Steve Jobs vs. Urban Design

This is an enhanced cross-post from my montly column, Community Design Matters, inThe Roswell Current.


“Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication.” “Think Different.” Those are two of Apple’s most recognized taglines. They define the company, but even more than that, they define Steve Jobs. Last month marked the one year anniversary of the passing of Apple’s founder and two-time CEO.

He changed millions of lives with his incredible ability to blend technology with design. He sold millions of people on iPods, iPhones, iPads, and Macs.  He convinced us to buy music online and to watch cartoons. None of this happened overnight, and it was no accident. He created a product that leaves people saying ‘I want that’ and then keeps them coming back for more.

I often think about what the world would look like if Jobs had been an urban planner. Would there be more places that leave us saying, “I want more of that?” Would he have been into walkable urbanism, a promoter of drivable suburbia, or would he have been something different? The legendary planner Andres Duany has a great metaphor. He says that good urbanism is a Mac program trying to run on a PC operating system built for sprawl. Most of America is using a PC, making the Mac programs difficult to use.

Walkable urbanism really is kind of like a Mac OS. It’s easier to use, quicker to get around, multi-tasks well, and it’s so simple a kid can use it without constant supervision. The layout of the apps on the iPhone even looks like a street grid. Unfortunately, this is largely a thought experiment, as Jobs’ didn’t dive into the subject much. Luckily, the world got a brief glimpse of his thoughts on the built environment in his final public appearance before the Cupertino City Council in June of 2011.

In his talk, he presented his vision for a new 175-acre Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif. First, the design channels his inner environmentalist by increasing green space by 350 percent. Today, the land has an 80:20 ratio of buildings to open space. That ratio would be reversed. The building would be something right out of a sci-fi movie. A single, enormous four-story circular building that would increase existing office space by 20% to 3.1 million square feet. There would be a 60 percent  increase in trees, from 3,700 to 6,000. The number of employees would increase by 40 percent  from 9,500 to 13,000. All of this would be done while reducing the total amount of surface parking by 90 percent. Jobs stated, “The overall feel of the place is going to be a zillion times better than it is now with all the asphalt.”

A rendering of the campus presented to the Cupertino City Concil

All in all, the proposal is unique and nothing if not Jobsian. It could be argued from a New Urbanist standpoint that the new design is a modernist nightmare but it can’t be argued that it is less interesting than what is there currently. In Jobs’ own words, “We want to take the space and in many cases we’re making it smaller. We’re putting more of a desirable thing on the space.” This is what he did time and time again. He took an existing product and tweaked the design and functionality to make it more desirable. Everyone had cell phones but the iPhone was a game changer. Everyone had watched cartoons, but “Toy Story” made us love them again.

However, the design itself would likely fail the community design litmus test. The building becomes isolated, and the only people interacting would be Apple employees and their guests. Knowing Apple’s focus on secrecy, this would work for the company but it wouldn’t work for a community.

The project would be mostly single-use and would keep Apple employees segregated from the city.

That being said, this was his first stab at urban planning, and perfection is rarely reached on the first try. Painstaking care and thought go into Jobs’ designs.  Thinking of how people will interact with the product from hardware to software was paramount, which is why I believe that another few projects would have given us something revolutionary.  It might not be New Urbanist in style, but I think he would have eventually leaned that way.

All of that being said, Steve Jobs may have influenced cities and urban life more through Apple than he ever could have as a planner. The advent of the smartphone, specifically the iPhone, and all of the technologies that are replacing the big, clunky slow old way of doing things has helped make living, working, and playing in walkable urban places easier and sexier than any time in the last 70 years. Thank you, Steve, for giving us great designs!