In this age of concern over car dependency, the issue of suburban sprawl seems to be raised as regularly as the daily commute. While most accounts focus on residential growth, one aspect that’s been overlooked is corporate suburban development. Even though business parks gird the length of nearly every American beltway, there’s no question that, as Louise Mozingo writes in her fascinating new volume, Pastoral Capitalism, these “workplaces have been passed over for robust consideration.” It’s a curious omission; one that Mozingo rights.
Mozingo locates the beginning of corporate sprawl in post-war urban expansion. Between 1942 and 1952, corporate staffs doubled in size, and most workforces grew in sectors no longer tethered to production facilities. Safety concerns encouraged corporations to relocate laboratories away from factories, while the desire to attract an educated, middle-class workforce prompted them to search for locations far from traditional industrial sites. For the first time, companies went after, on a large scale, a demographic that had previously been confined to government or academic work.
The AT&T Bell Laboratories were an early pioneer in corporate flight to the countryside. Looking to leave their cramped Manhattan headquarters, Bell relocated to a 213-acre plot in Union County, NJ in 1942, which they cobbled together from nine different landowners. The company encountered resistance from local residents, but Bell was one step ahead of the opposition, having already contracted the Olmstead Brothers Firm to design their picturesque new headquarters. Bell also made a point to emphasize their well-educated workforce. In a meeting with local officials, company president Frank Jewett compared the project to a “miniature college or university.” Academic associations didn’t stop there, either: The site plan included a quadrangle surrounded by architecturally uniform buildings. By 1952, Fortune had crowned the complex “The World’s Greatest Industrial Laboratory” and the intervening years had seen, among other accomplishments, Bell’s invention of the transistor and bit. The corporate campus model was successfully launched.
That decade, General Electric moved its electronics laboratory from a sprawling industrial complex in Schenectady, NY, to a campus along the New York Thruway. General Motors commissioned Eliel Saarinen to design a new technical complex twelve miles from downtown Detroit, a project taken up after his death by his son, Eero. The Saarinens’ “spectacularly modernist” structure, a collection of buildings surrounding a twenty-two-acre pool, was widely acclaimed, including by President Eisenhower, who participated in opening festivities via closed circuit television. Life Magazine devoted a six-page photo spread to the facility, describing it as a “Versailles of Industry.” And just as Versailles inspired a slate of copycats throughout European villages, these early modernist palaces spawned their own imitative geography, with office parks cropping up along the beltways and thruways of surprising new aristocratic preserves, in San Jose and White Plains.
In a neat inversion of business’ efforts to mimic academic forms, in the 1950s, universities began to follow the office park model. Stanford University, barred from selling any of its land by the terms of its endowment, started the first university research park on land adjacent to its campus and began aggressively pursuing connections with the region’s nascent high-technology industry, leasing space to Eastman Kodak, General Electric, and Hewlett Packard. The Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, begun as a for-profit venture, was soon bought out by a nonprofit collaboration of Duke, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University. In making, as Mozingo notes, “the corporate campus fiction an actuality,” both the Stanford and North Carolina facilities became major influences on the development of local high-tech enterprises.
The rest of the story is familiar: Office parks began cropping up on farms in small towns, sometimes featuring design ingenuities or golf courses and trails, yet more often consisting of buildings collared by parking lots. Communities soon came to see office parks as desirable cash cows; they encouraged demand for local housing, and also, crucially, provided a tax base for services in towns otherwise reliant upon residential property taxes. This raised new problems: While many corporations presented their suburban headquarters as environmentally forward-thinking—Weyerhauser reforested its headquarters, Merck promoted its complex as an “ecological laboratory”—these sites, by moving jobs away from city centers, made cars the most practical means of commuting.
Half a century later, we’re left with the fallout of corporate expansion. Once idyllic rural job sites are now ringed by housing developments, office parks, and strip malls, and then, of course, more subdivisions. Traffic congestion has followed to increasingly remote sites. Transit planning has sought to adapt to the age of the Office Park; but making a system that initially disregarded walkers more pedestrian friendly is easier said than done.
Mozingo is no apologist for suburban corporate expansion, and in sketching out its history, builds to a conclusion not much different from many other critics of urban planning—that sprawling development has reinforced an unsustainable dependency on cars. But while the “separatist geography” she details is not going away anytime soon, there is hope in her observation that suburban sites are becoming a detriment to maintaining a qualified workforce. Citing transit factors, United Airlines is moving its operations from suburban Chicago to the Willis Tower; UBS has mulled relocating its trading floor from Stamford to Manhattan due to difficulty attracting young talent. Though suburban office parks are still cheaper than downtown sites, just as businesses once fled to the countryside along with the middle class, they may now be following their employees back to cities. In the meantime, Monzingo has provided a backstory to the business park that weaves together corporate history, academic-commercial collaboration, and design innovation to fill in an unfairly overlooked chapter in the modern geography of life and work.
Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, City Journal, Metropolis, and PopMatters.