Home / General / Joel Garreau’s Disconnect with Reality

Joel Garreau’s Disconnect with Reality


Joel Garreau is one of the most important popular writers about urbanism over the past two decades. His influential book, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, described the development of so-called Edge Cities, far suburbs largely disconnected from the central city that arise out of rural environments providing all the amenities of the central city while allowing residents to live the late 20th/early 21st century version of the American Dream. According to Garreau, the Edge City must have the following characteristics:

1. It must have more than five million square feet (465,000 m²) of office space. Such an area can accommodate between 20,000 and 50,000 office workers – as many as some traditional downtowns.
2. It must have more than 600,000 square feet (56,000 m²) of retail space, the size of a medium shopping mall. This ensures that the edge city is a center of recreation and commerce as well as of office work.
3. It must be characterized by more jobs than bedrooms.
4. It must be perceived by the population as one place.
5. It must have had no urban characteristics 30 years earlier.

Garreau’s book made sense within the go-go late 20th century economic boom characterized by extreme suburbanization, McMansions (though I prefer the term “starter castles” that a friend of mine uses), technological futurism, and expanding middle-class wealth.

Garreau developed these ideas as a reporter for the Washington Post, a newspaper he still sometimes writes for, though he wears many hats these days. Unfortunately, his thinking on urbanism hasn’t much evolved with the times.

Saturday, the Post ran a lengthy piece on Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, an edge city that has risen out of nowhere in northern Virginia to become a huge center of office space and rapid population growth, even though it barely has a municipal government. Garreau loves this kind of place. Unfortunately, he thinks Tyson’s Corner is only the beginning and in doing so, shows he is way, way out of touch with average Americans. I quote in length to provide proper context.

The jostling for position, however, also shows a fundamental strength that economic and real estate analysts say is likely to carry Tysons. Investors are aggressively seeking and signing deals there, said John Sikaitis, senior vice president for research at the brokerage firm Jones Lang LaSalle, and spending millions of dollars on engineers, architects, lawyers and consultants to advance their plans.

Sikaitis said the federal government and its related industries have been such a dependable source of jobs and growth for the region that Washington — and Tysons in particular — has better long-term prospects than perhaps any other market in the country.

“You haven’t seen a lot of urbanized new cities pop up because the demographic shifts in patterns just aren’t there in the regions,” Sikaitis said. “D.C. actually has those demographic shifts that are promising for Tysons.”

But according to Garreau, the author, none of that will matter. He has new ideas about American communities in a post- “Edge City” world. They are based on the same fundamental theory: Civilizations form according to the day’s optimal form of transportation.

“The state-of-the-art transportation device today is the automobile, the jet plane and the network computer,” he said.

With broadband, employees no longer need to physically be transported to work. He sees Americans moving to scenic, ideal locations such as the mountains of Montana or the hills of Santa Fe. Garreau splits his time between Fauquier County and Arizona.

“What you’re seeing now is what I call the Santa Fe-ing of the world, or the Santa Fe-ing of America,” he said. “The fastest growth you’re seeing is in small urban areas in beautiful places, because now you’ve got e-mail and Web and laptops and iPhones and all that jazz.”

As that dynamic grows, Garreau said, face-to-face contact on the street is more critical than ever to the success of cities. He calls it “the one and only reason for cities in the future: face-to-face contact. Period. Full Stop.”

“Are they good places for face-to-face contact?” he said. “Because if they are, they’ll thrive. If they’re not, they’ll die.”

The Santa Fe-ing of America.

I don’t think so.

Garreau views the future of America with an almost stereotypical technological optimism that envisions a bright shiny tomorrow replete with cheap airfare, super-high speed wireless, and a spatially disparate populace that does not need traditional urban centers to survive because we are all working in the information economy and therefore can operate from our home offices. That’d be great if it was possible. Instead, this dream has fallen apart with the intractable economic problems. The information economy is not working. Rather than provide us with greater income and spatial mobility, the last decade has seen real economic decline for the middle-class, rapidly rising transportation prices, and a fewer, increasingly tenuous, middle-class jobs.

But Joel Garreau doesn’t have to worry about this. The information economy is working great for he and his friends. He can hop on a plane from Arizona to D.C. anytime he wants because he is well-heeled. His Beltway friends are the same. Everything is hunky dory! This is really the worst kind of punditry–the assumption that one’s life is representative of the entire nation. This is self-justification of elite lifestyles.

I don’t know what our urban future looks like. I know enough about the history of urban planning to distrust prognosticators and technological futurism like that of Garreau.

Moreover, it would seem that Garreau needs to spend some more time in his edge cities, somewhere in the suburbs north of Dallas or in some soulless development on the I-4 corridor. Because the idea that Santa Fe is the future of American cities is beyond laughable. First, people aren’t moving to Santa Fe, they are moving to Round Rock and Orange County. Average people cannot afford to live in Santa Fe. This Santa Fe example shines a light on Garreau’s own lifestyle. As a former resident of Santa Fe, allow me to state that most of the city’s growth is made up of wealthy easterners looking to play Cowboys and Indians in an 8000 square foot mansion with great views of the mesas and desert sunsets while wearing hoop skirts and buckskin with fringe. I believe Santa Fe is no longer majority Latino because poor people have been pushed out to the margins of the city, so that the workers that make this elite lifestyle possible live in unincorporated communities outside of town or even have to drive from as far away as Espanola and Chimayo, towns with astronomical death rates from heroin overdoses.

So Joel Garreau and his friends may be able to live in Santa Fe or Aspen or Sedona and fly back east when they need to meet with people. But to generalize this as the future of American cities suggests a massive disconnect with the economic reality of the United States in 2011.

I’m hardly the only person who has taken swipes at Garreau in the last day. Writers ranging from Matt Yglesias to David Frum have noted how stupid Garreau’s statements were (though the idea of Frum saying he likes walkable cities while working for a president whose every urban and economic policy were designed to undermine traditional urban structures is laughable). And I figure if I agree with Frum, the individual in question must be pretty out to lunch.

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  • Two observations, because frankly this is a development I’d actually like to see happen in America, for energy sake.

    1) The best seed for these edge cities are malls. You already have a busy parking lot, road access and usually public transportation nearby. Often, office parks spring up nearby anyway.

    2) Moderate and low income housing is an essentially needed feature. Without (and I suspect Garreau ignores this, tl;dr) this, your edge city is doomed from the start.

    • AGM

      There is no energy saving. My anecdotal experience from having worked in an edge city outside a real city is most people who work in edge cities don’t live there and most people who live there don’t work there. Most white collar work is too specialised, or at least those who do it like to believe it’s too specialised to draw from such a small pool of potential employees.

      • Specifically, where is this edge city?

        • L2P

          Why, for a prime example you could look at . . . Tyson’s Corner! You think the McDonalds cashier lives there? The janitor? I hauled ass from Alexandria for two summers to the mall to sell Tshirts. The commuters from Tyson’s to DC are easy to spot – look for the bumper stickers. There aren’t THAT many $200k jobs in the that city.

          And that ain’t changing. Nobody in Tyson’s Corner wants to live with a bunch of maids and busboys.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    “The state-of-the-art transportation device today is the automobile, the jet plane and the network computer,” he said.

    Garreau sounds like (trying to be generous here) an idiot that is out of touch with reality. But really, anyone in an era of peak oil who thinks the car and jet plane is the end all and be all of planning is a fucking idiot.

    A large part of the problem with suburban and exurban growth is long commute distances and a reliance on automobiles. That kind of living is simply unsustainable for too much longer.

    And yeah, working in 15 story suburban high rises isn’t the economic reality for most Americans.

    • Bighank53

      This guy needs to spend a year living in a trailer park somewhere. It probably wouldn’t change his mind about anything, but he might just realize how lucky he is.

    • DrDick

      Worse, as Atrios points out today, poor people really cannot afford the cars needed to commute to these jobs.

      • Right; these people living in Espanola and commuting to Santa Fe are paying a ton of money in gas and car repairs. Not to mention the cost in time and potential accidents in hauling your car up a mountain to get to and from work in the winter.

  • Malaclypse

    Average people cannot afford to live in Santa Fe.

    But I spoke to a cab driver just last week, who thought that increasing the water burden of a desert city was a Good Idea, and planned on moving there right away.

    • DrDick

      From a purely ecological and long term economic perspective, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and LA are completely insane. The costs of subsidizing them is immense.

      • Malaclypse

        A couple of years ago, I visited a cousin in Utah. I remember telling her how, despite my living 5 miles from an ocean, I was not able to legally water my lawn, and asked her how, in a desert, everybody was able to have lush, green lawns.

        “We just care about making things look nice.”

        You could not pay me to live in the Southwest. When all that water shortage hits home, there will be a world of hurt.

        • Well, what I think is actually going to eventually happen with water in the Southwest is that the cities are going to steal it from agriculture. I know ag interests are very powerful, but the West is also an overwhelming urban place and the interests and money are going to be behind the developers.

          • Marek

            And when the stolen water runs out?

            • Michael H Schneider

              And when the stolen water runs out?

              DARPA is already working on WTP:// , the Water Transfer Protocol. It will allow users in the first world to stream the water that the the third world residents of big river deltas won’t need. That water will become available as climate change drowns the people currently using it. Win-win!

              Shorter me: steal more.

          • DrDick

            That has already happened in LA, though the battle continues to rage.

          • L2P

            One man’s stealing is another man’s buying, I guess. The only thing stopping Phoenix from buying up all the farmland in Nevada and saying we’re taking those water rights for us’n in Zona is our desire to see the desert bloom with barley.

            I’m not sure why that’s such a bad thing. It’s not like the 11th Commandment said “Thou shalt make sure that agricultural water is cheap and plentiful, regardless of the needs of urban user.”

            • DrDick

              It’s not like the 11th Commandment said “Thou shalt make sure that agricultural water is cheap and plentiful, regardless of the needs of urban user.”

              One word: Food.

          • H. Wren

            Start stealing it? While most of Colorado isn’t technically in the Southwest, the only way that any of the growing suburban/exurban communities along the Front Range Urban Corridor can get water rights are to get it from agriculture, whether by legal means or subterfuge. (Further transmountain diversions are both too complicated and essentially political suicide for anyone who advocated for them.)

    • Marek

      teh awesome

  • AcademicLurker

    I believe that Edge Cities had a cameo appearance in A Man in Full.

    The millionaire real estate tycoon main character was up to his eyeballs in debt because of a boondogle project he started after being inspired by Edge Cities.

    • dave

      Isn’t that basically the whole history of southern California?

  • jon

    Edge cities work by developing agricultural and low price lands that can draw on preexisting suburban worker populations that no longer need to commute into center cities. Edge cities are campuses on single use/single occupant buildings, clustered yet isolated.

    As edge cities develop, they have outsized calls on many resources, such as transportation and roadway capacity, which rapidly outstrip the ability to provide for them and maintain their viability over time. Places like Tysons Corner have near gridlock traffic all day long, and have had to turn to transit lines and creating dense nearby multiunit housing in order to maintain growth and viability. These are not places that will find it easy to thrive over the long haul.

    • Bighank53

      Tyson’s revenue base is based on one thing and one thing only: federal jobs. Enact the Hoover-style cutbacks the GOP keeps wanking over and you’ll be able to watch it turn into East Las Vegas.

      • snarkout

        I actually used to work in Tyson’s, and I believe that if Booz Allen was forced to close shop, the vast tax base provided by the Lord and Taylor at the mall would keep things trucking along.

        (Seriously, people seem to be giving some real thought to how to make Tyson’s more like Arlington, and more power to them if they can pull off even half of what they want. But I don’t think they will. Even a Metro stop will be a huge help, though.)

  • chancery

    Good article. But:

    “working great for he and his friends”


  • Hanspeter

    4. It must be perceived by the population as one place.

    Yes, Tyson’s Corner is perceived by the locals as one thing: a traffic clusterf***.

  • Alan Tomlinson

    The Nine Nations of North America by Garreau is a significantly better book(than Edge City but it too suffers from being profoundly dated.


    Alan Tomlinson

  • Edge City is also a good book, which was published in 1991. If someone is using that as the only lens to look at 2011, no wonder there’s trouble.

    On the other hand, Tysons was substantial enough 20 years ago to be worth examining. It’s only grown over the intervening time. Pretending it isn’t there or isn’t worth understanding or “shouldn’t” exist, strikes me as equally silly.

  • cpinva

    both mr. garreau and the wp are about 40 years behind the times. on the left hand of the curve as it were. first off, tysons corner is hardly an “edge city”, by mr. garreau’s definition anyway. it never was and isn’t now. it started out in the early 70’s as the location of high-end shopping, right off the beltway (495). the area wasn’t rural then, it was suburban, bedroom communities for DC.

    it exploded during the gov’t “downsizing” of the reagan administration, with the construction of office space to accomodate all the beltway bandits who flooded into town. it now suffers from what sociologists refer to as “crowded rat syndrome”, too many people and vehicles crammed into a relatively small area. of course, one could legitimately make that claim for nearly the entirety of NVA.

    with regards to the “edge city” concept itself, it’s been done, 50 years ago. it’s known as columbia, md, what planners call a “Residential Planned Community” (RPC), encompassing residential, retail, office and light industrial, with all the amenities necessary, within a specific confined location. built by the same fine folks that brought us levittown. reston, va, located just west of 495 and tysons corner, is another early 60’s RPC, developed by the same group that built columbia, md. there are many more around the country. this is not a recent concept.

    on a historical note, reston was built on the old mclean property. wilbur mclean and family left after the first battle of manassas/bull run, to avoid the war. in one of life’s more poignant ironies, they moved to appomattox, va, only to have the war come crashing down on them 4 years later, with the surrender document signed in his parlor. the furniture from that room was filtched by all the union officers present, as “mementos” of the occasion. nice guys.
    mr. garreau and the post article’s authors really should get out more.

  • hylen

    “This is self-justification of elite lifestyles.”

    A-freakin’-men. It makes me sick.

    Also, what Chancery said.

  • Kyle

    I’m still waiting for the utopia these futurist wankers promised when I was a kid in the 70s, with flying cars, weekends on Jupiter and 20-hour work weeks.

  • Matt

    I suspect Mr. Garreau will remain disconnected from reality right up to the point that WaPo realizes they can get people in Bangalore to churn out clueless nonsense for a tenth of what they’re paying him…

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