Losing Our Edge
I often drive when I could fly. It is my nomadic search for a tactile presence in a time and place.
-Austen Allen, Black Landscapes Matter
I thought a great deal about the contours of the American Northeast long before I decided to become a landscape architect. In retrospect, my years spent driving across the region — to and from various jobs, my college in central New York, my home in Pittsburgh, and my grandfather’s farm in rural Pennsylvania — likely influenced my career decision more than my environmentalism or frequent hikes in the woods. The American landscape is designed to be experienced through the translucence of a windshield, and I took pleasure in memorizing routes, mentally mapping landmarks, and anticipating each familiar hillcrest and blind curve.
The landscapes I encountered have rapidly changed, however. Along a 50 mile stretch of Route 22 connecting my grandfather’s farm to Pittsburgh, stoplights that once seemed pointless now mitigate feverish movement between strip malls and mega churches. The hillsides and streambanks that once supported dairy herds are subsumed into a patchwork of sprawling suburban developments. Somewhere in the mess, the remnants of a friend’s former homestead are buried under a car dealership.
In 1991, the year I was born, journalist Joel Garreau published his seminal work, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, an account of his own vehicular trek across the United States. As Garreau drove, he catalogued emerging and extant edge cities. The term “edge city,” which he popularized, describes a small, urbanized cluster adjacent to a larger metropolis. Often these are the hollowed-out shells of once thriving cities, like Detroit and Baltimore. Suburbia had dominated the American landscape for the better part of the 20th century, but, according to Garreau, urbanization was staging a comeback in this new “edge”-based form.
So, as I drive today, I consider the disconnect between Garreau’s words and the landscape unfolding before me. Driving does more than reveal the continued reliance of our built environment on the automobile. It reveals a fuller picture of the landscape for which many young designers, including me, are assuming responsibility. The United States remains fixed in processes of suburbanization, and this is a problem my generation of landscape architects will have to meet.
Garreau’s term aptly describes contemporary, not-quite urban, not-quite suburban clusters like Palo Alto — or like Monroeville, an edge city anchored by Route 22, just outside Pittsburgh. Edge cities are often built around specific industries and have enough “urban” amenities in the form of shopping, entertainment, tall buildings, and civic institutions, as well as influxes of daytime populations, to differentiate them from the monotony of surrounding suburbs. According to Garreau, a yearning for cohesive urban form, beginning in the 1980s, spurred a movement away from bedroom communities to more urbanistic edge cities — a trend predicted earlier by Centrist planning scholars Christopher Leinberger and Charles Lockwood in their prognostication regarding an America centered around urban villages.
These predictions were coupled, in the 2000s, with renewed interest in urban form more generally. Numerous publications dubbed my generation as proponents of a “back to the city” movement, noting our keenness for walkability and mixed-use neighborhoods, whether in urban enclaves like Brooklyn or smaller edge cities. Renewed interest in urban forms has also been expressed in the acclaim garnered by landscape-urbanist projects like New York’s High Line and its many copycats. Such reappropriations of derelict city infrastructure mirror the theorists’ conceptions about my generation: Millennials leaving their distinctly suburban homes to reclaim some of the lost wonders and conveniences of urban form.
Decentrist scholar Robert Lang ran his own statistical analysis of edge cities. Like me, he found proclamations of suburbia’s downfall to be greatly overstated. Garreau’s definition of an edge city is contingent on thresholds of commercial real-estate development, yet Lang found that, in regions surveyed by Garreau, most such development was taking place not in the edge cities he had identified but in their “edgeless” surroundings.1Joel Garreau, Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (New YorkDoubleday, 1991), 425. In Edgeless Cities: Exploring Elusive Metropolis (2003), Lang concludes “a region’s focal point is no longer located at its geographic center, nor has it been redistributed among several peripheral centers.”2Robert E. Lang, Edgeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis (Brookings Institution Press, 2003), 17. Instead, development has largely sprawled out into an undifferentiated landscape. This trend continues to this day, as growth rates in emergent suburban and exurban communities far outstrip those of cities — both edge and traditional.3William H. Frey, “City Growth Dips below Suburban Growth, Census Shows,” The Brookings Institution, March 18, 2019. This has, ironically, been driven in part by aging Millennials returning en masse to the kind of suburban environments whence they came.4Dowell Myers, “Peak Millennials: Three Reinforcing Cycles That Amplify the Rise and Fall of Urban Concentration by Millennials,” Housing Policy Debate, vol. 26, no. 6 (2016): 928–947, doi:10.1080/10511482.2016.1165722. Even edge cities themselves have come under scrutiny from critics like the Congress for New Urbanism who dismissed the phenomena as mere statistical agglomerations of city services absent any real city planning, i.e., cities in function but not in form.5Lang, 3.
Scrolling through lists of contemporary landscape designer’s projects, one can easily confuse exemplars of design culture for gauges of built reality. But, as we look to address the challenges of the Anthropocene, it is incumbent on us as young planners and designers to contend with the facts on the ground. Edge cities are falling short of expectations, and young homemakers continue to flock to sprawling developments — a trend only exacerbated by the pandemic.6Thomas L. Daniels, “Re-Designing America’s Suburbs for the Age of Climate Change and Pandemics,” Socio-Ecological Practice Research, vol. 3, no. 2, 2021, pp. 225–236., doi:10.1007/s42532-021-00084-5. This proliferation of development absent distinguishable forms of traditional urban planning is what Lang refers to as the “unmarked phenomena of the new metropolis.” 7Lang, 5. To fill out that picture, to mark the unmarked, is the first step in any successful design endeavor.
- Joel Garreau, Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (New YorkDoubleday, 1991), 425.
- Robert E. Lang, Edgeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis (Brookings Institution Press, 2003), 17.
- William H. Frey, “City Growth Dips below Suburban Growth, Census Shows,” The Brookings Institution, March 18, 2019.
- Dowell Myers, “Peak Millennials: Three Reinforcing Cycles That Amplify the Rise and Fall of Urban Concentration by Millennials,” Housing Policy Debate, vol. 26, no. 6 (2016): 928–947, doi:10.1080/10511482.2016.1165722.
- Lang, 3.
- Thomas L. Daniels, “Re-Designing America’s Suburbs for the Age of Climate Change and Pandemics,” Socio-Ecological Practice Research, vol. 3, no. 2, 2021, pp. 225–236., doi:10.1007/s42532-021-00084-5.
- Lang, 5.