Magazine article World Watch

Virtual Ecology: A Brief Environmental History of Silicon Valley

Magazine article World Watch

Virtual Ecology: A Brief Environmental History of Silicon Valley

Article excerpt

This place in sunny California, so famous for its high technology, high salaries, and campus-like office parks, is not what it seems.

"Dutch" Hamann, City Manager of San Jose, California, from 1950 to 1970, liked to say that he put Silicon Valley on the map. Despite Hamann's success at spurring economic growth, though, the oil-executive-turned-civic-planner drew much criticism for his expansionist boosterism, for having allowed industrial parks and housing tracts to sprawl perhaps too far, blotting out Santa Clara County's former beauty. His retirement, which came just as the county's high-tech nickname started to enter the national lexicon, was celebrated not only by environmentalists but by economists as well. In September, 1970, Business Week ran an article about the challenge of "Correcting San Jose's Boomtime Mistake." But Hamann himself never doubted his legacy, insisting until his death in 1977 that the benefits of intense development would far outweigh any costs. "They say San Jose is going to become another Los Angeles," he noted in a 1965 interview, seeming to acknowledge his critics. "Believe me, I'm going to do everything in my power to make that come true."

Twenty years after Hamann's death, his vision has been realized. San Jose is booming again, and Silicon Valley is often lauded as the engine of America's economy: high tech now has just as high a profile as Hollywood. In 1997, Silicon Valley firms created some 53,000 jobs, and profits among the region's top 150 high-tech companies grew by 15 percent to $15.4 billion. City officials from around the world have been visiting the area, desperate for the secret of San Josh's success. And, in fact, intense cooperation between municipal governments and high-tech firms has resulted in several attempts to copy the Silicon Valley model, from Silicon Desert in Phoenix, Arizona, to Silicon Glen in Livingston, Scotland, to Silicon Plateau in Bangalore, India.

Of course, critics and skeptics have argued that the Valley's economic upsurge can't last forever, that bust always follows boom. Even the newly minted millionaires of Silicon Valley (there are two more every week) are beginning to acknowledge that they, too, may be held hostage by the cycles of history. An eventual economic downturn, however, is perhaps the least of this region's problems. Evidence is mounting that the boom-bust cycle may be quite dangerous even in good years, that economic growth as we know it may create about as many problems as it solves. While money is certainly flowing freely in Silicon Valley (the average salary of $46,000 is more than 50 percent higher than the national average), most of it is going to a relatively small social and economic elite. As a result, much of the region is becoming unaffordable for the local working-class people, many of whom are immigrants or ethnic minorities. Latinos, for example, make up 24 percent of Santa Clara County's population, but 50 percent of the county's working poor. In addition, housing is in short supply (jobs are being created about 15 times faster than housing units), and the region suffers from stultifying traffic snarls (freeway delays more than doubled between 1994 and 1996). And beneath all this burgeoning development, the soil and water are so battered by the chemicals used in high-tech manufacturing that the region now has 29 Superfund sites, giving it the densest concentration of highly hazardous waste dumps in the country.

San Jose is similar to Los Angeles, then, not only in terms of its internationally significant industries and economic success, but also in terms of its deep class and ethnic tensions, and the many other frustrations that accompany rapid growth - which tend to be exacerbated by the region's seemingly endless sprawl of strip malls, highways, cookie-cutter housing developments, and office parks. This troubling physical reality is one of the best-kept secrets in America: everyone has heard of Silicon Valley, but few people know what it looks like. …

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