EDGE CITY

“Edge city” is one of many terms used to describe the large, sprawling conglomerations
of commercial, retail, and residential development that proliferated along the beltways of
United States metropolitan peripheries in the 1980s. Coincident with the advances in
telecommunications, economic restructuring, and deregulation that began in the 1970s,
edge cities exemplify the privatization, decentralization, and dispersion of development
that is characteristic of digital media and the global economy. Joel Garreau defined five
criteria that characterize a fullblown edge city: “five million square feet of leasable office
space or more; six hundred thousand square feet of retail space or more; a population that
increases at 9 AM on workdays—marking the location as primarily a work center, not a
residential suburb; a local perception as a single end destination for mixed use—jobs,
shopping, and entertainment; and a history in which, thirty years ago, the site was by no
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means urban; it was overwhelmingly residential or rural in character” (1991, 425). As of
1991, Garreau found 119 mature and 74 emerging edge cities in the United States.
Largely low-rise, low-density landscapes, edge cities typically evolve around suburban
spoke-and-hub highway intersections. The automobile access provided by these
intersections encourages the nearby development of office parks, regional shopping
malls, retail strips, franchises, and apartment complexes. Each use is visually and
functionally isolated from its neighbors by parking lots, united only by the heavily
trafficked arterial roads connecting them. Sylvan corporate campuses and gated
residential communities also follow this pattern, typically locating on cul-de-sacs off the
main arterials.
Suburbs initially used zoning to exclude industrial uses. New economies however,
replaced traditional manufacturing jobs with clerical jobs that posed less threat to health
and property values. Electronic media, meanwhile, reduced the need for face-to-face
communication. The information basis of much of the service economy, the expanding
suburban middle class, and the rise in automobile ownership further allowed many
operations to be moved to cheaper land on the urban periphery. Corporate headquarters
also often moved out of the cities to lush suburban estates to be closer to the executives’
homes and country clubs. These moves were aided by the interstate beltway system.
Initially constructed to allow through traffic to bypass major cities, beltways also
provided easy access to cheap, minimally administered land and proximity to the many
non-unionized and educated suburban women entering the labor force. In addition,
market deregulation, federal insurance, and the demand for greater financial returns in the
1980s encouraged lenders to speculate in real estate investment, much of it in the
booming edge cities.
The growth of edge cities reflects the general growth of U.S. suburbs. Between 1970
and 2000, suburbs experienced growth rates double and triple that of cities, accounting
for 60 to 85 percent of new construction, new investment, and new jobs. Suburban office
stock, for example, increased 300 percent during the 1980s, and by 1993 the suburbs had
half again as much office stock as that in cities. Similarly, declining urban populations in
the 1970s prompted large-scale retail stores to move to the booming suburbs. Although
population grew 10 percent in the 1980s, retail floor space grew 80 percent, mostly
because of the feverish construction of suburban shopping malls in edge cities.
Residential development has also migrated, as the declining real wages of the middle
class have encouraged the search for ever-cheaper housing at the periphery. In pursuit of
cheaper land, less-congested highways, and new markets, new edge city growth has
manifested itself in urban-sprawl patterns of ever-lower overall densities and everescalating
automobile use. In the 1990s, this prompted new urbanist efforts to reconfigure
edge cities into more compact, transit-oriented development as well as the Environmental
Protection Agency’s Smart Growth policies.
Other names for edge cities emphasize their various characteristics. “Exurbs” or
“urban sprawl” are popular and also emphasize distance from the city center. Richard
Louv’s (1983) early writing on the subject and his use of the term anticity emphasized not
simply the physical distance from the city but also the deliberate way in which new
master-planned communities at Irvine, California, or outside Houston and Phoenix have
turned their backs on the city. By the late 1980s, the agglomeration of such developments
led to the coining of more terms. Cyburbia and Robert Fishman’s technoburb, for example, emphasize these
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regions’ participation in the digital economy, exemplified by California’s Silicon Valley
and Boston’s high-tech corridor along Route 128. The U.S. Congress’s Office of
Technological Assessment reinforces this role by its use of the term postindustrial metropoli tan development. Jonathan
Barnett has focused on the unplanned and haphazard process of their maturation; he cites
Tysons Corner, Virginia, as a prime example. A sleepy crossroads in the 1960s, by the
1990s Tysons Corner had two very large malls and as much office space as downtown
Washington, D.C., but no sidewalks and notorious traffic jams.
Edge city remains the most commonly used term, both for its simplicity and because
of the wealth of description and study given to it in Garreau’s definitive book as well as
in critical discussion that followed. However, Garreau’s unwavering enthusiasm for the
developers of edge cities as cowboy pioneers and innovative entrepreneurs responding to
new needs and desires has not been shared by many other authors on the subject. The
critics of edge cities find them banal, highly privatized, fragmented, and destructive to
both environmental and communal sustainability. Garreau dismisses such critics as elite,
moralizing snobs and raises the question whether the market responds to and promotes
individual freedoms better than planners and designers. The discourse on edge cities is
continuing to grapple with this and related questions.

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