Can Research Triangle Park Pull Itself Out of the 1950s?
It’s a strange moment for the architecture of technology.
In Silicon Valley, a place that likes to think of itself as America’s epicenter of innovation, three tech icons—Facebook, Apple, and Google—are doubling down on suburbanism. The firms are all busily planning expansions into single-use corporate playgrounds. Sure, they’re full of free massages and micro-kitchens, but they’re utterly cut off from the communities around them.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, in North Carolina’s research triangle, America’s quintessential exurban office park is trying to execute a 180 in the opposite direction.
A half century ago, Research Triangle Park was considered the cutting edge modern workplace. As Tarheel State agriculture faded, and bright young people fled northward, the Durham area’s universities had pulled together with corporate pooh-bahs to stage an intervention. They cobbled together 4,400 acres, furnished it with basic infrastructure, set up a private research institute, and threw it open for business.
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Within five years, IBM had built a 600,000 square foot facility there; the federal government committed $70 million for a health sciences center. Over the next four decades, the park would grow to 7,000 acres, 22.5 million square feet of space, 170 companies, and around 40,000 workers. And North Carolina reaped the benefits: While many of its neighbors reel with every recession, the Raleigh-Durham region is now an oasis of relative prosperity, attracting high-caliber college graduates and pumping out lucrative patents and trademarks.
But over the last decade, the park’s shine began to wear off. The working population, which had grown steadily through the 1980s and 1990s, flattened out. One big telecommunications company went bankrupt. IBM sold its computer business to a Chinese company that moved jobs away.