My Amazon book purchases with Christmas money have all arrived in the past few days, leaving me with an exciting – but somewhat daunting – reading list over the next few weeks:
- When Oil Peaked by Kenneth S. Deffeyes
- Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson
- Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil by Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl
- Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives by Jarrett Walker
- Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities by Michael Southworth and Eran Ben-Joseph
- Edge City: Life on the New Frontier by Joel Garreau
Typically, I’ve started somewhat madly by reading through the first few pages of each book. But generally it seems like I’ll be digging through Human Transit and Edge City first. While I’ve only read the first couple of chapters of Edge City, it has thrown up some interesting thoughts – particularly as it’s written from a perspective that’s fairly different to mine and, given it was written in 1992, gives us some perspective in the way that things might have changed over the past 20 years.
An Amazon review give us a reasonably good overview of what the book is about:
This book explores what has become of the suburbs. Garreau’s argues that certain suburbs have developed into a new kind of city, a city without a traditional downtown. He believes that such “edge cities”, are the cities of the future. Garreau’s criteria for an “edge city” are:
–5 million square feet or more of office space
–600,000 square feet or more of retail space
–more jobs than bedrooms
–perceived as one place by the population
–developed within the last 30 years
With these criteria in mind, Garreau sets off across the US to study our major edge cities. He explores edge cities in New Jersey, Texas, Southern California, and the areas around Boston, Detroit, Atlanta, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. In each area that he visits, Garreau takes up an edge city theme. For instance, in Detroit he discusses cars and the role they play in edge cities, and in Atlanta he discusses questions of race and class in edge cities.
At the end of the book is a list of US cities that qualified for edge city status in 1992. This is followed by a glossary of words used by edge city developers and a set of “laws” about how edge cities work. These “laws” are statistical observations about human behavior relevant for city planning, such as “the furthest distance an American will willing walk before getting into a car is 600 feet.” Finally, there is an annotated list of suggested readings, endnotes, and an index.
Garreau is neither for nor against edge cities. He tries instead to understand how they work, and why they have popped up so rapidly across the country. He strives to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, coming across more like Jane Jacobs than Lewis Mumford, who argued so stridently for regional planning. Garreau points out that edge cities are being built by developers who are in the business to make money. In other words, they build what they believe will sell, and given the fact that the developments sell so well, a lot of Americans are making the conscious decision that they want to live in edge city developments. Through interviews with developers, employers, and residents, Garreau explores the factors that make edge cities so popular.
He writes “Maybe it worked like this. The force that drove the creation of Edge City was our search deep inside ourselves for a new balance of individualism and freedom. We wanted to build a world in which we could live in one place, work in another, and play in a third, in unlimited combination, as a way to nurture our human potential. This demanded transportation that would allow us to go where we wanted, when we wanted. That enshrined the individual transportation system, the automobile, in our lives. And that led us to build our market meeting places in the fashion of today’s malls.” Cars are key elements in this phenomenon. They make it possible for people to separate their workplaces from the residences, and they define the distances which are considered commutable. They make it possible for people to live spread out enough from each other that everyone can have a front yard, yet at the same time, for the development to be dense enough to support large employers and sophisticated shopping options.
While it’s correct to say that the book doesn’t come out strongly for or against the Edge City, the strong message that I’ve got from it so far is how inevitable the process of further decentralisation, auto-dependency and further creation of more Edge Cities seems to be. Places like Tysons Corner near Washington DC: Garreau describes, rather than promotes, the ‘fact’ that these type of places appear to clearly be the future of urban environments throughout the USA (and presumably, eventually the rest of the ‘new’ developed world). But there’s a sense of inevitability to the whole process, a surety that the future is more of the image above:
Americans are creating the biggest change in a hundred years in how we build cities. Every single American city that is growing, is growing in the fashion of Los Angeles, with multiple urban cores.
These new hearths of our civilisation – in which the majority of metropolitan Americans now work and around which we live – look not at all like our old downtowns. 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 through bands of glass that mirror in the sun in blue or silver or gold or green, like antique drawings of “the city of the future”…
…Our new city centres are tied together no by locomotives and subways, but by jetways, freeways, and rooftop satellite dishes thirty feet across. Their characteristic monument is not a horse-mounted hero, but the atria reaching for the sun and shielding trees perpetually in leaf at the cores of corporate headquarters, fitness centres and shopping plazas. These new urban areas are marked not by the penthouses of the old urban rich or the tenements of the old urban poor. Instead, their landmark structure is the celebrated single-family detached dwelling, the suburban home with grass all around the made America the best-housed civilisation the world has ever known.
You kind of see where the book is heading (although not in an uninteresting way). The supposed inevitability of further decentralisation, based around a car-centric transport system, also comes through in many of the more recent critiques of projects such as the City Rail Link, or in critiques of the metropolitan urban limit. Planning is thought to be working against natural processes of decentralisation, investment in public transport projects (other than a thoughtless “but buses can use roads too” slogan) is seen to be ignorant of changes to urban form, ignorant of a decreased role for the city centre in the future, and therefore just a waste of money.
The book’s observations are backed up by some quite interesting facts (remember, from 1992):
Already, two-thirds of all American office facilities are in Edge Cities, and 80 percent of them have materialised in only the last two decades. By the mid-1980s, there was far more office space in Edge Cities around America’s largest metropolis, New York, than there was at its heart – midtown Manhattan. Even before Wall Street faltered in the late 1980s there was less office space there, in New York’s downtown, that there was in the Edge Cities of New Jersey alone.
While Edge Cities continued to grow and multiply after 1992, over the past decade I think things have changed and seem likely to change further in the future. If we look at Auckland, the city centre is probably a more vibrant, thriving and dominant place than it has been for 20 years. If we look internationally, we see some trends of ‘recentralisation’ , particularly of residents but perhaps also of businesses too. This recent New York Times article was very interesting, when analysing the issue:
By now, nearly five years after the housing crash, most Americans understand that a mortgage meltdown was the catalyst for the Great Recession, facilitated by underregulation of finance and reckless risk-taking. Less understood is the divergence between center cities and inner-ring suburbs on one hand, and the suburban fringe on the other.
It was predominantly the collapse of the car-dependent suburban fringe that caused the mortgage collapse.
In the late 1990s, high-end outer suburbs contained most of the expensive housing in the United States, as measured by price per square foot, according to data I analyzed from the Zillow real estate database. Today, the most expensive housing is in the high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods of the center city and inner suburbs. Some of the most expensive neighborhoods in their metropolitan areas are Capitol Hill in Seattle; Virginia Highland in Atlanta; German Village in Columbus, Ohio, and Logan Circle in Washington. Considered slums as recently as 30 years ago, they have been transformed by gentrification.
Simply put, there has been a profound structural shift — a reversal of what took place in the 1950s, when drivable suburbs boomed and flourished as center cities emptied and withered.
The shift is durable and lasting because of a major demographic event: the convergence of the two largest generations in American history, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the millennials (born between 1979 and 1996), which today represent half of the total population.
Many boomers are now empty nesters and approaching retirement. Generally this means that they will downsize their housing in the near future. Boomers want to live in a walkable urban downtown, a suburban town center or a small town, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors.
This is quite a different vision for the future, and quite a different analysis of the current situation, to what we saw in 1992′s “Edge City”. Interestingly, in this more recent look at centralisation versus decentralisation, we see the “what does the market want” being flipped on its head:
Over all, only 12 percent of future homebuyers want the drivable suburban-fringe houses that are in such oversupply, according to the Realtors survey. This lack of demand all but guarantees continued price declines. Boomers selling their fringe housing will only add to the glut. Nothing the federal government can do will reverse this.
Many drivable-fringe house prices are now below replacement value, meaning the land under the house has no value and the sticks and bricks are worth less than they would cost to replace. This means there is no financial incentive to maintain the house; the next dollar invested will not be recouped upon resale. Many of these houses will be converted to rentals, which are rarely as well maintained as owner-occupied housing. Add the fact that the houses were built with cheap materials and methods to begin with, and you see why many fringe suburbs are turning into slums, with abandoned housing and rising crime.
The good news is that there is great pent-up demand for walkable, centrally located neighborhoods in cities like Portland, Denver, Philadelphia and Chattanooga, Tenn. The transformation of suburbia can be seen in places like Arlington County, Va., Bellevue, Wash., and Pasadena, Calif., where strip malls have been bulldozed and replaced by higher-density mixed-use developments with good transit connections.
It’s too early to tell for sure, but certainly my thinking is that while Edge City was very much correct in predicting what would happen for the rest of the 1990s, it wasn’t correct in thinking that dramatic decentralisation was going to continue forever. What will perhaps tell us most clearly which ways things are headed, in terms of the ‘decentralisation versus recentralisation debate’, is where new office space is constructed over the next 10-20 years. Auckland has seen a decentralisation of its office space to places like Albany, Smales Farm, Highbrook and Ellerslie over the past 20 years, but this trend seems to have ceased in more recent times.
Only time will tell us for sure whether ‘Edge City’ is the future, or whether it was a late 20th century aberration. Looking at the kind of urban environments it creates, I’m kind of hoping for the latter.