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Walking to Work: Bringing Employment Centers Back to Neighborhoods

by Jay Hoekstra


The spatial needs of employment and commerce have changed over the decades and are changing again, according to a recent study on new approaches to the location and design of places people work. The study is part of the WorkPlace project recently completed by the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The council created a motto of “Design for Dignity, Delight, and Worth” for the endeavor, based on the principles of:

  • The dignity of humanity and of good work
  • The importance of designing places that delight those who work, play, visit, and reside there
  • The need to design cities and human places that are economically and environmentally sustainable—worth
A and B streets
Map of Grand Rapids, Michigan, circa 1868. Is it time to get back to the
neighborhood and walkable employment centers of these times?

Graphic courtesy River Books, Maps & Programs.

The project began with a study of the potential for increased regional wealth through the purchase of local materials, supplies, and services by local industry. It moved from there to a Commerce Center Template study, including a regional discussion on the locations of these commerce center districts. The results of the project were then documented, and the approaches of two commerce center districts—industrial and employment centers—are the primary focus of this article.

Most employment spaces fall into a few categories: retail, office, and light industry. How do we design the optimal commercial center, especially in light of designing for “dignity, delight, and worth?” Employment centers should strive to be competitive in the global economy, support a just economy, be environmentally healthy, and engender a rich social and cultural life—no small pursuit.

The WorkPlace study, however, concludes that “there is a physical form which supports all of these goals,” citing such methodologies as New Urbanism, LEED neighborhood development, and smart growth. The Commerce Center Template provides parameters for creating or re-creating that physical form to more equitably integrate employment centers into neighborhoods.

Clusters and the Creative Class

The idea that creative, generally college-educated people are the source of prosperity and that such people are attracted to well-designed and culturally vibrant cities is dominating economic development discussions. For example, Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, says, “Most civic leaders have failed to understand that what is true for corporations is also true for cities and regions: Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative class people prosper; those that fail don’t.”

Economists have likewise observed that young, creative people are moving to central city neighborhoods, or cities like Chicago, Boston, or Austin. Location, then, has become a crucial factor for economic health, and there are essential characteristics of that factor, according to a report by Michigan Future, Inc.:

What seems to make central cities attractive places to live for talented individuals is that they offer something different from the suburbs. Many vibrant central city neighborhoods are characterized by an active street life. These neighborhoods are safe, have high densities, a mix of residential and commercial uses, an active arts and entertainment scene, and a walkable environment. These high-activity neighborhoods are largely, but not exclusively, located in and near downtown.

There should be more interaction between those who wish to attract the creative class and the new wave of urban design; and it is beginning. Indeed, more than a dozen years ago the James Irvine Foundation found that in this “new economy,” firms are smaller: 55 percent of workers are employed by 100-person or smaller enterprises while 25 percent are employed by 100- to 500-person enterprises. Accordingly, smaller office and manufacturing buildings are needed. The Foundation’s study noted that people have a “portfolio” of skills and move from job to job, to different types of work. Additionally, there are now more “craft” workers, more women integrating childcare and work, and more people working from home.

While there is a need for smaller workplaces, live/work venues, and work-at-home logistics, people still need the opportunity for “third place” meetings—a corner café, a local bookstore, a community garden even—within a socially and culturally rich landscape.

Industrial employment center
A 170-acre industrial employment center prototype.
Graphic courtesy Grand Valley Metro Council.

On a broader scale, regions benefit from concentrations in certain sectors of the economy, enabling the sharing of skilled workers and a kind of malleable, modular configuration of businesses for new opportunities and ideas. These “clusters” gain their power through the force of face-to-face creative collaboration opportunities. According to the Foundation, they form a vital learning network. Accordingly, there must be an “ease of interacting and meeting within the region, both formal and informal,” within and outside of workplaces. Ultimately, both employers and employees gain from being in the same place. From sharing ideas to reducing transportation costs, commerce centers can be a positive regional force.

What role, then, does employment center design play in promoting these clusters? Here we’ll focus on integrating industrial and office centers into walkable neighborhoods.

Industrial Neighborhoods

Over the last fifty years, industrial enterprises have become further segregated into special “parks,” even as the unpleasant characteristics which motivated the zoning—noise, fumes, and hazardous conditions—have diminished. Today, the characteristics largely incompatible with other commercial and residential uses are reduced to truck traffic and the inappropriate scale of some industrial buildings. Yet industrial parks are generally not easily accessed by employees via public transit, do not provide many of the daily needs for employees and businesses, lead to traffic congestion due to large block configuation, and do not contribute to stormwater management given their large, required setbacks.

The Commerce Center Templates propose that industrial areas, somewhat redesigned from the previous ideal, should be incorporated as an adjacent sector of an otherwise normal neighborhood. There have been some examples designed and or built already, and the industrial areas of the early 1900s exhibited some of these characteristics, as well. 

Industrial buildings are different than commercial, office, and residential buildings, of course. An assessment of building types and land use needs is therefore essential to composing a useful template for an industrial neighborhood. The Grand Valley Metro Council used the Guide to Classifying Industrial Property by Yap and Circ, published by the Urban Land Institute in 2003, to establish a few common building types. Having a variety of building sizes in an industrial area makes it easier for a business to expand or pull back within different buildings without moving out of the neighborhood:

Building Type Square Feet
of Floor Space
Number of Employees
Light Manufacturing and Regional Warehouse 100,000 200 to 100
Research & Development, Flex, Light Manufacturing, Office, Showroom 45,000 90
Multitenant 63,000 126
Truck Terminal 18,000 18
Flex, Showroom, Research & Development, Light Manufacturing 27,000 55
Artisan, Startup, Live/work 3,000 6

In the Commerce Center Template, an industrial neighborhood’s network of streets includes a sub-web of “B” streets that are oriented in design more to accommodate trucks and autos than pedestrians, although they would always have sidewalks. These B streets lead from the freeway—first to warehouse and freight forwarding sites, then to loading dock areas of manufacturing sites, and finally to auto parking sites. The B streets usually do not have on-street parking and therefore could have side swales for stormwater rather than curbs and storm sewer. Because of the tighter web of streets, they need only be two or three lanes wide. Buildings front “A” streets, which are pedestrian-oriented and support on-street parking. Buildings back to mid-block loading and parking areas or, if they are larger, to B streets. By having B streets alternate with A streets, trucks and auto parking entrances can fit into a walkable, neighborhood-sized district.

A and B streets
The yellow streets are A streets and the blue
streets are B streets. Blocks are light yellow, red
represents the neighborhood center, and the broad,
light blue band at the bottom represents a freeway.
Black spots in center are long, articulated buses
added to give a sense of scale. A semi truck is
represented at the correct scale, on the blue street
on the lower right.

Graphic courtesy Grand Valley Metro Council.

Manufacturing facilities, regional warehouses, and truck terminals are larger in scale and need larger blocks, as they receive more and larger trucks. Those uses, therefore, should be nearer the freeway interchange and furthest from the neighborhood center.

The Commerce Center Template proposes a 170-acre prototype of an industrial employment center which can hold about two million square feet of typical industrial buildings and 4,000 jobs if adequately served by transit. Additional land can be preserved by using urban stormwater management techniques and eliminating unnecessary setbacks.

Office Employment Neighborhoods

In typical urban regions, office buildings can be found in three location types: the original downtown of the central city, designated office parks, and along high-traffic suburban corridors. We need a sustainable alternative for office employment growth outside of central city downtowns.

The Commerce Center Templates prototype of an office building cluster was designed to be a central component of a neighborhood, so that all employment sites are within a walkable distance of retail centers, transit, and common parking areas. The office building cluster is itself part of a larger cluster of neighborhoods. About 22 percent, or 36 acres, of the 160-acre neighborhood would be devoted to office use. Part of the land area saved by not having large, landscaped setbacks and parking lots could be devoted to parks, which are a notably more useful type of greenspace than sterile buffer zones. 

To acquire a realistic selection of buildings, we examined recent urban design standards, the existing stock of buildings in the Grand Rapids metro area, and market trends. In Grand Rapids, typical buildings range from two to six stories, and 6,000 to 90,000 square feet. Buildings of this size can easily fit onto a common range of small city blocks. The blocks would be defined by a network of many street types, appropriate for their context and role within the network.

Setbacks would be eliminated on the main streets, or limited to ten feet where smaller office buildings faced residential uses, creating more of a defined, pedestrian-friendly streetscape. Buildings would be required to establish the A streets. The space saved, compared to office parks with usual setbacks, would be used for public spaces, in effect making the district more compact and livable. With a denser form and a location adjacent to a subregion of neighborhoods, the office neighborhood can and must be served by high-frequency transit. 

The 36 acres of this office neighborhood prototype would support 5,000 jobs, adequate car parking, and 600,000 square feet of building space; the complete neighborhood would support 6,000 residents and nine acres of parks and squares.

Industrial employment center
A prototype of an office building cluster designed
to be a central component of a 160-acre

Graphic courtesy Grand Valley Metro Council.

It may help to understand the office neighborhood template by contrasting it to a conventional office development. Below is a depiction of an existing office “park” in the Grand Rapids area. It is an attractive group of buildings, well-landscaped, with a gracious, tree-lined street. It lies between a freeway and a residential area. However, the office park is not accessible from the adjacent residential area; it is only accessible by car. Although it is efficiently laid out for a conventional, car-oriented office park, it uses much land, given the amount of building floor space: the floor area ratio is 0.23. There is a high ratio of parking spaces, approaching four spaces per 1,000 square feet of building. Actual use of parking was very low when counted one afternoon in summer: less than two spaces per 1,000 square feet. Parking and driveway space amounted to 400 square feet per parking space. This office park consumes 49 acres. Because of large setbacks, just under 50 percent of the lot area is unbuilt, leaving 21 acres that could have been parkland, for example, somewhere in the community.

In contrast, the area a block on either side of the central boulevard of the template is 47 acres. Note the comparable distances. There are five parks or “greens” usable by the entire community in or near this area.

Implementing the Commerce Center Template

In implementing this employment neighborhood model, cities will need new standards and must be willing to undertake new roles. Here is a general, five-step approach:

Step 1. Set the Quantities at the Region

Cities and towns need to gather within their region to determine how much employment change will occur within their planning horizons. Collaborating municipalities should reach consensus about where the employment neighborhoods should be located. 

Step 2. Develop New Standards

Communities should develop a new set of New Urban or other pedestrian-oriented neighborhood design standards to guide development. These must include zoning standards, block size/street connectivity standards, and street-cross section standards.

Step 3. Choose Locations

Communities may have tentatively selected locations for employment centers before they entered regional consultation. If not, the locations would most likely be chosen as part of the community comprehensive planning process. Community planning is not a revolutionary process; it is a reformatory process. The previous plan is taken up and amended in line with new goals, principles, conditions, and regional consensus.

A and B streets
Conventional office park, left, contrasted with the office neighborhood
prototype, right, proposed in the Commerce Center Templates.

Graphic courtesy Grand Valley Metro Council.

Step 4. Active Planning and Design

Local governments need to take on greater roles in the design of employment neighborhoods and the locations of streets. No other entities are able to do this. Rarely is the necessary amount of property that is needed under one ownership. If the site is relatively undeveloped, the public planning staff, planning commission, and active developers would lay out the site using the standards previously adopted. In most Midwestern regions such as Michigan, there is little need for greenfield development. There most likely already exists an adequate amount of land for employment growth in locations that have been lightly developed, are ripe for redevelopment, or are abandoned.

Step 5. Management

Communities or newly formed industrial or neighborhood associations should manage the stormwater and parking for the full districts. Communities, in partnership with transit authorities, should then establish commuter trip-reduction programs. Parking management would be a part of these programs.   


The creation or conversion of industrial and office employment centers into functioning neighborhoods requires holistic but dependent changes. Planning, design, and implementation require detailed project management and the consideration of many variables.

The models referenced here have demonstrated replicable success. The recommended land-use patterns are those of our towns and cities of decades ago, yet incorporating the transit and technology of today. The arrangements of our original downtowns and neighborhood factories were practical in past decades and are proving practical again today. In an age of resource constraints and global economies, the human scale of neighborhood employment is vital.


Jay Hoekstra has a master's degree in urban planning from Michigan State University and has thirty years of experience in urban design, planning, GIS, charrette operations, and transportation.He authored the Regional Framework for the Grand Valley Region, Fisher's Station Charrette Plan, and Commerce Center Templates. He supervised the production of the GVMC Form Based Code Study, which won awards from the Institute of Traffic Engineers and the Michigan Association of Planners, as well as the Volk/Zimmerman Residential Housing Study.
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Congress for the New Urbanism

Creative Class: The Source on How We Live, Work, and Play

Grand Valley Metropolitan Council

James Irvine Foundation

LEED for Neighborhood Development

Local Government Commission

Michigan Future, Inc.

National Association of Regional Councils

Smart Growth Online (Smart Growth Network)

Urban Land Institute

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