Edge Cities: the Way We Live Now


October 14, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

The time was ripe. It had to happen. And it has. ''Edge City,'' the mushrooming office-corporate-shopping mall development circling America's cities, has finally been defined -- and hailed as ''the crucible of America's urban future.''

The book that does it is Joel Garreau's ''Edge City'' (Doubleday). It pokes so hard at our definition of who we are as a nation that it makes you nod your head in agreement -- or horror.

The alarm is generated by Mr. Garreau's assertion that Edge City development represents ''the culmination of a generation of individual American value decisions about the best ways to live, work and play'' -- an expression of our civilization so strong it will last well into the 21st century.

Unless you get turned on by sanitized shopping malls and suburban corporate office towers swimming in seas of parking lots, it's a bitter pill to swallow.

But Mr. Garreau is right-on when he names and describes the exurban agglomerates we built in the '80s, successors to the bedroom suburbs of the '50s and '60s and free-standing commercial malls of the '60s and '70s.

King of Prussia outside Philadelphia; Bloomington-Edina in the Twin Cities orbit; Houston's Galleria; Las Colinas on Dallas' western flank; Los Angeles' Marina Del Ray-Culver City office constellation -- to travel America today is to stumble continuously across these new creations. Mr. Garreau lists them all, coast to coast.

He neatly defines these new creations: They are places with 5 million square feet of office space (''a point of spontaneous combustion''), 600,000 square feet or more of retail space and more jobs than bedrooms. They occupy land that was probably empty 30 years ago, often located where a freeway radiating out of an old city center crosses a beltway.

''Edge City,'' Mr. Garreau notes, ''is a creation of the marketplace, and commercial real-estate agents are its most devoted acolytes.'' It features scads of parking, climate enclosure and a ''safe'' atmosphere to lure female shoppers.

If you doubt that Americans are making this choice, Mr. Garreau reminds you: ''We have not built a single old-style downtown from raw dirt in 75 years.''

Duly noted. But because so many of us shun old-fashioned downtowns and flock to the suburban periphery, does it follow that Edge City represents our ideal, the epitome of American civilization?

Mr. Garreau relates spending much of a Christmas season in Tysons Corner, Virginia, asking people how they liked it. ''Plastic,'' ''a hodgepodge,'' ''sterile,'' were the answers. Users say the place lacks livability, civilization, community, neighborhood, even soul.

So why do they go there? Maybe because malls are convenient, and edge-city malls are the biggest.

But edge cities may also be visited because they're the only choice the developers offer us. (Mr. Garreau has a delightful description of developers as people who ''run the numbers,'' possessing a rare ability ''to do fairly high-level arithmetic, in their heads, while talking about a completely different topic.'')

But the developer decisions shaping our world are 100 percent marketplace- and numbers-driven. Those decisions allow the minimum of people-mixing ''atria'' and pieces of ''plop art'' necessary for a commercial draw.

Edge cities are driven exclusively by the urge to make a buck.

Traditional cities had lots of profit-taking, too. Some were dominated by big, ugly and oftentimes belching factories. But they also had boulevards, proud city halls, grand parks, concert halls, museums. They were expressions of a shared public life and a culture deeper than commerce alone. They were places for everyone.

To celebrate the edge city as the height of our civilization, or hail the developers as ''the Medici of the 20th century'' (as Mr. Garreau quoted a Houston planner), is the logical equivalent of anointing prime-time television as our ultimate artistic expression. Just because it sells, doesn't mean we have to worship it.

There's another flaw in the ''it exists, therefore it's good'' argument: It was not public demand but spurious savings-and-loan and bank financing that lay behind many edge-city towers of the late '80s. We may not know their final cost to America's taxpayers until today's wave of bank failures subsides.

Edge cities, Mr. Garreau tells us, are more often than not run by ''shadow governments'' -- private owners who set the terms for policing, bus circulator systems, child care, the fees that are the functional equivalent of taxes in a normally run town or city.

Shadow governments keep the homeless, the poor, beggars, anyone inconvenient out of their new American ''Main Streets.'' If they don't like a newspaper, they can ban its distribution on their premises. They're omnipotent, extra-constitutional in their spheres. If you don't like the terms, your only option is to leave. So much for the burgeoning of democracy.

The ''up side'' of edge cities for too many of us may be that they let you ''opt out,'' get away from ''other'' kinds of people in a nation inexorably turning multiethnic and multicultural.

Their ''down side'' is that they hand over rights to private commercial operators, who decide who gets in, who's kept out, politics, public safety and aesthetics. It may turn out to be a Faustian deal.

A5 Neal R. Peirce writes on state and urban affairs.

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