Living on the Edge


Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, by Joel Garreau, New York: Doubleday, 546 pages, $22.50

A neoliberal journalist has trekked across America asking why people like to live and work in clean, safe, sort-of-urban comfort. Joel Garreau approaches the phenomenon he calls "Edge City" unusually open to the idea that the middle class, in their demonstrated preferences, might not be total nincompoops.

His topic is the rapid growth of office-commercial centers along the periphery of big cities—more broadly stated, the changing way of life that has brought those developments about, and the changes they, in turn, have brought in the way many people live. These clusters of minimally 5 million square feet of work and shopping space have sprung up, he tells us, to bring offices and stores nearer to where most of us prefer to live: in suburbia. We want to make and spend our money in controlled, contained surroundings because—to oversimplify a bit—we cannot brook the dirty, menacing hassles that our public spaces, including urban streets, have become.

The primary cause of this change has been the emergence of working women and mothers. Garreau writes, "Edge Cities doubtless would not exist the way they do were it not for one of the truly great employment and demographic shifts in American history: the empowerment of women." In talking to developers, he finds it "eerie" how often 1978 is mentioned as the year these projects, far from the "traditional male-dominated downtown," became plausible. Then he discovers that 1978 was also "the peak year in all of American history for women entering the work force."

Critical to linking an Edge City with its suburban and significantly female workforce was the automobile, whose numbers more than doubled between 1970 and 1987. The household's second car, the author suggests, facilitated the second income. In stressing the freedom and convenience that the personal auto has meant, Garreau savages its opponents. After a bibliographical reference to an article titled "Commuter Attitudes Toward Ridesharing," he annotates simply, "They hate it."

This is a fresh and interesting endeavor: How many works respectfully inquire about the lifestyle choices of mainstream Americans? The energy level early on is high as the author makes his basic case. Alas, Garreau then spins a bit too far into sociological discourses, delivered largely through the words of experts and designated folks he meets in nine representative areas of the country. He'd have written a better book if the batteries in his tape recorder had run down.

Edge City goes on location to explore different aspects of the new lifestyle. With Detroit, naturally, it's the car. Atlanta is the scene for a discussion of race relations (Edge Cities are about class and not color, the author finds) and Phoenix a case study of what Garreau calls "shadow governments"—essentially, unelected regional planning authorities. Garreau spends enough time with these digressions that you don't really need to consult his recommended reading list. (For example, he cites his series of articles in The Washington Post, which he draws on.) He probably included the material to give a book examining land-use phenomena additional weight. It contributes mainly poundage.

Garreau duly credits people such as Christopher Leinberger, who first broached the concept of what he called "urban villages" in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that later became an article in The Atlantic. But not all of Garreau's observations are derivative. He challenges the idea that Edge Cities, by shunning street culture, are pods of alienation. Indeed, he sees socialization as their primary attribute, with low-rise buildings and campuses affording a comfort level to all but the stranger. And he says traditional urban areas can remain magnets for mass gatherings such as sports and cultural events.

Garreau neglects to mention that taxation sometimes encourages the movement from downtown. By moving most of its headquarters employees from San Francisco to the East Bay satellite of San Ramon, for example, Pacific Telesis lowered its business taxes per head from $720 to 20 cents.

Edge City offers a few numerical snapshots, such as a table suggesting that in several metropolitan areas, the office-commercial space clustered along the outskirts is twice that downtown. (Usually an Edge City springs up from its proximity to an airport, although Houston's Galleria district, one of those Garreau discusses, is an exception.)

Aggregate data of this building trend collected over time would help the reader feel its sweep, but instead we get a lot of gab. As the pages go by, the author seems to talk to more and more critics of white-bread ways and takes on a little cosmopolitan chic himself, as when he pines for a good deli. But he redeems himself through the voice of a Houston design professional who concludes, "People in the United States are not going to live the way the people in Paris live." This will surely disappoint a great many of his colleagues.

By relying heavily on oral histories, Edge City follows the pattern of Richard Louv's recent Childhood's Future, which Garreau cites. This narrative technique, however, drags the author in occasionally contradictory directions, depending on whom he's talking to. And it can mislead us about the score, as it were. City councilwoman Linda Nagolski, a "neighborhood activist" (antidevelopment, in other words), was a major source about Phoenix. But her constituents just sent her packing in a local election.

Likewise, the people Garreau talks to but doesn't quote can lead him astray. His acknowledgments suggest he made time mainly for lefties when he hit Southern California. Consider his treatment of one of the nine Edge Cities, Irvine. Its recent history actually supports Garreau's brief against the urban-planning elite, were he willing to remain true to course.

Designed in the 1960s as a touchy-feely community built around a new University of California campus, and to this day planned to a fare-thee-well, Irvine has undergone a fascinating transformation. The explosive growth of offices and industrial parks there, combined with some white (and Asian) flight from older sections of Southern California, has resulted in a population which, if as well-schooled as the early dreamers wished, is nevertheless more interested in new carpets than in New Age.

But Garreau misses this when he touches on municipal politics in a chat with the founder of a successful start-up church in the area. The fellow, a motivational speaker by calling, oversees a tolerant religion, Garreau explains, as contrasted with "'obnoxious Christians' [who] spent the previous election trying to run homosexuals out of Irvine." But in that election, a partly secular grass-roots campaign overturned by referendum a gay-rights ordinance enacted by the left-wing majority in the city council. These same lefties had used antigrowth measures to dominate Irvine politics through much of the 1980s.

What does that outbreak of social conservatism have to do with Edge City? Symbolically a lot. The homosexual-rights ordinance was the last straw for a community whose university-tied governing elite, once so entrenched, had lost its connection to the electorate. The voters turned out to be the very kind of young careerists Garreau finds populating Edge City everywhere. Their attitudes about local politics tug them in conflicting directions, as they rue the loss of "place" (the author's metaphor is Walden Pond) that comes with each incremental stage of development but demand nearby workplaces and refuse to curtail their use of that engine of mobility, the personal automobile.

By and large, these people have carried with them, into Edge City's fast-paced existence, the middle-class values they grew up with. A city council wrapped up in homosexual rights, homeless shelters, styrofoam bans, and mass-transit schemes was, it turned out, better suited to the university town that Irvine started out to be than the Edge City it has become. Within months of the gay-protection repeal, the council majority was voted out. Apparently, a new political era has begun in Irvine. Where was the intrepid Mr. Garreau?

Tim W. Ferguson is a Los Angeles-based member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.