Sunday, April 17, 2011


On a recent trip to Zug here in Switzerland, it was clear that the town had grown relatively little over the past few hundred years. Until after the war that is. The compact Altstadt (old town), full of 400 year old homes clustered around the lake, is surrounded by postwar apartment buildings and homes climbing up the hills. A large cluster of new office buildings and shopping centers is a result of a recent boom, born out of the Canton's status as tax haven (there's one registered company for every man, woman, and child). Most of this new construction is of a purely economic nature, meaning little effort has been placed into making it attractive and well-planned. On the outskirts of town, large Swiss corporations have their headquarters, as well as huge global corporations like Glencore, one of the world's largest private companies (it would be in the Top 20 on the Fortune 500 if it were public). Usually these headquarters are modest, holding just a small fraction of their respective global employees. Like industrial or office parks in the US, they're nestled on cheap land in the suburbs, with large areas of land wasted on parking lots and the rarely used "green lawn".

Zug's old town is surrounded by postwar development and office parks
This postwar trend of building workplaces far from the city center is a complete reversal of historic practice in which the office was in the center of town within walking distance of workers' homes. Even in the early 20th century, the outskirts of town were for new middle-class suburbs, not offices. The effects of this new trend are most curious in Europe, where many workers still live in or close to the city center, not in the surrounding suburbs as they often do in the US. This has resulted in a wide dispersal of the population during the day, with some workers coming in to the center, some out of it. Or in the case of Zug, driving through the center to offices beyond, because while most offices are north of the old town, the nicest residential areas are south along the lake or east in the hills. There is therefore a steady stream of cars going to and fro through the old town at all hours of the day, relegating the historic center to nothing more than a tourist interest instead of the heart of daily life as it should be. 

Canary Wharf in London is another prime example. This twenty year old skyscraper district is located a few miles from the city and is a major global financial center, home to banks suck as HSBC and Citigroup, and media group Thomson Reuters. Ringed by a relatively poor part of London, the choice for workers is either to live in nearby high-rises or take the tube from the city. The first choice is really only suitable for workaholics as there's no life in Canary Wharf on weekends, so unsurprisingly most workers choose the latter, especially as their high paying jobs mean they can afford the large historical homes of north London, conveniently located on the Jubilee Line, which takes them straight to their jobs. 

The Jubilee Line carries workers to Canary Wharf from wealthy North London suburbs such as St. John's Wood and Hampstead
The same story is becoming increasingly common throughout the world, in any city where suburban living doesn't dominate. Is this a long term trend we're seeing and how sustainable is it to require workers to commute to out-of-town locations with poor public transport access? Well, not very sustainable at all and I can't see it continuing as a business model if gas prices keep rising and as cities struggle under growing populations and traffic. Most troubling perhaps is that the urban debate about the problems of a separation of uses has failed to penetrate mainstream planning. Almost no effort is shown to integrate the various facets of life, and I'm very frustrated by planners ignoring the social benefits of city centers. Once the hub of work, shopping, and entertainment, the city center was always the key to community strength. Nowadays, however, it is perfectly easy to never step foot in the city center. This has also had devastating consequences for civic pride, but that's a topic for another post. In the near future I would like to see office and industrial parks relegated to the history books and a return of mixed use districts in cities.