An Overview of the Edge City Theory

Identified by Joel Garreau in 1991

Tysons Corner, Virginia

Phototreat / Getty Images

They're called suburban business districts, major diversified centers, suburban cores, minicities, suburban activity centers, cities of realms, galactic cities, urban subcenters, pepperoni-pizza cities, superburbia, technoburbs, nucleations, disurbs, service cities, perimeter cities, peripheral centers, urban villages, and suburban downtowns but the name that's now most commonly used for places that the foregoing terms describe is "edge cities."

The term "edge cities" was coined by Washington Post journalist and author Joel Garreau in his 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. Garreau equates the growing edge cities at major suburban freeway interchanges around America as the latest transformation of how we live and work. These new suburban cities have sprung up like dandelions across the fruited plain, they're home to glistening office towers, huge retail complexes, and are always located close to major highways.

"There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the earth, moldering in the water, and unintelligible as in any dream." - Charles Dickens on London in 1848; Garreau calls this quote the "best one-sentence description of Edge City extant."

Characteristics of the Typical Edge City

The archetypal edge city is Tysons Corner, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. It's located near the junctions of Interstate 495 (the D.C. beltway), Interstate 66, and Virginia 267 (the route from D.C. to Dulles International Airport). Tysons Corner wasn't much more than a village a few decades ago but today it's home to the largest retail area on the east coast south of New York City (that includes Tysons Corner Center, home to six anchor department stores and over 230 stores in all), over 3,400 hotel rooms, over 100,000 jobs, over 25 million square feet of office space. Yet Tysons Corner is a city without a local civic government; much of it lies in unincorporated Fairfax County.

Garreau established five rules for a place to be considered an edge city:

  1. The area must have more than five million square feet of office space (about the space of a good-sized downtown)
  2. The place must include over 600,000 square feet of retail space (the size of a large regional shopping mall)
  3. The population must rise every morning and drop every afternoon (i.e., there are more jobs than homes)
  4. The place is known as a single end destination (the place "has it all;" entertainment, shopping, recreation, etc.)
  5. The area must not have been anything like a "city" 30 years ago (cow pastures would have been nice)

Garreau identified 123 places in a chapter of his book called "The List" as being true edge cities and 83 up-and-coming or planned edge cities around the country. "The List" included two dozen edge cities or those in progress in greater Los Angeles alone, 23 in metro Washington, D.C., and 21 in greater New York City.

Garreau speaks to the history of the edge city:

Edge Cities represent the third wave of our lives pushing into new frontiers in this half century. First, we moved our homes out past the traditional idea of what constituted a city. This was the suburbanization of America, especially after World War II.
Then we wearied of returning downtown for the necessities of life, so we moved our marketplaces out to where we lived. This was the malling of America, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.
Today, we have moved our means of creating wealth, the essence of urbanism - our jobs - out to where most of us have lived and shopped for two generations. That has led to the rise of Edge City. (p. 4)
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Rosenberg, Matt. "An Overview of the Edge City Theory." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Rosenberg, Matt. (2020, August 27). An Overview of the Edge City Theory. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "An Overview of the Edge City Theory." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).