A Grand Plan to Make Silicon Valley Into an Urban Paradise

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Maybe the suburban land of the tech giants could become a thriving dense metropolis.

bartbullet.jpg

An early BART concept sketch (Scanned by Eric Fischer).


Ken Layne has an intriguing suggestion about my beloved metro area: San Francisco, he writes, is not actually the Manhattan to Oakland's Brooklyn, but rather "the Brooklyn to an as-yet-unbuilt Manhattan." (Which would make Oakland Queens? OK. I'm cool with that.)


His argument is that Silicon Valley, if it wants to remain the world's high-tech capital, needs to reform itself into an urban wonderland instead of a Simi Valley suburb with lots of wealthy people. He'd start the reformation with the architecture which he accurately depicts as Bad 70s, and then get to work on the transportation infrastructure. 

"With local light rail at street level and express trains overhead or underground, the whole route could be lined with native-landscaped sidewalks dotted with pocket parks and filled on both sides with ground-floor retail, farmers markets and nightlife districts around every station," we read. "Caltrain already runs just east of Route 82, and BART already reaches south to Millbrae now."

It's a wisp of a suggestion, an opening statement, perhaps. But as a Bay Area resident, it's fascinating. Housing in The City is now ridiculously expensive thanks to the success of our technology companies and resistance to very dense housing. Many long-time residents are fleeing to the East Bay. I have very high hopes for Oakland, but I haven't heard anyone suggest that the Valley could become dense. It just seems impossible based on the existing housing stock and local politics (i.e. there are many, many small warring cities). 

But the current situation, in which thousands and thousands of high-tech workers commute out of San Francisco and into the Valley also seems untenable. "Massive arcologies like the new Apple campus are where the tech giants are headed, but until there are living urban neighborhoods connecting these monstrosities, anyone with hopes for a life outside of work will pay a ridiculous premium to live in San Francisco and spend two hours of every day sitting on a bus," Layne writes. 

Of ourse, Layne has a pretty narrow prescription for a good life. A lot of people like the burbs, even hip tech workers with Macbook Airs. After all, the areas south of San Francisco are already beautiful, sunny, and replete with good hiking and cycling.

But allow yourself to imagine for a moment a new city rising out of the office parks and Applebee's, the faux Italianate houses and faux Spanish dental buildings  One building goes up, then another. A coffee shop. And the name on everyone's lips, the hot new neighborhood in the Bay: Redwood City, Redwood City, Redwood City.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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