms of bureaucracy, elected officials, and gathering space represented in separate buildings. There is a huge civic plaza, which was oppressively unshaded and hot, even in May.
The detailing, especially of the domed meeting space, is spectacular, with Meier’s classic spatial and compositional moves overlaid with shading devices that look like Renzo Piano in a futurist-Steanmpunk phase.
The Shiny Object quality of the San Jose City Hall underlines one other way that the sprawl of Silicon Valley differs from most other sprawl in the country: it is very wealthy sprawl. Compared to places like Phoenix or Texas, the sprawl is largely “nice”, upper-middle class-sprawl. There is serious landscaping, and the obvious influence of design standards and planning commissions. This relates back to the earliest critiques of postwar suburban growth, which often focussed on just how tacky and ugly the new development was, and not on the fundamental issues of settlement pattern, car-orientation and environmental impact. The ugliness issue had been mitigated in places like the Peninsula with enough money to accomplish that, but it didn’t change the fundamental, structural issues; those are now being addressed through this newer, more urban development.
Despite this widespread evidence of new urban development, there is a paradox at the heart of the growth in Silicon Valley. The money comes from the high tech industry, with growing, high-income employment, and lots of capital floating around. This infusion of money drives up land prices, leading to the kind of high-density, urban redevelopment seen above, where cars are not completely dominant, and the sprawl-before-city pattern is now producing cities. This is the market (and zoning) response to these economic forces. But the big tech companies are so powerful and rich that they can just ignore these market forces. You don’t see them building in mixed-use neighborhoods, or trying to establish pedestrian-friendly environments – they still procure vast, expensive sites, and build campus-type buildings, surrounded by parking.
Smaller tech firms and start-ups now often locate in denser cities and mixed-use areas, echoing the historic pattern of central business districts where there is access to a wide range of workers, skills and services. Perhaps these large campuses are an assertion of pre-eminence by these corporations – they are so powerful that they don’t need access to these markets, everyone must come to them. Interestingly, Amazon is the one corporate giant bucking this trend, with their huge new complex opening in South Lake Union in Seattle, based partially on their employees’ preference for urban life, versus being stuck in the wilds of exurbia beyond Redmond.
While the experience of being in a car all the time moving around the Peninsula and Silicon Valley wasn’t comparable to being in a great city like San Francisco or Oakland, the good part was that when we got out of the car, we were in dense, urbane places. The southern part of the Bay Area is showing signs of being an evolving Edge City, a model arising in several parts of the country, with an overall pattern of car-based development, punctuated by a network of dense, walkable, and hopefully increasingly interconnected, urban centers. Old sprawl continues to mature, becoming an increasingly good place to live, and perhaps providing a model for new sprawl to follow.