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.