Edge Cities Essay

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Coined by Joel Garreau in 1991, the term edge cities describes the suburbanization of office work, retail trade, and industrial production that followed residential relocation out of urban areas after World War II. More than 200 edge cities exist in the United States and several in Canada, typically located on highway corridors outside central cities. Some commercial clusters were intensifications of land use in formerly rural settlements; others were planned developments on agricultural land. Highway intersections centered some, but most were strip formations along arterial corridors without sharp boundaries or restriction to a single municipality.

Developers used edge cities to capture the increase in value that public highways brought to land on the urban fringe, while satellites and fiber optic networks kept these new entities linked to the national and global economy. Highways made these complexes accessible to suburban workers and consumers, but their automobile dependence added to regional sprawl and highway congestion. Shifting the locale of much office work, they depleted the job and tax base of core cities.

In their early phase, core cities allowed suburban residents to avoid commuting to central cities and permitted developers to erect signature buildings in campus-like environments without the limitation of existing street grids. But as each project stimulated subsequent development on the metropolitan frontier, the costs became apparent. Their low density made them more costly to service than older city locations, they displaced agriculture from prime soils near urban markets, and their dependence on cars led to clogged highways and air pollution. As commercial islands beyond efficient mass transit, they required aprons of grade-level parking that disconnected them from the street and pedestrian fabric of community life. This isolation, initially a cost advantage for speculators, entailed inefficiencies for suppliers and customers and even for employees seeking a restaurant lunch. As a locus of capital investment, they drained economic activity from city locations where schools, housing, and mass transit were already in place. The brownfield locations in older cities, created by concurrent deindustrialization, offered more rational locations for many edge city projects.

Edge cities were not safe from their own obsolescence. Office complexes continued to be built further out on arterial highways, even as firms outsourced staff functions to domestic and foreign suppliers. As business shifted from a national to an international focus, the most competitive business locations proved to be those that provided face-to-face interaction between management and financial and marketing support firms as well as a rich cultural environment. This dynamic stimulated a commercial and residential revival of globally oriented central cities.

In response, some edge cities altered their design. Orange County’s John Wayne Airport area, with more than 25 million square feet of office space and a large retail mall, added a performing arts center and plans light rail mass transit to compete with Spectrum, a nearby high-tech industrial park. Upping the ante, Spectrum added office buildings, a cinema complex, and an Amtrak station. Addison, Texas, an office park on the highway north of Dallas, added rapid transit, a conventional street grid, stacked parking, apartments, and retail stores to make it a 24-hour city. Under competitive pressure, edge cities are trying to resemble traditional urban areas in their mix of uses and texture of street life.


  1. Abrahamson, Mark. 2004. Global Cities. Cambridge, England: Oxford University Press.
  2. Barnett, Jonathan. 2002. “Turning Edge Cities into Real Cities.” Planning 68(11):11-16.
  3. Garreau, Joel. 1991. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday.

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