Uncovering JAPA

Revisiting the Edge City, 30 Years On

One defining feature of the built American landscape in the late Modern period was the emergence of the edge city, which concentrated business and entertainment functions outside a traditional, 19th–century urban core. Typically situated on the periphery of a metropolitan area, edge cities depend upon and further entrench car dependency, with spatial forms that prioritize the automobile as the primary means of circulation (broad freeway connections, large parking lots, concentrated business zones).

Joel Garreau, in his 1991 book Edge City, sought to classify many of the typology's characteristics, as well as imagine the edge city's future: Will it be more "edge" (i.e., associated with sprawl and exurbs) or more "city" (i.e., having the potential to display traits of denser cities)?

Edge City Planning: Priorities and Intentions

This question has gained particular relevance in the context of many planners' objective to "retrofit suburbia," or make a dominant spatial form more hospitable to pedestrians, a wider range of uses and activities, and a greater sense of equity or community.

So, how are urban decision-makers planning for the future of edge cities? In "From Edge City to City? Planning Intentions for Edge Cities" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 4), Jennifer Day, Nicholas A. Phelps, Piret Veeroja, and Xin Yang analyze planning documents from 117 of the 123 edge cities originally identified by Garreau to understand the different intentions for the future of the places and of the concept more broadly.

Based on the notion that planning documents are "artifacts of planning processes that crystallize the intentions of those involved," the authors looked at how different priorities and emphases showed up in the language of the edge cities' relevant urban plans, specifically based on 10 indicators categorized within four themes: mobility, land use, economic development, and equity.

These themes, when emphasized, would indicate a commitment to those principles, and contribute to an edge city's transformation into a "city in the making." The researchers accounted for plans' different levels of commitment by assigning between 0 and 4 points per indicator, from merely mentioning it to outlining specific actions or allocating concrete funding toward its enhancement.

Table 2: A summary of results showing to what extent different indicators and themes were emphasized in the edge city urban plans.

Table 2: A summary of results showing to what extent different indicators and themes were emphasized in the edge city urban plans.

Edge City Planning: Intentions and Outcomes

The results were decidedly mixed: "Intentions appear to be a mix of the strong concerning the least controversial (walkability) and the weak regarding the politically contentious (race/ethnicity) or least systemically tractable (automobility)."

Additionally, there was an observed disconnect between stated goals (such as reducing automobile dependence) and a lack of concrete strategies or a broader understanding of the problem (such as couching it in terms of safety and not land use, health, or affordability).

Further, while housing affordability figured prominently as a goal in many of the plans, "planning intentions concerning race/ethnicity were by far the weakest of our 10 indicators."

Based on the results, the authors then categorized the edge cities into three types based on their commitment to the indicators and therefore likely futures of (sub)urbanity:

  • "Wannabe cities," which had "some of the associated plan aspirations" but "policy rhetoric would likely be imperfectly matched by implementation"
  • "More edge than the city," whose "longer-term sustainability was likely to be in question"
  • "Cities in the making," which displayed "strong and consistent planning intentions" and had "the best prospects for becoming new downtowns."

Edge City Planning: Reality vs. Vision

While the authors' typologies and assessments of the current and future state of the American edge city were interesting, their reflections on the concept's "chaotic" nature and the study's inherent limitations were especially instructive vis-à-vis the relationship between a plan and reality, and the inherent problem of planning for a bounded administrative entity.

For example, as the authors note, "the concept [of edge city] has not resonated with practicing planners," suggesting the difficulties and limitations of developing a plan for it.

More pragmatically, edge cities' fundamental entanglement with forces outside their jurisdictional boundaries — the freeway system, a general lack of rail access, being part of an interconnected metropolitan housing and jobs market — means they are often poorly equipped to repurpose themselves.

It's another example of how planners are constrained by the built forms, institutional structures, and administrative realities they inherit. Indeed, despite noble aspirations or lofty language, edge cities and other now-outmoded spatial forms are artifacts that aren't always easy to retrofit.

Top image: E+/Art Wager

About the author
Akiva Blander is a master's in urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

November 3, 2022

By Akiva Blander