Can Silicon Valley Be Saved?

Tech workers don’t want to live near companies’ suburban headquarters. San Francisco can’t accommodate everyone. Could densifying Silicon Valley suburbs be the answer?


Just before Christmas, protesters took to the streets of San Francisco and Oakland to block Google’s double-decker shuttle buses. During one incident, a union organizer impersonating a Google employee berated a protester, “Why don’t you go to a city where you can afford it? This is a city for the right people who can afford it. You can’t afford it? You can leave. I’m sorry, get a better job.” The exchange, while staged, sounded plausible enough. Only a few weeks later, protesters slashed the tires and broke a window on another Google bus.


These buses have become a visible symbol of tensions between tech transplants and longtime residents, who are increasingly clashing over the rise of income inequality in the area. This elaborate network of private transportation shuttling Silicon Valley workers out of San Francisco each day in Wi-Fi-resplendent comfort has allowed for an influx of high-paid tech employees to live in the city. Skyrocketing rents mean residents without a Google-sized paycheck are being displaced. The whole system turns the traditional model of suburb-to-city commuting on its head. Downtown is now the bedroom community for tech, and the suburb its workday counterpart. The chartered buses, which for years have used municipal bus stops (and will only begin paying a modest fee for the privilege starting this summer, unless the decision winds up in court), have created a two-tiered transportation system within the city: the tech sector, and everyone else.

Image: Google Shuttle Bus via Flickr user Chris Martin

The young programmers being courted by Silicon Valley tech companies seem to overwhelmingly prefer the amenities of urban living, even if that means tacking on hours to get to and from work. This reverse commute, though, threatens the fragile ecology of a city like San Francisco, which is struggling to maintain equity in housing costs for a diversity of income levels.

But what if the suburbs of Silicon Valley became a more attractive place to live as well as work?

Forty-five miles south of San Francisco, in the heart of Silicon Valley, the city of San Jose is growing, too. The city has been rethinking its suburban layout to attract a more city-savvy resident. San Jose hopes to overhaul its sprawl into a more walkable, less car-dependent suburb. This presents a compelling opportunity for San Francisco’s tech-fueled housing crisis: Could retrofitting the suburban towns of Silicon Valley help ease the pressure in San Francisco?

Opportunity In San Jose

San Jose, California, home to almost 1 million people, is one of the largest cities in the U.S. by population. It has more residents than San Francisco, but you likely wouldn’t consider San Francisco as the smaller presence in the region. The two cities, founded just a year apart and separated by only an hour’s drive, couldn’t feel more different. In contrast to San Francisco’s dense, cosmopolitan landscape, San Jose is quintessentially suburban, exactly the kind of place where most of the tech workers currently flooding the Bay Area don’t want to live.


This suburban layout was by design. Scattered over 175 square miles, San Jose’s paint-splatter shaped sprawl is the direct result of urban planning that emphasized size over utility. The city, dubbed the “Capital of Silicon Valley,” now houses powerhouse companies like eBay, Cisco Systems, and Adobe.

Image: © Google 2013

The suburban model took root in the 1950s under the vision of then-city manager A.P. “Dutch” Hamann. San Jose gobbled up land, annexing 132 square miles to turn what had been a sleepy agricultural town into a major industrial city. Hamann was determined to turn San Jose into the next Los Angeles, and critics have pointed out that he succeeded: The area has all the smog, congestion, and sprawl of the freeway-snarled Southern California metropolis, but without its cultural magnetism. As noted in an excerpt from Movers and Shakers: The Study of Community Power, a 1982 book that examined the power structure of San Jose, the city “was far more concerned with cooperating with developers than with good planning.”

In the coming decades, San Jose is projected to grow by half a million people and city officials acknowledge that to be sustainable, that growth cannot look like the suburban sprawl of the last century. San Jose’s ambitious 30-year general plan, released in 2011, aims to retrofit this suburbia for an urban future. In the process, the city could create a community where Silicon Valley workers actually want to live.

A Suburban History

San Jose “really built itself around the car,” explains Leah Toeniskoetter, the San Jose director of SPUR, a nonprofit that advocates for sound public planning in the Bay Area. SPUR recently put together an independent report of recommendations for implementing San Jose’s 30-year plan, noting that the general plan’s “vision is compelling, but the political will and policy apparatus is not yet sufficient to achieve it.” That’s not surprising considering the city government has spent the last six decades encouraging growth of exactly the opposite variety as what’s laid out in the Envision San Jose 2040 general plan.

In its early days, San Jose was built densely, with a walkable grid and mixed-use development downtown, but as the city expanded in the ’50s, a sprawling suburban pattern emerged. Some of that dense urban development was actually razed to make room for widening streets and new highways. “That historic pattern has led to increasing congestion, increased CO2 emissions, it’s highly unwalkable, a lot of single family homes,” Toeniskoetter tells Co.Design. “This isn’t a real sustainable future for us.” San Jose’s congestion is the seventh highest in the nation now.

Image: © Google 2013

Retrofitting For An Urban Future

It’s no small task to retrofit a major suburban city to be more walkable, especially when 80% of trips are made in single-occupant vehicles. By 2040, San Jose hopes to cut that number in half by investing in public transit as well as mixed-use growth around that transit, and by making the city friendlier to bikes and pedestrians. The city’s vision includes a series of “urban villages,” higher density, mixed-use neighborhoods that can accommodate population growth, but do so in a way that encourages walking and public transit use, rather than car trips.

“It’s an incredibly challenging [thing] to retrofit a city designed around the automobile,” says Benjamin Grant, the urban design program manager who authored SPUR’s policy report on how San Jose might accomplish its 30-year plan. SPUR envisions a city where buildings open directly onto the street–rather than into vast parking lots–and where pedestrians are encouraged to navigate through narrower streets and shorter blocks that seem tailored for human movement, rather than semi-trucks. “People really desire a place where you can stroll and walk and be among people,” he says.

Making sure every new development fits within these pedestrian-oriented goals remains difficult, since city planners face resistance from developers who continue to default to the (dependably profitable) status quo. “What we’re seeing is the same types of project being proposed,” Toeniskoetter says. “They’re set behind parking, still suburban in pattern.”

Image: Courtesy Sergio Ruiz

Part of that is regulatory. Zoning controls what kind of function a tract of land can have, whether that’s mixed-use residential and commercial, a single-family home, or a high-rise office building. Codes dictate how wide streets must be, how buildings must be accessed by emergency personnel, and how many parking spaces each new development must provide. As of right now, the goals outlined in the San Jose General Plan haven’t been written into code.

Some of the challenge, too, is entrenched in how real estate development works. When developers consider investing money into a new project that doesn’t yet have tenants, they tend to build the same kind of building type described by Toeniskoetter: a strip mall, set back from the street, with parking out front and little consideration for pedestrians. That’s space that developers know they can fill. “When you’re building on spec, you’re trying to make it as status quo as you can,” Grant says. “You’re driven to model your project on what’s already there.”


Like many cities, San Jose needs business more than business needs San Jose. That makes it more difficult for the city to dictate how developers use its land. Because of the tax revenue provided by commercial real estate, “there’s a very strong fiscal incentive to get the project built,” Grant says, whether or not it fits in with the grand urban vision, lest those corporations take their tax dollars elsewhere.

Image: © Google 2013

Samsung Designs The San Jose Office Of The Future

With as many obstacles as proponents of denser cities have to overcome in reconfiguring the way a community is built, it becomes even more important for the city government to dig in its heels about what it wants to accomplish. In essence, San Jose’s general plan serves as a kind of “constitution” for development within the city. As the language of the plan clearly explains: “under California law, no specific plan, area plan, community plan, zoning, subdivision map, nor public works project may be approved unless the City finds that it is consistent with the adopted general plan.” That said, the political berth that this sort of requirement provides is wide. In this kind of urban planning, “very often developers or private proponents just go the political route,” Grant explains. “The policies have proved very flexible, in particular if jobs are at stake.”

It helps if companies are on board with the plan. Samsung, for instance, is in the process of building a brand new American headquarters in San Jose–one that fits neatly into the city’s urban aspirations. Tearing down its previous office park of two-story buildings, Samsung is now building a single 10-story structure that opens onto the sidewalk, rather than being hidden behind miles of parking (which will still be provided via a separate parking garage). In bringing the building closer to the street, “it’s connecting itself to the city and community,” according to Scott Wyatt, a managing partner at NBBJ, the architects behind the project.

What Samsung’s new American headquarters in San Jose will look like. Image: NBBJ

Wyatt, who heads the design of NBBJ’s corporate projects, sees an opportunity in Silicon Valley, not to become another San Francisco, but to become a viable alternative. The point, he says is “not just to mimic San Francisco, but to understand what are the qualities that draw people to San Francisco and start to create more vibrant urban places,” he says. Such as combining the aspects that draw people to a big city–like walkability and vibrant culture–with some of the reasons people like suburban places, like access to good public schools. “The direction San Jose is taking is progressive,” he says. “It’s a first step, hopefully a beacon for what else can happen and what else needs to happen.”


The kind of vibrant urban places San Jose hopes to create aren’t just good for the health and happiness of residents. Businesses, especially the creativity-obsessed tech sector, stand to gain too. “What stimulates ideas and human productivity can extend beyond just your coworkers,” Wyatt says. He points to the fact that urban environments have been found to foster innovation. “There are studies done that innovation per capita increases with urbanization,” he says. For instance, research has found that denser regions generate more patents.

It’ll take time to start to see changes in San Jose. Samsung’s office building, when it’s completed sometime around 2015, may still be the only structure of its style in the area. As of right now, the Samsung property is surrounded by buildings that span huge tracts of land, floating in a sea of parking lots. If only one building mimics the urban style that makes walking seem welcome, the effect won’t quite say city living just yet. The whole point of a bustling downtown scene is interactivity. In 30 years, though, with enough planning and pushing from city planners and advocates like SPUR, it could be the kind of place where the talented young product engineers currently colonizing San Francisco are vying to live.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut