In recent years technology companies, research institutions, laboratories, and specialist departments of manufacturing firms have steadily increased their building and employee footprint in downtown urban areas throughout cities in the United States.

The Ford Motor Company has an ongoing investment in the Corktown neighbourhood of Detroit, where their properties will anchor a 1.2 million-square-foot innovation hub, including Ford’s dedicated electric vehicle organization (Team Edison) and autonomous vehicle business teams. Amazon has invested significantly in Downtown Seattle where they have located their landmark headquarters and employ over 50,000 people. Harvard University is undergoing a major expansion of their Allston campus in Boston, which includes a new enterprise research campus adjacent to their science and engineering complex and business school. Plans for the research campus include a mix of research-focused private laboratories, public open spaces, residences, and a hotel and conference centre over a 36-acre site. 

The drivers catalysing this growth vary, but common factors include being closer to top talent and centres of excellence; increased brand visibility; co-location of specialist fabrication, laboratory, workshop, and research functions; and proximity to key clients. Access to schools, retail, entertainment, mass transit, and international connectivity helps to attract and retain employees who seek contemporary urban lifestyles and amenities. 

As major companies with urban campuses have flourished, many look to recognize and repay their communities and cities through large investments in their surrounding urban infrastructure, like transit systems and historic building stock. These organizations play a crucial role in shaping their urban landscapes and stimulating city regeneration. While this growth, which often increases real estate prices, has received positive and negative responses from the public, it is difficult to dispute that without this investment, many downtown areas across the United States would look very different. 

These companies’ ability to lead and adapt their city spaces, and set an example for other organizations, is more important now than ever. In the wake of upheaval, designers of the built environment can help our most prominent businesses and preeminent institutions set out standard-bearing solutions for holistic, resilient design, secure operations, and our return to the workplace. 

Exploring virtuous cycles in campus design

Establishing and managing the urban growth of large companies, institutions, and specialist facilities comes with significant design, planning, and operational challenges. Especially where large floorplates are needed, organizations must navigate restrictive planning policies, overlay complex logistical and security requirements, and address sensitive environmental and community issues before building up their presence in an urban core. By taking a holistic approach, designers can reveal and leverage virtuous cycles to respond to these challenges and drive successful outcomes. 

For instance, a carefully considered corporate mobility strategy or green travel plan can efficiently answer mobility and supply chain requirements while also reducing a company’s carbon footprint, generating fewer community complaints, and fostering a healthier, more contented workforce. 

Specialist facility specifics

Designers, and the institutions themselves must also consider the safety and security of specialist facilities operating in our dense urban areas. Due to their proximity and increased interaction with the public, these facilities require necessarily higher biosecurity. The Global Health Security Index by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Nuclear Threat Initiative suggests that national health security is fundamentally weak around the world. The United States leads the world with an overall score of 83.5 out of 100 points (the average overall score among all 195 countries assessed is 40.2).

High-security bio-labs are becoming more and more common and the current pandemic is bringing more attention to the safe operations of these facilities. 

Looking beyond the pandemic

The global pandemic has forced large-campus organizations to reconsider their immediate operations and adapt their businesses to a new normal. In the short-term, large corporations face their employees going back to an environment where density and co-location has become a liability. In the medium to long-term, we may have a society living on a hybrid of solutions where we are more selective about where, when, and how we travel, with a greater reliance on telecommuting. 

Planning for the safety, resilience, and business continuity of urban campuses is a tremendous challenge. Though the future is difficult to predict, we’ve identified several key solutions that address the most immediate challenges:

1. Virtual workspaces, but not for everything

We expect that there will be a greater emphasis on a virtual campus that is unconstrained by geographic distances and boundaries. It is likely that we will see a hybrid office and virtual campus environment for the foreseeable future with lower demands for conventional office facilities. While this has been proven to work, many firms, especially within the design industry, thrive on face-to-face collaboration or in the case of laboratories, need access to specialist equipment, biosecurity requirements, and environmental-controlled workspaces. In relation to laboratories and other specialist facilities, we may see a rise in the use of robotics and the automation of tasks that can be performed remotely so that the number of people within these spaces can be reduced. Additionally, the floorplates of these facilities will likely increase and lobby and elevator access will be managed differently to support social distancing.

2. Increased collaboration and security

Technology and innovation clusters incorporating highly specialized facilities, such as laboratories with different biosecurity level requirements, are becoming increasingly common in our downtown areas. Frequently associated with the expansion of universities and business districts that naturally want to cluster their campus buildings near one another, these developments often attract other similar private operations to do the same, either individually or in partnership. An example is Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a highly successful innovation cluster of research, technology, entrepreneurial start-ups, retail, commercial, and residential developments near MIT, Harvard, and Downtown Boston. Increased collaboration between these companies, institutes, and other stakeholders is required to help manage space, mobility, and other supporting functions efficiently. 


3. Embracing digital transformation

The current pandemic has fast-tracked the broad adoption of digital tools designed to support remote business operations when face to face meetings and collaboration were not possible. As we have migrated rapidly to now rely even more on technology-enabled work practices, it is an opportune moment to leverage and accelerate this behavioral shift to embrace other digital technologies that we have previously resisted due to our preference for human interaction. For example, with a range of contact tracing applications being released, we can now recognize the benefits of accurately tracking people and goods. Traceability of movement throughout our urban ecosystems provides significant improvements to operations, planning, supply chain resilience, and resource allocation. 

4. What rush hour? Blurring boundaries for working hours and working days

As corporate travel plans consider the potential health exposure of employees during peak-hour commutes, employee arrival and departure times will be more distributed and will need to be planned, communicated, and monitored. This spread out rush hour will have significant implications for the transportation systems serving our urban areas, like reducing capacity requirements, potentially easing operational pressures, and allowing for enhanced service. Public spaces around key transportation routes and city thoroughfares may also experience less peak period demand and be easier to manage.

5. Repurposed office spaces to serve the community 

As we begin to accelerate previously identified opportunities to regain public space within our urban streets and deprioritize cars, we may also see an opportunity for office environments to engage further with their communities. Office spaces could be repurposed to create more open and welcoming ground floor environments that provide community and cultural functions as opposed to monofunctional lobby space.

6. Leveraging public-private partnerships for business improvement districts

As we anticipate many changes in our urban environments, we need to place a greater emphasis on public-private partnerships to fund, enact, and manage interventions within the city. The presence of highly technological companies can breathe new life into a downtown and be a catalyst for development. A public-private managed growth approach can benefit not only urban campuses but also the communities around them.

The business improvement district model in New York, for example, has demonstrated that through simple programming elements, such as occupying underused streetscape areas with public plazas, provides significant benefits to the public and local businesses through increased footfall, environmental quality, and social interaction. This is now an opportunity to translate the new sense of ownership that we have for our streets and public spaces into a permanent condition.

Technological campuses as mechanisms for sustainable urban futures

While the current pandemic has forced us to radically change our lifestyles, alter work practices, consider employee density, rethink how we might use public spaces, and engage in a socially distant environment, it is important not to lose sight of the wider benefits that can be generated by technological campuses and the unique opportunities they present for sustainable urban regeneration.

Major corporations with campuses in highly dense urban areas have the ability to rapidly change the landscape of those spaces and influence other connected organizations. Their urgency in leading a more resilient and sustainable new normal is a chance for city agencies and public organizations to improve the quality and accessibility of public realm development, leverage behavioural changes in urban mobility, address climate change, embrace digital transformation, improve community health and wellbeing, and provide resilient public transit systems and infrastructure upgrades.

That way, the widespread impacts of campus design can protect the integrity and livelihood of our downtown communities and the businesses that operate within them.