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Welcome to iTown: Berkeley Designer Imagines What If Silicon Valley Housed All Its Employees

February 26, 2014
by Ben Christopher
Image of a futuristic town

Alfred Twu says he got inspired by a friend who, after taking a job at a major tech firm in the South Bay, decided to save on rent by living out of his van in the company parking lot.

“The company had showers and food, so all he needed was a place to sleep,” says Twu, a designer who works for Berkeley Student Cooperative. “He would wake up in the morning and notice all the other vans in the parking lot like his.”

This got Alfred wondering: what if his friend didn’t have to live out of his van? What if instead, he could live just as close to the office, but in a studio apartment 350 of his fellow coworkers in a high rise apartment called, let’s say, the “iSlab”?

Of all the solutions put forward to defang the Bay Area’s economic boom (from Manhattanize San Francisco to Reform the Ellis Act to Block the Google Bus), none are quite so pretty, or so wholly unrealistic, as Alfred Twu’s imagined Tech Campus Housing projects.

While Apple conceives of its new Cupertino corporate headquarters as a lone high-tech halo of a building surrounded by bucolic sprawl, Twu’s “iTown” packs in 13,000 apartments (nearly enough to accommodate all of the employees who will soon work there). Down the peninsula, Twu also foresees a massive buildup of The Google Plex, covering the tech giant’s current parking lots with 50-story tower blocks. Say goodbye to the Google Bus and hello to Mission Street in Mountain View.

This is not Twu’s first foray into fantasy planning. Last year, his cartographic vision of an American high speed rail system went about as viral as a transportation advocacy piece can go. He’s also developed an online Bay Area green planning simulator, called EcoCity, and a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style story of gentrification called “The Hanging Gardens of San Francisco.”

Twu is the first to admit that these aren’t meant to be taken seriously as planning proposals. Instead, they’re conversation starters. In the case of the Tech Campus, much of the discussion around tech and its role in the Bay Area’s housing woes fails to get at the “source of the issue, which is that there are all these companies in the South Bay, but nowhere for people to live down there.” Rather than bussing employees between where the jobs are in the Valley and where the desirable digs are in San Francisco, Twu’s proposal is to bring the latter to the former.

Even if you ignore all the relevant zoning ordinances and political realities, bringing fictional density to Silicon Valley was no easy chore, says Twu.

“You don’t want to take up any of the open space,” he says. “And obviously it’s really hard to do anything big in the residential neighborhoods. That just leaves the parking lots of commercial areas.” Tech companies insist on calling their office complexes “campuses,” after all. Why not add a few dorms?

Still, among some urban planning wonks, Twu’s proposals are considered old hat. On the Atlantic Cities blog, where Twu’s designs are posted, one commenter lambasted his “discredited anti-urban, tower-in-a-park Modernist site planning,” while another carped that “Le Corbusier just won’t stay dead.” In certain academic circles, Le Corbusier might as well be a four-letter word. One of the most iconic architects and urban planners of the first half of the twentieth century, his hyper-modern, large-scale planned communities are often seen as the philosophical and aesthetic heir to America’s high rise housing projects.

“Of course, the big­ger ques­tion is why the em­ploy­ees would want to live in a com­munity like that.”

Without evoking the dreaded L.C. word, Berkeley professor of urban design John Kriken questions whether Twu’s designs weren’t a bit overbearing.

“While I’m in favor of eliminating surface parking, I suggest we try to retain human scale in buildings,” he wrote in an email. “It is critical that we treat high density building with care to protect the livability of our cities.”

Twu says he understands the Le Corbusier comparison—but it’s not an apt one.

“I think (that style) has become really controversial in the United States because it was used for low income housing,” he says. “In Asia, that kind of housing is known as middle-class housing and so there’s an entirely different image.”

The image of high-density residential construction has also shifted in this country as concerns over the environmental impact of sprawl become increasingly mainstream. Many criticisms of low-density Silicon Valley may be aesthetic or cultural, but they often take on the rhetoric of green. Big green lawns, big two-story homes and big suburban drives are all undoubtedly environmentally incorrect.

According to the Chris Jones, Twu’s campuses could very well lower the Peninsula’s carbon foot print. He should know. As the lead researcher at the Cool Climate Network, a division of UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, Jones’s job is to measure, analyze, and help craft strategies to mitigate carbon footprints. As the CCN’s interactive maps show, city dwellers have much lower carbon footprints than their suburban counterparts. That’s largely because city homes are smaller, urbanites drive less, and the various services that a person might need are all close together.

“To create entire new cities with very high density with all your services co-located with your housing and your jobs, that could be a very good way to lower footprints,” he says.

That doesn’t mean that higher density automatically translates into greener. In fact, higher density suburbs tend to be bigger carbon hogs than less populated burbs, which are often less wealthy. Still, in the case of Twu’s campus cities, which would be packed with 800 square foot homes and nary a commuter (or Google Bus) in sight, that could be a net gain for the environment.

“Of course, the bigger question,” says Jones, “is why the employees would want to live in a community like that.”

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