The skyline of an edge city
Madison McVeigh/CityLab

It was one of the most talked-about urbanist books, and ideas, a generation ago. What ever happened to Joel Garreau’s concept of the “edge city”?

Dan Cowhey knows his community is changing, and he thinks he knows how to stop it. The 30-something activist in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, is organizing opposition to a proposal to build a light-rail line between the suburb and Philadelphia, some 10 miles away.

The rail line would be a boon for the city workers who currently rely on an overcrowded bus to get to their jobs at one of America’s largest malls. But Cowhey and other critics say it is an expensive boondoggle that would disrupt their quality of life.

At a public meeting last year, he grappled with how, exactly, the rail line might change his community. “I know the term ‘edge city’ is being thrown around [but] a lot of King of Prussia residents [don’t want] to become a city,” Cowhey said, as reported in the publication PlanPhilly. “They want to keep that little bit of small town feel that’s left in King of Prussia.”

It’s true that Cowhey’s King of Prussia is changing, and not just because of the light rail. There is more than $1 billion worth of new development going into this corner of Upper Merion Township, including 3,000 units of housing to add to the existing 12 million square feet of office space. So, yes, something is happening in King of Prussia.

But is it an “edge city”? What is an “edge city”?

Reached recently by phone, Cowhey said he used the term because the business improvement district uses it to promote new development and the rail project. “It’s a buzz word more than anything,” he said.

The term did, indeed, start out as something of a buzz word. Joel Garreau coined it in his 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, an account of how America was rebuilding itself at the end of the 20th century.

For years, all across the country, stores, offices, and entertainment had been retreating into the suburban and exurban hinterlands where the middle class had decamped. What were these new environments—the diffuse and auto-friendly, urban-ish forms that had sprouted from Century City, Los Angeles, to Princeton’s Route 1, to Tyson’s Corner, Virginia?

In his book, Garreau, then a journalist at The Washington Post, tried to explain the suburbanization of, well, everything, and distilled it into a catchy phrase. In the back of the book, he listed all the “edge cities” he’d identified around America. King of Prussia was one. At the time, Cowhey was about six years old.

A familiar sight to urbanists of the 1990s (© Anchor Books)

Edge City became a must-read among planners, developers, and urban leaders in the ’90s. “I certainly went right out and bought it,” recalled former mayor of Albuquerque David Rusk. But it was also a bestseller that broke into the popular consciousness. (This writer’s father, who doesn’t follow urban issues closely, distinctly remembered the hubbub around the book’s release.)

Garreau’s vivid, conversational prose hooked readers on what could have been a dry topic:

Every single American city that is growing, is growing in the fashion of Los Angeles, with multiple urban cores. Buildings rarely rise shoulder to shoulder, as in Chicago’s Loop. Instead, their broad, low outlines dot the landscape like mushrooms, separated by greensward and parking lots. Their office towers, frequently guarded by trees, gaze at one another from respectful distances …

Even after it stopped being the flavor of the month, its influence endured. Google Scholar shows over 3,000 citations for the book, and the term that Garreau invented still enjoys widespread use.

“It’s great reporting, lovely writing. Certainly the best, most important, most quick-to-the-scene coverage of a hugely important trend,” said Jeff Speck, a city planner and author of Walkable City. “But it’s weak on the underlying structures, mechanisms, laws that caused sprawl to happen. It’s actually wrong about it.”

***

The germ of Edge City was planted in Garreau’s mind, he said in an interview with CityLab, when homebuilders started snapping up farms around his home in rural Fauquier County, Virginia. He couldn’t understand why development was advancing 40 miles from Washington. It seemed strange and wrong. “What particularly amazed me was, farther east toward Washington, I could see not just residential development, but all these office towers going up,” Garreau said.

If he didn’t understand what was happening, he reasoned, that probably meant a lot of other people didn’t, either. And that meant there could be a book, or at least some articles, about these newfangled developments far from the downtown core.

Joel Garreau (garreau.com)

“I started out with a lot of conventional wisdom,” recalled Garreau, who now teaches at Arizona State University, as well as running a consulting group and being a fellow at the New America Foundation.* “One [assumption] was that suburbs were morally wrong. The only kind of built environment that was morally correct was the old downtowns. I believed planners were in charge of creating the built environment, and cities were created by master architects.”

On the ground, in places like White Plains, New York, and Houston’s Galleria, he found instead that developers reigned supreme. So he decided to find out why they thought Tyson’s Corner was what Americans wanted.

“I just couldn’t believe it. I thought it was self-evidently preposterous that the sprawl I saw around me, that was about to envelop my farm, was what we want,” said Garreau. He was in for a rude surprise. “The answer turns out to be breathtaking: As Americans, as a culture, we are a bunch of people who will put an almost unlimited value on individualism and freedom.”

The basic formulation he sketched out in the book was simple: Although Americans fled cities for suburbia in the 1950s and 1960s, stores and especially offices stayed put downtown. But as the urban crisis reached its nadir in the 1970s and 1980s, and as work tilted further from factories to clerical and professional jobs, the jobs followed the people. And as women joined the workforce en masse and automobiles proliferated even more widely, new kinds of urban space were required to house all those cars.

Edge City offered a precise definition of “edge city.” It’s a place that has at least 5 million square feet of leasable office space, 600,000 square feet of retail space, and a population that increases at 9 a.m. on weekdays. It’s perceived locally as a destination for work, shopping, entertainment, and housing. Finally, it sits on land that, 35 years prior, was primarily rural or residential.

Garreau held up Tyson’s Corner as the paradigmatic edge city, but for the book, he spent time in nine such places around the United States. Already, he argued, edge cities accounted for two-thirds of all American office space. How could old cities compete?

***

From the beginning, there were critics who poked holes in Garreau’s theories.

In the New York Times, the historian Kenneth Jackson gave Edge City a positive review but wished for “a more analytical approach,” and noted that the book lacks “a summary of the data [Garreau] uses.” Jackson highlighted the book’s failure to mention the public policies that undergird the phenomena it describes (and restrict the freedom of choice that the author praises). These include the massive hidden subsidies for car ownership.

Also unnoted by Garreau were the federal incentives that propelled (white) Americans out of the city and into suburbs with artificially cheap housing. The local zoning laws that made it literally illegal to reproduce streetcar suburbs, let alone old-school downtowns, received scant comment.

A panorama of Tyson’s Corner in the 1980s (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)
Tyson’s Corner, aka Tysons, in 2017 (Tysons Partnership)

Similar criticisms can be found in a later book that took Garreau to task. Robert Lang’s 2003 Edgeless Cities was both a well-researched academic rebuttal to and proof of the influence of Garreau’s ideas. Lang argued that Garreau made a category error about American growth being captured by “edge cities.” Instead, he wrote, smaller office parks, with 1 million square feet or less, were the norm. Every ramp off the interstate was seeing office-sector growth, Lang maintained, not the dominant edge cities that Garreau described.

Take the thriving office market around Princeton, with millions of square feet of office real estate spread out over three counties. Garreau identified this as an edge city. But according to Lang, it is categorically different from the 26 million square feet of offices concentrated in Tyson’s Corner (which has since rebranded as Tysons).

“If Princeton and Tysons are the same thing, then there is no such thing as a typology,” Lang said recently. “I just didn’t think he had it right. It wasn’t that there weren’t ‘edge cities.’ It’s that there were [also] this other thing, called ‘edgeless cities,’ and they happened to constitute the majority of both Class A and Class B office space in America.”

“That guy really pisses me off,” said Garreau, when asked about Lang. “I’m a numbers guy, and he, with a magisterial wave of his arm, says that the edge city of Princeton Route 1 does not exist. Well, c’mon, man. Drive. Drive along there and look at these tall buildings. You can see them. They are just about the most visible objects I can think of in the world.”

Lang insisted he wasn’t trying to undermine Garreau’s thesis because of urbanist ideology. He’s a New Jersey guy, who lives in the suburbs. He just thinks edge cities like Tysons and the area around the Galleria in Houston were one market trend among many, and they never gained the prominence that Garreau predicted.

So where does that leave the edge city?

***

Today, not even Garreau thinks such developments are dominant. Instead, he points to the “Sante Fe-ing of the World.” Now that white-collar workers can work from anywhere, he believes, more of them are moving to places where they may have previously just vacationed—but which hold enough people like themselves that they can still enjoy face-to-face contact with others in their field. Small, beautiful cities that foster the arts and human engagement are the future.

“You are seeing these places all over, these urbane places without the urban,” Garreau said. “And if you want to call that Edge City 2.0, you can.”

Garreau dismissed the idea of a return to central cities as much ado about a handful of coastal locales that just happen to be home to most of the people who write and read about these kinds of things. The only downtowns that are seeing significant growth, he said, are New York, Washington, Boston, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco. All of them are very wealthy, and very non-representative.

“Yes, in six cities it’s happening, where the children of the people who read The New York Times live,” he said. “But I’m a numbers guy, and you’ll find that the vast majority of Millennials don’t live in the old downtowns but in the suburbs, like sensible human beings. Because that’s where the jobs are, or where their parents’ basements are if they don’t have a job.”

According to the urban researcher and developer Christopher Leinberger—who was writing about what would become known as edge cities back in the 1980s—the future doesn’t lie with old downtowns, “edgeless cities,” or “edge cities.” In the ’80s, auto-oriented urban environments were gaining market share at two to four times the pace of walkable urban environments, he said. Now the trend is moving in the exact opposite direction.

“There’s no question that sprawl is over,” said Leinberger. “It is back to the future, but it just won’t look like 50 years ago, where the high density only went to downtowns.” Both Leinberger and Lang say they are seeing the most growth in pedestrian-friendly urban areas. And that doesn’t mean super-dense central cities like New York and San Francisco. Rather, most of this growth is happening in densifying suburbs, including older, close-in suburbs that are being built up, such as Silver Spring, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia. (Garreau would call these edge cities; Lang wouldn’t.)

Garreau didn’t foresee the dramatic resurgence of big coastal cities: New York and San Francisco are a lot of things, but no one would call them relics now. His dismissal of public transit in Edge City comes off as rather shortsighted today. Other dated aspects of the book include quotes from Roger Stone about the fading relevance of race in American politics. (Oops.)

But Garreau’s attacks on those who reflexively dismiss suburbia still make for searing reading. He was right that developers, not planners or architects, have steered the creation of our urban environments. His rebuke of those who condemn all of suburbia as indistinct sprawl remains spot-on. Too little attention is still paid to the more suburban cities that have grown and grown, like Atlanta, Houston, and San Jose.

Given that suburbia is not an undifferentiated mass, “edge city” is still a useful concept in grappling with the diversity of extra-urban development. Commercial nodes like King of Prussia are densifying, but they aren’t going to turn into a new uptown like Silver Spring.

King of Prussia is simply too big, too sprawling, and too far from the central city to be anything but an edge city. With all the offices and housing currently under construction, it will be doing a pretty good impression of Tysons—but with more shopping—in 10 years.

And then Dan Cowhey will really have something to complain about.

*CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Garreau was a business journalist at The Washington Post, and that he now lives in Arizona; Garreau was not on the Post’s business desk, and he is still based in Virginia. The article has been updated.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    An Impressive, Unnecessary, Multi-City Bridge

    The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge is little more than propaganda announcing the unity of China and her former colonies, despite their very different historic, legal, and even transportation backgrounds.

  2. Illustration of a house with separate activities taking place in different rooms.
    POV

    The Case for Rooms

    It’s time to end the tyranny of open-concept interior design.

  3. The collapsed Morandi Bridge in the Italian city of Genoa.
    Transportation

    What Brought Down This Bridge in Genoa?

    The disaster has focused attention on the state of infrastructure built during the nation’s postwar boom.

  4. Graffiti on a wall reads "Tourist Go Home."
    Life

    The Global Tourism Backlash

    A surge in tourism has led to a backlash in cities where residents feel overrun. How can these cities use tourism to their benefit?

  5. Transportation

    The Automotive Liberation of Paris

    The city has waged a remarkably successful effort to get cars off its streets and reclaim walkable space. But it didn’t happen overnight.