We are witnessing the death of the office park.
Those were the bold words of noted New York architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, who spoke to 1,200 business and political leaders Tuesday at the Downtown Seattle Association’s annual breakfast meeting, laying out a broad vision for what futuristic cities will mean to the economy and American society.
Seattle is certainly on the front lines of this dramatic shift, driven in large part by Amazon.com, whose growth north of downtown is dramatically reshaping the city. More than 25,000 people now work at Amazon, part of the 265,000 workers who are employed by businesses in Seattle’s downtown neighborhoods. That’s up from 245,000 workers who were employed in downtown Seattle 12 months ago — amazing growth that’s created a construction boom in the city like no other, earning Seattle the nickname of crane capital of the U.S.
The new urban development emerging in Seattle — dense, walkable and mixed — is the future of cities. And we need to see more investment in these ideas as more people move to urban environments, explained Chakrabarti, author of A Country of Cities and an Associate Professor of Practice at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation.
“As the world does change and grow, we need to think about using a lot less land, living in more compact circumstances,” said Chakrabarti, adding that the U.S. has heavily subsidized roads and the oil and gas industry over the years as Americans spread out to the suburbs. This spread caused many Americans to live in isolated bubbles, including the “metal bubbles” of automobiles that “actually separates us in terms of how we think,” said Chakrabarti.
But that suburbanization and isolation trend is changing, something that is playing out in modern cities, even though the recent U.S presidential election runs counter to this concept. That’s one of the reasons why Chakrabarti posits that the sprawling office park of the 1970s and 1980s — concepts you saw at play in the Seattle region with big corporate campuses at Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser — is going the way of the Dodo bird.
“The notion that having a more compact, more dense way of living that is largely rail-based is the better way to go as a city like this grows,” said Chakrabarti, adding that buying more cars or building more roads in an effort to “retrofit a 20th century technology” is not the answer.
Even so, this sort of urban development is “not like eating your spinach,” with Chakrabarti noting many positive social benefits to this urbanization. Drinking and driving plummets, childhood obesity rates drop and divorce rates go down as commute times are reduced. He also cited Barcelona, Spain, which is focusing efforts on building a walkable city as part of a belief that walking creates more contemplation, which leads to more innovation.
Even so, the affordability issues in cities cause real problems, and Chakrabarti says this creates a total rethinking of what the American dream means today, shifting from the belief in owning a piece of land to the idea of chasing an opportunity.
To make this transformation a reality, Chakrabarti argues that “cities are the solution” since three percent of the United States’ land mass creates most of the country’s jobs and GDP. “That is not to knock agriculture … but we need to understand where the economy is in this new world,” he said.
For Chakrabarti, this is quite simply the modern city where innovation percolates, and new ideas are born. He calls for massive investment in infrastructure to support cities, and not just in traditional transportation nodes or safety issues, but also in things like parks and cultural activities and affordable housing.
“As people live in denser circumstances, more innovation happens, more patent creation happens, and it is because people are running into each other, and there is serendipity as a consequence,” he said.
As this density increases, Chakrabarti said that new urban villages will emerge, connected to one another and existing alongside the skyscrapers. Old-school central business districts just don’t work anymore, he said.
“Architecture plays a critical role,” he said. “Because if you look at the three challenges of our time — of climate change, of social inequity and technological processing power — all of that is playing out in the platform of the city.”