Monday, July 17, 2017

Pastoral Capitalism, Business Parks, and Metro Vancouver. Why are we protecting suburbia?

A lot has been said about the spread of suburbia in Canada and the United States, both about the residential development and the accompanying retail development that followed. There have been strong critiques about suburbanization and sprawl. New Urbanism, the antidote to suburbia, is a direct result of these critiques about suburbia. New Urbanism is about building walkable, human-scale communities.

In Metro Vancouver, you can see how New Urbanism principles have been incorporated into the planning ethos. While not always ideally executed, new residential and retail development in South Surrey and in Willoughby in the Township of Langley are rooted in New Urbanism ideals.

One of the areas where there has been a gap in the suburbia critique is around the business park. While we are all about building walkable communities in our region, business parks seem to be the exception.

Farrell Estates - Campbell Heights Commerce Centre. A typical building in a business park in Metro Vancouver. Select image to enlarge.

The one vestiges of mid-twentieth century suburbia that is alive and well in Metro Vancouver is the business park. In fact, our regional growth strategy which is otherwise about building walkable, complete communities, protects and promotes the “mixed-employment” zone; business park suburbia.

Annacis Island is the prototypical mid-twentieth century industrial park. Campbell Heights in Surrey represents the twenty-first century iteration of the industrial, now business park.

Why are business parks and industrial parks even a thing, and why is it the only form of suburbia that we are actively protecting and promoting in Metro Vancouver? One reason is because there has been a lack of critical discourse about business parks, industrial parks, and lesser known research parks.

Earlier last month, I stumbled upon a book call “Pastoral Capitalism” by Louise A. Mozingo who is a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. In her book, Mozingo provides a brief history of pastoral capitalism. Pastoral Capitalism has its root in the Garden City Movement and the believe that plopping buildings in the middle of green grass with a pond surrounded by some trees, was good for the soul. Cities were thought to promote moral decay.

The Garden City Movement was a response to the polluted, industrial city. Mozingo noted that while pastoral capitalism is rooted in the morality of green grass, there are other insidious undertones behind pastoral capitalism.

Racial and class tensions in the US resulted in white people leaving urban centres; some of the first business parks were in the Southern US and New York. The design of the business park, with no access to public transit, no sidewalks and far from urban cores, ensured that only white, middle- and upper-income people could work in these places.

In the US, there was also a federal mandate to hollow out central business districts because of the fear of nuclear Armageddon.

Mozingo notes three suburban landscapes of pastoral capitalism: the corporate campus, the corporate estate, and the business park. In Canada, there aren’t too many examples of the corporate campus or estate, but we certainly have the business park.

Interestingly enough, the Academic Quadrangle building at SFU’s Burnaby campus is an excellent example of the corporate campus, and has been used as such in movies and TV shows.

The business park in America is different than the business park in Canada. One of the big differences is lot coverage and access. In the US, business parks usually have 25% lot coverage. In Canada, lot coverage is higher. For example in Campbell Heights, lot coverage is 40% to 60%. Sidewalks and transit access are also included in Canadian business parks which are not in American business parks.

Why we promote the business park in Canada and Metro Vancouver is a mystery to me. The pastoral qualities of business parks in Canada are dubious at best. Business parks were designed to isolate people from other people whether by class, race, employer, or union status. Is this really a form of development that is worth protecting?

Pastoral Capitalism” is right up there with the “High Cost of Free Parking” and “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” as must-read books for anyone that cares about placemaking.

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