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.
Garreau doesn't devote much space to the problems created by such heavy dependence on personal autos. Would Americans ever be willing to trade in their cars for more sustainable transit options, such as bicycles? Unless the price of gas rises drastically, we probably won't find out. But it seems that it wouldn't be that hard to develop edge cities where people could get around by bicycle or foot. In Scandinavia, for instance, new developments are connected by bicycle/pedestrian walkways that are completely separate from motorways and have their own underpass system so that interactions with motorized traffic are kept to a minimum. Everyone from the youngest tot to the oldest senior citizen uses these paths. If bike travel were made easy and safe here, perhaps it might become more popular, easing the congestion on the roads. It might also help with our obesity epidemic.
One topic that Garreau seems to overlook is the question of the support workers for edge cities. In Garreau's edge city descriptions, the edge city residential properties are attractive and upscale, suitable for well-paid white color employees. The money these people have supports the edge city malls, shopping centers, and restaurants. But such highly skilled people aren't likely to actually work at the malls, where the jobs are minimum wage. All those shops and restaurants require ranks of minimum wage workers, and people earning the minimum wage can't afford to live in Edge City where the housing costs are so high. Instead, they live in run-down inner cities or outlying towns and commute long distances to their jobs at the malls. They may not reside in edge cities, but they still comprise a major component of the overall operations and their needs and habits should also be considered.
I lived in an edge city west of Boston for four years. I lived in a box, I worked in a box, and when I got home at night I was dead tired from the commute. The distances between shops and homes were so large that a car was absolutely required to get around. It was virtually impossible to meet others, and cultural activities were extremely limited. For the most part, the only public space in town was at the malls. The town spirit seemed to be missing along with the town center. The first chance we had to leave town, we bolted and have never looked back. If Garreau is right, and edge cities are the wave of the future because that's where Americans are choosing to live, I'm afraid for the future of America. Hopefully, as edge cities begin to mature, they will become more livable places.