The Edge City Fallacy

New Urban Form or Same Old Megalopolis?

In Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, Joel Garreau performs the helpful service of focusing attention on the places where most Americans now live and work: the agglomerations of offices, stores, and dwellings that lie outside the political boundaries of central cities — the suburbs. In particular, he is fascinated by the suburban development of most recent vintage, that place out where the highways intersect, where a huge shopping mall and a cluster of office buildings, condos and smaller shopping plazas have mushroomed out of the corn fields. This Edge City, as Garreau anoints it, is any place that:

  • has five million square feet or more of leasable office space;
  • has 600,000 square feet or more of leasable retail space;
  • has more jobs than bedrooms;
  • is perceived by the population as one place; and
  • was nothing like “city” as recently as thirty years ago (6-7)
Joel Garreau's seminal book on late-20th century American suburbs
Joel Garreau's seminal book on late-20th century American suburbs

According to Garreau, Edge Cities are “the new hearths of our civilization — in which the majority of metropolitan Americans now work and around which we live” (3). By calling these suburban places cities, he forces us to confront the profound change in American patterns of working and living that has occurred in the fifty years since the end of the Great Depression.

Our notion of what qualifies as a “city” is based on the dense downtowns of skyscrapers embedded in a grid of streets and sidewalks — the central business district. Garreau asserts that dense central business districts “are relics of a time past. . . aberrations. We built cities that way for less than a century. . . from perhaps 1840 to 1920” (25). He further points out that prior to the industrial revolution, cities looked very different than the industrial city, but they were still cities, and that we haven’t built any cities in the style of “old-fashioned downtowns” for 75 years.

Garreau’s main project is to convince the reader that the Edge City is legitimately a city, and in this he mostly succeeds, touring the developing fringe areas of nine metropolitan areas in the United States to demonstrate that Edge Cities have much of the complexity, diversity, size and economic vitality of a downtown.

His argument is provocative and entertaining, and this book is a strong challenge to many of the cherished ideas of planners, architects and other design professionals. But, beyond this, Garreau wants to prove that the Edge City is an altogether new and different type of urban form that supersedes the denser, industrial age central city. For this reader, he fails in this effort. I am not convinced there is anything other than Edge Cities’ surface appearance that is qualitatively new or different from the “old-fashioned downtown.” Rather, he convinces me that despite the sea change in our patterns of living, socializing, working, and shopping, we are still building cities much the same way we have been for thousands of years, but their appearance and form is altered by the distinctive forces of the contemporary American economy.

This economy is one in which the Federal government has been the major agent for at least half a century, and its de facto urban policy has been to transfer capital, population, and jobs from central cities to suburbs and undeveloped outlying areas. Given these economic conditions, it is no wonder that the majority of high-density development takes place in the far-flung outer ring suburbs of American cities, and that it looks a good deal different than the central downtown.

In fact, the sprawled nature of the American metropolis is not new. Historian Kenneth Jackson notes that even before the postwar suburban boom, when the Census Bureau announced that more than half of Americans lived in cities in 1920, “what was unique about the United States was not the size of its huge cities, but the extent of their suburban sprawl” (190).

Garreau considers Edge Cities to be independent economic entities, but they are actually only part of the distinctive 20th century metropolis, which has spread far beyond its old industrial age boundaries. Although Edge Cities are located outside the political boundaries of the older central cities, they remain within the central city’s orbit as part of metro-wide markets of land, labor, and capital. Indeed, not a single Edge City has developed outside of a metropolitan area.

But putting their metropolitan context aside, the main reason Joel Garreau’s argument is unconvincing is that he fails to take the Federal government’s involvement in suburbanization into account. Instead, he operates on the commonly held, but mistaken, assumption that commercial and residential development in the United States over the last fifty years has taken place in a relatively free market with no significant government intervention. Even many planners hold this view, often decrying America’s lack of a national urban policy. Yet in recent years a number of historians, economists, planners and other writers have persuasively demonstrated the large scale role the Federal government has always played in setting the terms of metropolitan economies, particularly since the New Deal.

In the story of Edge City, Garreau’s heroes are the pioneering entrepreneurs who broke ranks with the status quo and moved their homes and businesses from central cities to suburbs. The real estate developers are the new visionaries, seeing the potential gold mine of suburban land where planners and government bureaucrats only saw a cheap and easy opportunity to obtain the right-of-way for a highway bypass that would steer through traffic away from the city center.

This is the old boot-strapping myth so cherished in American history, and Garreau relies on it in all its glory to provide the context of the “new frontier” of Edge City just as it has provided the context for the “opening of the American West.” The problem with this myth is that it acts as though pioneers succeed all on their own, without any help from outside sources.

But, from the “opening of the American West” to the development of suburbs, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as Stephanie Coontz points out, one of the preeminent stories to advance this myth, The Little House on the Prairie books and television series “in which the isolated family is pitted against the elements and makes it — or doesn’t — with no help from the community” was concocted as an ideological attack on government programs by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, who extensively rewrote her mother’s memoirs (Coontz, 73). The reality is that the “opening of the American West” to settlement by Europeans was the result of national policies going back to the Monroe Doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

Pioneer families [owe] their existence to massive federal land grants, government-funded military mobilizations that dispossessed hundreds of Native American societies and confiscated half of Mexico, and state-sponsored economic investment in the new lands. (Coontz, 75)

However, pioneer families were not the major developers of the West — wealthy individuals and their logging, mining, and railroad companies were.

The real story of suburbanization is not very different, but Garreau’s Edge City ignores the extent to which government was responsible for the creation of suburbia over the last fifty years. He takes the boot-strapping myth for the truth, when it is actually only convenient political cover for the fact that the real beneficiaries of government largesse are not pioneering individual Americans, but the wealthy corporations and individuals who are able to control the levers of economic development and growth.

Low density living has been promoted among Americans of all classes, races, and regions throughout our history, and high mobility has long been a mark of American society. However, it is debatable whether low-density living and high mobility are really the preferences of most Americans. Historians such as Stephanie Coontz and Linda Gordon argue they were actually only the preferences of 19th and 20th century’s elite upper-middle class who had the wealth and power to prescribe them for everyone as the best and proper way to live. Specifically, these were the attitudes of upper-middle class reformers who have crafted federal and state programs and policies since the New Deal. But regardless of the actual extent of Americans’ preferences for low-density living and high mobility, government policies along those lines have been the decisive factor in allowing these attitudes to be translated into real patterns of settlement with the force of all-encompassing ideologies.

In the suburbanization that has occurred in America during the 20th century, there have been at least four major factors: a transportation policy emphasizing and benefiting the road, the truck and the private automobile; a housing policy that has favored single family detached homes in undeveloped areas over multiple unit dwellings in already developed areas; federal tax policies that encourage new investment to take place in less developed areas instead of already developed urban cores; and a national defense policy that has subsidized the movement and restructuring of industry to favor suburban locations over central city ones.

These factors are only part of a diverse array of government policies that set the terms by which development occurs in the United States, and they all favor suburbs over central cities. In the last thirty years, when Garreau’s Edge Cities developed, these factors and policies only became stronger and more influential in the economic life of the United States.

Transportation policies since the Federal Highway Act of 1916 have favored increasingly sprawled suburbs over more compact central cities in a number of ways. That Act began the construction of a nationwide highway system that was federally financed. Highway acts in 1947 and 1956 collectively added about 80,000 miles of interstates to the system, 90% of which was federally financed (Coontz, 78). Coontz observes that “despite arguments that road building served ‘national interests,’ urban interstates were primarily ‘turned into commuter roads serving suburbia.'”

At the same time that roads were viewed as a public good to be made possible through government action, mass transit was expected to pay for itself. As inflation rose during the early decades of the 20th century, streetcar and subway companies were prevented from raising their fares, and went bankrupt one by one. Some were taken over by municipal governments, particularly in cities like Boston and New York, where the municipal governments had been heavily involved in financing these once-private transit companies. Yet the expectation that they should pay for themselves lingered, and subsidies were rare and small. As Kenneth Jackson puts it, “Americans taxed and harassed public transportation, even while subsidizing the automobile like a pampered child.” In the resulting transportation network, central cities lost out to suburbs.

The ways in which federal housing policies have favored suburban development at the expense of development in central cities are clearly and exhaustively examined in Chapter 11 of Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, “Federal Subsidy and the American Dream: How Washington Changed the American Housing Market,” as well as in Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were. From the “incentive to detached home living provided by the deduction of mortgage interest and real-estate taxes from. . . gross income” to low-interest, long-term mortgages requiring only a small down payment that were made possible through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the GI Bill, the Federal government has done a great deal to enable masses of Americans to own their own detached homes. These housing-specific policies were augmented by “government funded research that developed the aluminum clapboards, prefabricated walls and ceilings, and plywood paneling that composed the technological basis of the postwar housing revolution” (Coontz, 77). “Quite simply, it became cheaper to buy than to rent” (Jackson, 205).

Furthermore, during its first four decades, the bulk of FHA mortgage insurance was issued for homes in the suburbs, and half of all suburban residential development was financed through the FHA or the Veterans Administration during the 1950s and 1960s (215). The FHA’s mortgage insurance programs did more to shape the residential patterns of Americans than any other factor since the Great Depression, but Garreau fails to mention its influence anywhere in Edge City’s 500 pages.

The third major factor in the shaping of 20th century America is the transfer of jobs from older central cities to outlying suburbs through federal tax policies. Jackson points out that:

. . . the federal tax code encourages businesses to abandon old structures before their useful life is at an end by permitting greater tax benefits for new construction than for the improvement of existing buildings. Thus, the government subsidizes an acceleration in the rate at which economic activity is dispersed to new locations. (191)

This acceleration is just one of ways the federal tax code encourages new investment in the less developed areas on the edge of cities, but there are many others — too many to cover here. But the sum result is that private commercial development is shunted away from the central core of our cities and towards the suburbs.

In addition, the real-estate tax deduction mentioned earlier gives homeowners — concentrated in suburbs — a way to pay a smaller share of the cost of their own federally-subsidized infrastructure. Renters, who are concentrated in central cities, have no property tax to deduct, and therefore pay a relatively larger-than-fair share of the costs for the water, sewage, highway, and other improvements that mainly benefit suburbanites.

The fourth major factor that rewards suburbs while depriving central cities of private commercial investment is defense spending. Regional economist Ann Markusen has shown how the military buildup of the 1980s set a de facto industrial policy for the United States that favored suburban and exurban areas and also favored the more sprawled metropolises of the South and West over the denser, more compact metropolises of the Northeast (510). The fact that the Defense Department fully reimbursed military contractors for the costs of relocating personnel recruited in other parts of the country, combined with the fact that the defense-related workforce was the fastest growing segment of the nation’s manufacturing work only further contributed to the redistribution of population from city center to suburb and from older metropolises in the Northeast to newer, suburbanized metropolises in the South and West. Of course, determining what proportion of the total relocation of population was federally subsidized would require further research.

The 1980s military buildup coincides with an acceleration in the rate of growth of Garreau’s Edge Cities. A quick look at the companies Garreau catalogs as the major employers in Edge Cities shows that a large proportion of them are in defense-related industries. Other economists and historians have charted similar effects of defense spending back to 1920. In addition, prior to the 1980s, the most densely urbanized metropolises contributed significantly more to federal revenues than they were returned in federal expenditures. During the 1980s, this gap widened even further as a larger and larger proportion of the federal budget was devoted to defense (Jackson, 191). Meanwhile, suburban areas continued to receive more in federal money than they contributed to the pot of federal revenue.

Taken together, these federal government programs and policies relating to transportation, housing, private commercial development and defense-related development tilt the playing field in favor of less developed suburban areas and away from central cities. Joel Garreau fails to recognize the extent to which government sets the “rules of the game” of private development in housing and commerce, and instead assumes that the development of Edge Cities is the natural result of market forces and economic restructuring. However, had government set the rules of the game differently, in ways that were not so biased towards suburban development, most likely, the dense development of Edge Cities would have occurred within the central cities of America’s existing major metropolises and would have expanded the central cores of some smaller cities, which might have become full-fledged metropolises themselves.

As it was, in the 1970s, the United States once again began building dense urban cores, but because of government intervention in a host of economic areas, this development occurred on the fringes and not at the center of metropolitan areas. That these Edge Cities were less compact than older central cities and look quite different in their pattern, layout, and infrastructure is a reflection of the zoning, building, and land use ordinances, technological requirements and possibilities, and dominant modes of transportation that set the local rules of the game in these areas.

Garreau’s central assertion — that the Edge City is an altogether new and different type of urban form that supersedes the denser, industrial age central city — is therefore an erroneous and misleading conclusion to an otherwise thoughtful and insightful examination of the way we build cities in the late years of the 20th century. In addition, his at times gleeful celebration of suburban Edge Cities as “America’s urban future” is extremely disturbing when one recognizes the pernicious racial and class segregation that has been part and parcel of many of the government policies that are responsible for suburbanization — a central component of this vast social change that I have ignored in my discussion only for reasons of brevity.