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The scene is familiar to anyone who has seen “The Office” or worked a 9-to-5 job in the last 50 years. Cubicles. Bad lighting. And, out the window, a view of a parking lot and sprawling green grass. This is the image of the classic suburban office building, which grew in popularity in post-war America.
Partly due to the age of remote work, many of those parking lots and cubicles are now empty. In an article appearing in today’s Sunday Business section, Emily Badger, who covers cities and urban politics for The Upshot, explores, as she puts it, the “last lonely days” of suburban office parks. She then shares how office closures could affect local economies and considers whether the same fate looms for Big Tech campuses. This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you come up with the idea for this story?
Everyone knows the phenomenon of the emptying of urban centers during the pandemic. Earlier this year, I came across data from a researcher named Tracy Hadden Loh at the Brookings Institution. She was looking at data that suggested there are some markets across the country where vacancy rates are actually higher in some suburban neighborhoods than in what real estate people call the central business district.
That got me thinking, “Oh yeah, there’s another kind of office in America that hasn’t gotten as much attention.” It was the predominant way we built office space in this country in the post-war period until the mid-to-late 1990s. Everybody is familiar with this stuff: You either worked there, your father worked there, or you saw the movie.” Office Space”. It is omnipresent, but it has not really been in the mind. I thought, “What the hell is going on in these places, which were already sparsely populated, when remote work is layered on top of that?”
I’m surprised that few of them were renovated when open concept came into fashion.
One of the campuses I focused on was the Toys “R” Us corporate headquarters in Wayne, NJ. There are many very large corporations in the United States that have their offices in these locations. But there are also many local offices of accountants or lawyers: your Dunder Mifflins. These buildings served their purpose: functional office space that was accessible to people. As it happens, we now get to the pandemic and a lot of timelines have aligned. These buildings are now 30, 40, 50 years old; they are getting a bit stale. The nature of the economy has changed: now what we call knowledge work depends on having all these collaborative spaces and spaces where workers meet each other, instead of cubicle farms. Then add remote work on top of that.
Did you travel to these campuses?
I grew up in Chicago and was there earlier this spring, driving through the suburbs on one of the freeways. You see this landscape of box-shaped corporate office parks, one after another, lined up along the highway. They all have large corporate logos on the outside of the building that are designed to be read by drivers. The parking lots are all empty. That’s another thing that made me think that this is a really interesting place and very uniquely American, and something interesting is happening right now.
How do these closures affect the economies of the towns in which the buildings are located?
Part of what is interesting about these spaces is what happens not only in the office parks themselves, but also in the identity of the surrounding communities. Many places are tied to “Oh, we’re home to Allstate’s corporate headquarters.” Local communities derive much of their tax revenue from these offices. Removing those things or contemplating turning them into something else, like apartment buildings, involves an almost radical rethinking, not only of these spaces, but of the identity of the community that surrounds them.
How do you think these offices compare to Big Tech campuses? Are they the following?
Apple built this sprawling suburban campus. Several other technology companies, particularly in Silicon Valley, have also done so. In many ways, they have the same problems as this previous generation of offices in that they are isolated, car-dependent, and not connected to surrounding communities. In some way, they are intentionally designed not to be connected. Many of these places have fake main streets built into them so you get the feeling that there are activities there besides work. That way, they have more amenities, but still have the underlying idea that this is a closed space.
How did you take a subject that could be dry and find such an interesting entry point?
To me, this is not a real estate story. It’s a story about this idea that has been central to our culture for 50 or 60 years. We’re not just rethinking the physical office space, we’re rethinking the ideas behind that space. I always want to know, what is the history of this thing? Where do these ideas come from? Often in my reporting, I talk not only to developers and economists, but also to historians and, in this case, to people who are experts in architecture and landscaping. It turns out that there is this fascinating origin story about these places and why they exist. It was clear to me from the moment I thought about suburban office parks that this is a topic loaded with other interesting topics that I could address by reporting on it.
Was there anything else that surprised you about your report?
A very central theme in my report was the idea of green areas and green spaces. It’s this lovely idea that many employers once had: If you’re sitting at your desk and you look out the window and there are trees, you’ll have wonderful ideas that you otherwise wouldn’t. One of the things that was really valuable in my reporting was this book by Louise Mozingo called “Pastoral Capitalism.” It’s about these places. I think it’s such a fun and interesting idea, and it makes me reflect on how I spend a lot of time working from home now, just looking out the window as I try to figure out how to write things down.
It’s really interesting to me, in hindsight, that this whole idea of the office building was built around this very ingrained belief that lightning will strike you with brilliant ideas if you can look out the window at the trees instead of, like, the air duct. from the office building next door. There’s definitely some value in that, and there’s also some value in being able to get out of your building and meet other people. As is the case with many things, a combination of all of the above is probably quite healthy.