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Edgeless Cities:

EXPLORING THE ELUSIVE METROPOLIS

Robert E. Lang, Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech

The Philadelphia metropolitan region is growing in a very elusive, sprawling way. Philadelphia
is second only to Miami in the percentage of office space found in low density, dispersed
office parks on the urban fringe. The Philadelphia region is an example of an “Edgeless City.”
This article is taken from Lang’s forthcoming Brookings Press book due out in 2003.

“ . . . the bulletin is this: Edge Cities mean


that density is back”
Joel Garreau,
Edge City: Life on the New Frontier

The much-quoted line from Joel Garreau’s


influential book, Edge City: Life on the New
Frontier, is often cited with a sigh of relief by
those who hope suburbia is finally growing up
and starting to behave itself. Many people in
the smart growth movement, which seeks
among other goals to build higher density,
mixed-use suburbs, are especially invested in
the idea that maturing Edge Cities represent
a potentially hopeful future. Edge Cities like
Tyson’s Corner in Virginia feature a high-
density mix of office space, retail, and hous-

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Table 1: National Metropolitan Summary — Downtowns, Edge Cities, Edgeless Cities 1999
METROPOLITAN PRIMARY DOWNTOWN SECONDARY DOWNTOWN EDGE CITY EDGELESS CITY
Area Office Space % of Office Space % of Office Space % of Office Space % of
(Square Feet) Metro Area (Square Feet) Metro Area (Square Feet) Metro Area (Square Feet) Metro Area

Total 1,013,603,948 37.7 161,942,689 6.0 532,944,733 19.8 980,993,488 36.5

Atlanta 31,132,327 23.6 13,049,980 9.9 33,501,999 25.3 54,486,457 41.2

Boston 56,666,727 37.4 6,995,406 4.6 28,426,987 18.8 59,345,046 39.2

Chicago 134,285,726 53.9 48,546,947 19.5 66,250,174 26.6

Dallas 30,607,818 20.5 6,779,628 4.5 60,084,103 40.3 51,554,463 34.6

Denver 23,522,232 30.4 3,263,748 4.2 22,753,338 29.4 27,722,095 35.9

Detroit 16,754,461 21.3 31,085,327 39.5 30,813,711 39.2

Houston 38,046,467 23.0 62,557,748 37.9 64,470,742 39.1

Los Angeles 85,037,104 29.8 22,109,801 7.8 72,324,970 25.4 105,412,452 37.0

Miami 12,678,884 13.1 4,374,329 4.5 16,077,609 16.6 63,774,416 65.8

New York 390,143,000 56.7 49,711,600 7.2 43,006,777 6.2 205,503,635 29.9

Philadelphia 54,818,180 34.2 5,196,698 3.2 14,199,849 8.9 85,899,853 53.6

San Francisco 60,114,661 33.9 15,606,968 8.8 24,612,366 13.9 76,968,744 43.4

Washington 79,796,361 28.6 34,854,531 12.5 75,766,713 27.1 88,791,700 31.8

Average 81,872,635 16,543,634 41,620,228 77,208,919


Median 55,742,454 6,995,406 37,046,052 65,360,458

Source: Black’s Guide (New York’s primary downtown figure comes from
Cushman & Wakefield and the Real Estate Board of New York)

ing. Unfortunately, more recent research suggests This piece looks at the 13 largest markets in the
Edge Cities are not as widespread a phenomenon as country, which together contain more than 2.6
originally thought. Instead, emergence of “Edgeless billion square feet of office space and 26,000
Cities” means that we are moving away from seeing buildings. The study is not intended as an exhaus-
the high density suburbia that Garreau promises. tive statistical analysis — although the findings
are often data derived. Rather, the data help
“Edgeless Cities” are a form of sprawling office devel- reframe current thinking on the metropolis. The
opment and are not mixed use, pedestrian friendly or study’s main contribution is conceptual. Just as
easily accessed by public transit. Geographically they Myron Orfield’s book American Metropolitics
are nearly twice as large as edge cities. Edgeless Cities distinguished multiple kinds of suburbs, this
are everywhere. No major metropolitan area is with- book delineates between two types of suburban
out them. office development — bounded and edgeless.
[Editor’s note: See an excerpt from Orfield’s
The term “Edgeless City” captures the fact that most American Metropolitics on page 10.] And like
suburban office areas lack a physical edge. In contrast Orfield’s work, this study has numerous implica-
to Edge Cities, which in theory combine large-scale tions beyond the data. One is that Edgeless Cities
office development with major retail, Edgeless Cities raise an even bigger challenge than Edge Cities for
contain mostly isolated office buildings at varying those who seek to build a less sprawling suburbia.
densities over vast swaths of urban space.
Following office space trends provides a good
Edge Cities do represent a suburban future, but method for understanding metropolitan change
only one future. This study reports on the other new because offices are where a large percentage of job
metropolis to emerge in the past two decades. It growth occurs. In some metropolitan areas, nearly
covers the alternative suburban future, the post-poly- half of all newly hired employees go to work in
centric version — that of the Edgeless City. office buildings.
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“Edgeless
Cities” are
a form of
sprawling
office
development
and are not
mixed use, Office Location Types Non-CBD office space varies tremendously in
its size, scale, density, location, age and land use
pedestrian Large metropolitan areas have long been polycen- characteristics. The category non-CBD captures
tric. But today’s polycentrism is quite different. every office location from the single low-slung
friendly or Whereas factory towns, secondary cities, and office building at the farthest reaches of the
easily accessed even Edge Cities share a spatial logic with big cities metropolitan area, to “uptowns” that arose as
(albeit on a smaller scale), Edgeless Cities represent secondary business districts within the central
by public a departure. Edge Cities are perhaps the last stop city. Non-CBD office space is thus a grab-bag
on the road away from traditional urban forms. category that captures all office space outside
transit.
a CBD.
The major statistical source for this project is
office data, or specifically rental office space. The Many observers of suburban office space —
standard categories for reporting office data are Joel Garreau being the most notable example —
Central Business District (CBD) and non-CBD. have assumed that all non-CBD space is located
CBD space refers to downtown office buildings. in large edge cities such as Tysons Corner, VA
Downtowns vary in size and scale, but they and Post Oaks in Houston. This study seeks to
typically contain the largest single concentration determine exactly how much non-CBD office
of a region’s office space. Non-CBD office space space is found in Edge Cities and how much,
exists throughout metropolitan areas. Much of by contrast, is found in a different category all
this space lies in suburbs — even distant suburbs together. I argue that most non-CBD office
— although much may be found within the space is actually located in Edgeless Cities,

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central city outside the CBD. not Edge Cities.
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The Era of Edgelessness downtowns, for they too are now central places.
Edgeless Cities may be the ultimate result of a
Edge Cities may one day be seen as a transitional metropolitan process that has been tearing apart
urban form; an attempt to build auto-based, concentrated commercial development for the
low-density downtowns before developers realized better part of a century.
that cars made such places mostly unnecessary.
The new metropolitan form shows up less often Nearly three-quarters of all existing suburban
in the Post Oaks and Tysons Corners than in office space was constructed in the past two
the nameless office parks at nearly every exit ramp decades. Before the 1980s only about a quarter
off the beltway where most of the office space of all office space was suburban. Today 42% of
built outside of downtowns is found. the office space in the top dozen markets is found
in suburbs. If we remove Manhattan from the
Perhaps most importantly, Edgeless Cities are not central city totals, the gap between cities and
Edge Cities waiting to happen. Instead they repre- suburbs closes to near parity. Suburbs, once minor
sent a competing and more decentralized form of players in the metropolitan office economy, now
office development. Ironically, Edge Cities face the compete with central cities head to head.
same land cost and congestion pressures as old

Suburbs,
once minor
players
in the
metropolitan
office
economy,
now compete
with central
cities head to
head.

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Table 2: Philadelphia’s Office Space Locations
CURRENT BY YEAR BUILT
1990-1999 1980-1989 Pre-1979
Square % of Square % of Square % of Square % of
PHILADELPHIA Footage Metro Area Footage Metro Area Footage Metro Area Footage Metro Area

Downtown 60,014,878 37.5 7,317,702 21.4 35,913,222 41.4 16,783,954 42.7


Philadelphia 54,818,180 34.2 6,683,702 19.6 32,389,160 37.4 15,745,318 40.1
Wilmington 5,196,698 3.2 634,000 1.9 3,524,062 4.1 1,038,636 2.6

Edge Cities 14,199,849 8.9 2,987,279 8.8 9,019,918 10.4 2,192,652 5.6
King of Prussia 6,173,563 3.9 1,209,429 3.5 3,776,267 4.4 1,187,867 3.0
Malvern-Paoli-Wayne 8,026,286 5.0 1,777,850 5.2 5,243,651 6.0 1,004,785 2.6

Edgeless Cities 85,899,853 53.6 23,827,588 69.8 41,773,524 48.2 20,298,741 51.7

TOTAL 160,114,580 100 34,132,569 100 86,706,664 100 39,275,347 100

Philadelphia — The Edgeless interstates. Interestingly, the New Jersey side of


Metropolis of the North Philadelphia contains no office cluster that qualifies
as either a downtown or an Edge City. Places such
“Edgelessness” is a term particularly apropos to as Cherry Hill, New Jersey, which features one of
metropolitan Philadelphia’s office structure. While the oldest enclosed malls in the nation, lacks the size
Philadelphia still has an average amount of office to be an Edge City. The old industrial satellite city
space within its primary downtown, more than of Camden, New Jersey has fallen on hard times
half (54%) of its metropolitan area office space is and unlike Newark and Jersey City in the New York
located in Edgeless Cities. Miami, the only other region, has not been redeveloped as a secondary
area with over half (almost two-thirds) its office downtown.
space in edgeless locations, has the lowest amount
of space in its primary downtown (13.1%), which Not only does Philadelphia have large Edgeless
gives it by far the highest disparity between down- Cities; they are the fastest growing office develop-
town and edgeless office space. Among the 13 ment category. About 70% of the office space added
metropolitan areas in the study, Philadelphia and to the current inventory during the 1990s was in
Miami are at the most advanced stage of office Edgeless Cities. Meanwhile Edge Cities captured
decentralization. nine percent and downtowns another 21%.

Philadelphia is proof that the edgeless metropolis In total, Philadelphia’s suburbs gained almost 26
is not just a Sunbelt phenomenon. In fact, the million square feet of office space during the 1990s,
region appears to be the South Florida of the while the city picked up only 9 million square feet.
north, with the major difference being that That helped give the suburbs the majority of office
Philadelphia does have a decent-sized downtown. space in the region by 1999. Almost four-fifths
Both regions also have small, average-sized (78%) of the current office space in Philadelphia’s
buildings, which may be related to Edgeless suburbs was built since 1980.
City-oriented growth.
In total, Metropolitan Philadelphia’s Edgeless Cities
Philadelphia’s two modest-sized Edge Cities are spread over 297 square miles and account for 63%
north and west of the downtown. Malvern-Paoli- of the region’s office space. The downtown fits in
Wayne is along Philadelphia’s “Main Line,” which just 4 square miles and contains the other 37% of
refers to a commuter train that runs through the office inventory. The downtown’s office buildings,
region’s older affluent suburbs. The King of averaging over 300,000 square feet, also dwarf those
Prussia Edge City is built around a regional in Edgeless Cities, which range from 30,031 to

8 mall, near the intersection of the region’s major 71,882 square feet.
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Implications Even though many practitioners, planners, acade-


mics and public officials have focused much of their
The location of office space is critical in a number attention on the problems of cities, the restructuring
of public policy areas. For example, the distribution and reordering of this very elusive metropolitan
of new office space can help determine the extent to form is the great project of the next century. In the
which there is a jobs/housing mismatch in a region. 19th century, Americans created a vast, coast-to-
It can also influence the spatial mismatch between coast network of cities. By 1900, the core of every
economic opportunity and the concentration of major American region except for Las Vegas was
minority households. Office location also impacts established. During the 20th century, and especially
urban sprawl. If most new office space is construct- in the postwar years, growth spread out from urban
ed at the regional edge, it extends commuter sheds cores giving us the our vast metropolitan forum.
for many miles into undeveloped rural areas and The nation now turns to the next phase of develop-
thereby fuels sprawl. Finally, the geography of office ment — bringing order to this growth.
location figures prominently in transportation analy-
sis. If most new space is built in areas with no public
The article above is an edited summary of Edgeless Cities:
transit access, then reliance on automobiles will con- Exploring the Elusive Metropolis. The book is due out from
tinue to grow. Brookings Institution Press in early 2003. Robert Lang is the
Director of the newly founded Metropolitan Institute at
Virginia Tech.