If you want a strong town... stop with the suburban office parks please

“Can we talk about the elephant in the room?” always garners an eyebrow raise during a meeting. Especially when it comes from someone as straightforward and candid as I. There’s a look of, “Umm...if you’re holding back a thought then what could it be?” 

Last week I had a coffee meeting to discuss community development with a leader of an interior design company whose niche is optimizing workplace design for businesses. As we discussed the need to revitalize downtown, encourage entrepreneurs, and how many things our city is doing right, it reiterated why I love living here. It reminded me how many amazing elements are within the foundation of this city and its values that we can build upon. 

But there’s a giant elephant in the room. 

We’re a small town with a big ass corporation. The company could not possibly be more supportive of its desire to build and better our community. It understands the strength of this community will help bring talent to their company. It’s imperative people want to or are willing to live here if they work for this corporation. 

But here comes the disconnect. 

Companies are still building corporate campuses like they have for the last 50 years (link: Rethinking corporate campuses). To me, the elephant is that there’s an opportunity to have multiple corporate offices throughout town versus within a suburban office park. Albeit, a beautiful office park with cafeterias, gyms, ample surface parking, and a perfectly cultivated experience to increase employee satisfaction. 

Since my coffee collaborator had not run away from me screaming yet, I hypothesized that employee happiness and engagement could be much better in a downtown setting. That I myself can be at my maximum stress level and run into a stranger or friend on the street as I dash between meetings downtown and those natural collisions can completely alter my mindset. I may see a friend and ask about their family. I may meet a stranger who appreciates my work. I may buy something from a business owner and be inspired by their hard work. The beauty is within these experiences that aren’t cultivated. Exposure increases our creative problem-solving abilities. 

The Amazon RFP for HQ2 outlines their desire for a walkable urban setting with amenities and transportation. They don’t want an office park. They want employees to have parks, museums, and a riverfront out their windows and at their fingertips. There are countless articles about how Apple failed their employees by being ever so forward thinking yet designing them a giant donut they never have to leave. Can employees truly be inspired in a cultivated environment as much as they would in an urban setting? 

I have no doubt there are valuable interactions at cafeterias, gyms, and coffee carts in suburban office parks across the US. However, I strongly believe there are more valuable and lasting interactions made at the small business coffee shop downtown, the entrepreneur’s restaurant across the street, and a better gift for a loved one at the local boutique. 

Community is something that happens. It’s the collision of people and a shared sense of values and place. It’s energizing to interact with the community at large. Momentum by definition is the impetus gained by a course of events.