Dispersing Expensive Centers: Edge City Version

This is somewhat of an addendum to my post before about dispersal of urban networks toward cheaper cities. I addressed the question of dispersal from rich, expensive metro areas, especially San Francisco, to cheaper ones, as a way of dealing with high housing prices. But more common is dispersal within metro areas: gentrification spilling from a rebounding neighborhood to adjacent neighborhoods that remain cheaper, and office space spilling from the primary CBD to the edge cities. I am going to address the latter issue in this post.

CBDs are expensive. They have intense demand for office space, as well as high-end retail and hotels. In many cities, there’s demand for office space even at the construction costs of supertall skyscrapers, going up to about $5,000-6,000 per square meter in privately-built New York towers. Zoning regimes resist the height required to accommodate everyone, and this is worse in Europe than in North America and high-income East Asia. Paris proper has many towers just above the 100 meter mark, but only three above 120. On a list of the tallest buildings in Sweden, not a single one above 100 meters is in central Stockholm, and the tallest within the zone are not in the CBD but in Södermalm; compare this with Vancouver, a metro area of similar size. But in the US, too, expanding CBDs is difficult in the face of neighborhood opposition, even in Manhattan.

The solution many cities have adopted is to put the skyscrapers in edge cities. Paris famously built La Defense, which has far more skyscrapers than the city proper does; Stockholm is building skyscrapers in Kista; London built Canary Wharf; Washington, the major US city with the tightest CBD height limits, sprouted skyscraper clusters in several suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Ryan Avent proposed this as one solution to NIMBYism: in new-build areas, there are few residents who could oppose the new development. In contrast, near zoning-constrained CBDs, not only are there many residents, but also the land is so desirable that they are typically high-income, which means they have the most political power to oppose new development.

The problem with this solution is that those secondary CBDs are not public transit hubs. In Paris, this has created an east-west disparity, in which people from (typically wealthy) western suburbs can easily reach La Defense, whereas people from poorer ones need to take long RER trips and often make multiple transfers. In every transit city, the CBD is unique in that it can be reached from anywhere. To give similar accessibility to a secondary center, massive investment is required; Paris is spending tens of billions of euros on circumferential regional rail lines to improve suburb-to-suburb connectivity, expand access in the eastern suburbs, and ameliorate the east-west imbalance (see for example isochrones on PDF-pp. 20-21 of the links here). Those lines are going to be well-patronized: the estimate is 2 million daily passengers. And yet, the east-west imbalance, if nothing else, would be a lesser problem if instead of building La Defense, Paris had built up Les Halles.

The situation in other cities is similar. Kista is on one branch of one subway line, two stops away from its outer terminus. Living in Central Stockholm, my coworkers and I can get to KTH on foot or by bike, but a coworker who teaches at KTH’s satellite campus in Kista has a long commute involving circumferential buses (taking the subway and changing at T-Central would be even longer because of the detour). While many individual sub-neighborhoods of Central Stockholm are quite dense, the overall density in the center is not particularly high, certainly not by the standards of Paris or New York. A similar problem happens in Washington, where the biggest edge city cluster, Tysons Corner, is traditionally auto-oriented and was only just connected to Metro, on a branch. This always affects poorer people the worst, as they can’t afford to live in the CBD, where there is easy access to all secondary destination, and often are pushed to suburbs with long commutes.

There is a political economy problem here, as is usually the case with zoning. (Although in the largest cities skyscraper heights are pushing beyond the point of constant marginal costs, purchase prices at least in New York are much higher than construction costs.) The people living near CBDs, as noted before, are usually rich. The displacement of office space to the suburbs affects them the least, for three reasons. First, if they desire work within walking distance or short subway distance, they can have it, since their firms typically make enough money to afford CBD office rents. Second, since they live in the transit hub, they can access suburban jobs in any direction. And third, if the transit options are lacking, they can afford cars, although of course traffic and parking remain problematic. Against their lack of incentive to support CBD office space, they have reasons to support the status quo: the high rents keep it exclusive and push poor people away, and often the traditional mid-rise buildings are genuinely more aesthetic than skyscrapers, especially ones built in modernist style.

These concerns are somewhat muted in the US, where rich people decamped for the suburbs throughout the 20th century, and have supported zoning that mandates single-family housing in the suburbs, instead of staying in the city and supporting zoning that keeps the city mid-rise. This may have a lot to do with the formation of high-rise downtowns in American cities of such size that in Europe they’d be essentially skyscraper-free.

However, what’s worse in the US is the possibility of short car-free commutes to the edge cities. Where La Defense is flanked by suburbs with high residential density, and Kista’s office blocks are adjacent to medium-density housing projects for working- and middle-class people, American edge cities are usually surrounded by low-density sprawl, where they are easily accessible by car but not by any other mode of transportation. This is because the American edge cities were usually not planned to be this way, but instead arose from intersections of freeways, and developed only after the residential suburbs did. As those edge cities are usually in rich areas, the residents again successfully resist new development; this is the point made in Edgeless Cities, which notes that, in major US metro areas, growth has been less in recognizable edge cities and more in lower-density edgeless cities.

As with the possibility of dispersing innovation clusters from rich, expensive metro areas to poorer and cheaper ones, the already-occurring dispersal from city centers to edge and subsequently edgeless cities has negative effects. It lengthens transit commutes. Although in Tokyo, long commutes first arose as a problem of a monocentric CBD, and the city developed secondary CBDs as a solution, the situation in European cities an order of magnitude smaller is very different. It worsens housing segregation: the development of an edge city tends to be in the direction of the favored quarter, since that’s where the senior managers live, and conversely, higher-income workers can choose to move nearby for the short commute. Although nearly all metro areas have favored quarters, decentralization of jobs thus tends to lengthen the commutes of poor people more than those of rich people.

This is not quite the same as what happens when entire metro areas are forced to disperse due to housing cost. The agglomerations generally stay intact, since an entire industry can move in the same direction: smaller cities have just one major favored quarter with edge cities, and larger ones still only have a few, so that industries can specialize, for example in New York, biotech and health care cluster in the Edison-Woodbridge-New Brunswick edge city. Moreover, the specialized workers are usually high-income enough that they can stay in the central city or migrate to the favored quarter. San Francisco’s programmers are not forced to move individually to faraway poor neighborhoods; they move in larger numbers to ones near already gentrifying ones, spurring a new wave of gentrification in the process; were they to move alone, they’d lose the access to the tech shuttles. The negative effects are predominantly not on richer people, but on poorer people.

The problem is that even among the poor, there is little short-term benefit from supporting upzoning. If Paris, London, and Stockholm liberalize housing and office construction, the first towers built of both kinds will be luxury, because of the large backlogs of people who would like to move in and are willing to pay far in excess of construction costs. I am going to develop this point further in two posts, on what is best called NITBYism – Not In Their Backyard – but this means that the incentive for poor and peripheral populations is not to care too much about development in rich centers. The marginal additional building in a rich city center is going to go to the upper middle class; sufficient construction would trickle to the middle class; only extensive construction would serve the working class, and then not all of it.

In the US, the marginal additional building may actually displace poor people, if no new construction is allowed, simply by removing low-income apartments. It may even create local demand for high-income housing, for example by signaling that the neighborhood has improved. In San Francisco, this is compounded by the tech shuttles, as a critical mass of Silicon Valley-bound residents can justify running shuttles, creating demand for more high-income housing.

The amount of construction required to benefit the bottom half of the national income distribution is likely to be massive. This is especially true in France and the UK, which have sharp income differences between the capital and the rest of the country; their backlogs of people who would like to move to the capital are likely in the millions, possibly the high millions. Such massive construction is beyond the pale of political reality: the current high-income resident population is simply not going to allow it – when forced to share a building with the working class, it pushes for poor doors, so why would it want zoning that would reduce the market-rate rent to what the working class would afford? The only political possibility in the short run is partial plans, but these are not going to be of partial use to the working class, but of no use to it, benefiting the middle class instead. As a result, there is no push by the working class and its social democratic political organs to liberalize construction, nor by the small-is-beautiful green movement.

Ultimately, the attempt to bypass restrictions on urban CBD formation by building edge cities, like every other kludge, is doomed to failure. The fundamental problem of rich people making it illegal to build housing nearby is not solved, and is often made even worse. The commutes get worse, and the inequality in commutes between the rich and the poor grows. Office space gets built, where otherwise it would spread along a larger share of the medium-rise CBD, but for most workers, this is not an improvement, and the environmental effects of more driving have negative consequences globally. And once city center is abandoned to the rich, there is no significant political force that can rectify the situation. What seems like a workaround and an acceptable compromise only makes the situation worse.


  1. Alon Levy

    In LA, Let’s Go LA notes that in El Segundo’s edge city cluster there’s an opportunity for upzoning, coming from reduced NIMBY power. By an accident of municipal borders, the nearby high-income residents are in a different municipality from the office cluster, and so have no say in the zoning, making it easier to build more office space and orient it around the region’s under-construction light rail node.

  2. tompw

    Toronto seems to be avoiding this – if anything, I’m worried that it’s building too much housing (and not enough office space) in the new development in the downtown core (by the waterfront).

  3. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    Job sprawl, in whatever form, is the bane of traffic engineering and transit planning. If all you have is residential sprawl, you can serve the whole city/metro with a radial hub-and-spoke transit network, because everyone is working and shopping downtown. Chicago’s ‘L’ and Metra are classic examples of this, and the streetcar systems of smaller cities also reflect this pattern.

    When you start getting job sprawl however, you need a more comprehensive net/web of lines, and unless density is very high throughout (like in Paris) it’s too expensive to build and operate for too little patronage. Even reverse commuting on existing radial networks is difficult because of poor reverse-direction frequencies and distances at the suburban end of the journey. Historic railroad suburbs are fairly walkable so it’s not too difficult for residents to get to and from the train station, requiring only marginal amounts of parking. Anywhere there’s a job center at a suburban station though you’re likely to get dropped off in some huge park-and-ride lot and have to get a shuttle or take a suburban bus line to the final destination.

    At least an edge city can be somewhat compact and serviceable by transit even if in a non-ideal way, like Tyson’s Corner. It’s better than scattering the jobs about willy nilly across the whole metro anyway.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, exactly. The problem is that the environments that favor the formation of edge cities don’t favor turning them into major CBDs. They can’t expand out because of NIMBYs. They can expand up and densify in a few cases, involving additional public transit service, but that’s only possible in the largest cities. Stockholm, which has more transit ridership than any US city except New York, isn’t expanding access to Kista, unless you count a one-station extension of the branch it’s on; its subway expansion plans focus on closer-in areas, where the density is still higher, even if Kista has taller buildings. Washington is building one line to Tysons, which is going to help transform the area but not solve the job sprawl problem. Only at the scale of Paris and London, or Tokyo, do we get enough ridership that it’s possible to serve the edge cities well. (And at the scale of Tokyo, the demand for office space is so great that it’s impossible to accommodate it in one primary CBD, so the formation of secondary CBDs in Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro is actually positive.)

      • Eric

        “the demand for office space is so great that it’s impossible to accommodate it in one primary CBD”

        What does that mean? That if the CBD were any bigger, it would not be walkable from one train station? That even with high-capacity modes like subways and pedestrians there is not enough space on the streets to accomodate everyone?

        • snogglethorpe

          Tokyo’s rail network has about 40 million rides daily. If we figure 50% of them are commuters, and each commuter rides twice per day, that’s 10 million commuters.

          So let’s say they all go to a single CBD station. If we allow two hours for each commute period, and commutes are evenly distributed over that period, that means about 84,000 people per minute will be arriving at that station.

          If there are six roads leading from the station towards businesses, that’s 14,000 people per minute walking down each road towards their workplace.

          Seems a bit crowded, even by Tokyo commuter standards….. :]

          • Alai

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinjuku_Station is used by 3.64 million people per day…

            But I imagine most CBDs are served by a number of stations, not just one. Especially if you have a CBD where 10 million people work– that’s going to be at least a couple of square miles, regardless of how dense it is.

    • Nathanael

      The best way to kill job sprawl is to have a situation where the employers who sprawl *can’t get workers* because they *don’t pay the workers enough to drive out to the sprawled locations*. I think this requires a tight labor market (full employment), because otherwise you eventually get tent cities of workers set up in office building parking lots.

      • Alon Levy

        But if the local labor market is tight, then the workers can bid up wages to the point that they can afford to drive. The cost of driving is based on mostly global inputs: cars, spare parts, and oil; local labor is less important. The cost of housing is local land and labor, so it goes up during full employment, even if there are no building restrictions, since it takes time to build more housing to satisfy sudden surges in demand (housing is not cheap in oil boomtowns).

        • Nathanael

          Interesting idea, but I don’t think you’ve thought it through. The cost of driving is essentially coming straight out of the workers’ wages. If the sprawled-out employer has to raise wages enough to cover the driving costs, then either the employer who relocates downtown has a profit advantage, or the workers have higher take-home pay (so the downtown employer gets better workers). Either way the downtown employer wins, provided the incremental cost of all that driving is actually greater than the cost of relocating downtown.

          This depends on driving being generally quite expensive, of course, expensive enough that the “savings” from being in the boondocks do not make up for it. Obviously it was impossible for this to be true during the era of 50 cent gasoline, but in the era of high gasoline prices, it becomes possible.

          I’m looking here at the workers who can afford to have a car but choose to locate where they can commute to work without it.

          For the workers who can’t really afford a car at all, they also can’t afford to live in well-located housing (since there isn’t enough of it), they’re being forced into the exurbs by price, and so the only real option is for the employers to *provide* housing. For some reason this hasn’t made a comeback yet.

  4. CBD-Planning

    While effects are well described, I think attributing job sprawl mostly to land use restrictions is oversimplified. As Fogelson describes in his book _Downtown_, a range of factors work against redevelopment at the core. These include very high costs to assemble land, very high construction costs partly due to complex logistics, difficulty with project financing, lack of larger sites ready to build, urban design mistakes, as well as political challenges. However, these conditions are starting to level out a bit as the periphery is largely developed, entering redevelopment with similar challenges.

    As other commenters note, many CBDs have tipped construction more to housing than commercial. This may signal the follow-on effect of technology. Offices need less actual space per employee, and fewer employees per task, and physical services once necessary are now digital and internal to a firm (e.g. couriers, printers, travel agencies, etc.). The general dawn of better urban design tactics and refocusing on street retail including restaurants and cafés reinforces the advantages of CBD living for leisure and convenience. The public transport benefits at the core are covered well in the original post. Hence, rising housing demand and softer commercial demand. At least, that’s one hypothesis.

    • al

      There might be a case for mixed use housing where you have basement parking, storage, an building systems, ground level retail, office above ground level and th top half residential. This reduces the core size and increases floor plate to core ratio for office space. The residences above require far fewer elevators per sq ft. The residents get views and you get a boost in office space.

  5. Nathanael

    ” And once city center is abandoned to the rich, there is no significant political force that can rectify the situation.”

    Sufficient numbers of non-rich willing to vote to override the rich.

    This probably usually has to happen at the state or provincial level, due to obvious municipal border issues.

    • Alon Levy

      Except that the non-rich in the suburbs do not actually support upzoning in the gentrified core, for reasons that I hinted at and that I’m going to talk more about in two posts. (Next post is reserved for my impressions of Stockholm.)

      • Nathanael

        I’d like to see more discussion of this. But I think this dynamic depends on the existence of a middle class.

        Once the *poor* in the suburbs *cannot afford to drive to their jobs*, they will support upzoning in the gentrified core. It’s the gentry who are preserving the zoning laws. eventually someone of nobleman levels of wealth buys the gentry out, seeing an opportunity to make a forture by building tenements.

        • Alon Levy

          Poor people in the peripheral towns of Israel, who complain nonstop about prices being too high, don’t care much about upzoning in Tel Aviv. (This includes both the disproportionately poor 30% of the country that is Arab or Haredi and thus has economic centers completely distinct from Tel Aviv, but also the poor members of the other 70%.) It’s not as if any poor person is going to be able to afford the marginal Tel Aviv apartment.

          • Nathanael

            Israel has bizarre problems (largely due to the combination of apartheid and heavy de facto discrimination) — and a weird geographical distribution of jobs, too, which you did mention. It’s also tiny; Beer Sheva to Acre is less than 130 miles, so (looking only at the 70% whose economic center is Tel Aviv) it’s basically one metro area. But they don’t *think* of it that way.

            Find another example. I’m not convinced you can generalize from Israel to anything.

          • Alon Levy

            Israel is very much not one metro area. Tel Aviv is clearly economically dominant, but Beer Sheva and Acre are both well outside its sphere of influence. Ashdod is about the southern limit of the city’s economic influence, and is really an independent city that fell into Tel Aviv’s orbit (like how New Haven is falling into New York’s) rather than a suburb. The northern limit is less clear – probably Netanya, but at any case well south of Haifa. Israel has few supercommuters, mostly soldiers who live with their parents on weekends and commute 2+ hours to the military base on Sunday morning and Friday afternoon. When an American Zionist made aliya and commuted an hour into Tel Aviv, he portrayed it in retrospect as an example of how clueless he was about Israel when he arrived that he’d consider a small Galilee town to be a Tel Aviv suburb. So even though the Tel Aviv-Haifa distance is not much more than the San Francisco-San Jose distance, those metro areas remain clearly separate. The Tel Aviv metro area is 40% of the national population, which is high by American standards but not by Korean, Dutch, or Danish ones.

            EDIT: also, re apartheid and discrimination, that’s the case for people who are not Jewish (especially ones who are not citizens, i.e. West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians). Levels of discrimination against marginalized Jews other than Haredis and Ethiopians are not that high by the standards of, say, racial discrimination in the US and Europe. That’s why I noted that the indifference to Tel Aviv upzoning is present both among genuinely excluded Arabs and Haredis and among people closer to the Jewish mainstream.

  6. Andre Lot

    An interesting case are Italian cities. For a variety of historical reasons (construction techniques, absence of major raze-and-burn wars after Renaissance, lagging entering on industrial revolution etc), most Italian cities didn’t go through the extensive re-framing or older areas that many others in France, Germany and UK did. As a result, today many major Italian cities have a *relatively* intact old core where it is impossible to build high-rises or even medium-rises with the space requirements for consolidated CBD buildings.

    As a result,almost all medium-sized and all big Italian cities have secondary CBDs implemented after WW2 (they are usually called “centro direzionale”).

  7. jt

    I think you’re making a bit of an error in the second to last paragraph with the claim that most new housing built would fail to benefit the working class. If a city permits 1,000 new units of apartments to be built (or many thousands, as has happened in DC the last several years), and they are priced (with some matching amenities) to target high-income renters, that still benefits the working class, even if indirectly, because that is now 1,000 fewer high-income folks bidding up the rent on older, existing buildings.

    The high-income 22-35-year-olds I knew in DC chiefly considered 3 main housing options: A– high-rent, high-amenities new apartment buildings. B– medium-rent, no-amenities, older apartment buildings. C– low-rent “group houses” where 4-6 adults jointly rent a rowhouse. In 2009, Option A was unheard-of-rare in the CBD, so everyone I knew did B and C; by 2013, most of my company’s new hires were taking Option A, relieving some pressure on B and C. The more high-income folks bidding for option B, the higher the rent on those apartments. The more high-income folks pooling money to rent houses (C), the fewer of those houses will be available to buy (and if available, at much higher prices) by working class families. And that’s not just a crazy hypothetical, because the group houses I saw were always right on the cutting edge of gentrification, like H St. NE in 2009, or eastern Columbia Heights, where high-income college grads were clearly replacing working class residents when building ownership turned over.

    Finally, in the long term, today’s high-end apartments will be next decade’s medium high-end apartments, and “class B” apartments 30 years hence. My favorite DC apartment was in a lovely building from the 1910s — lovely high ceilings and gorgeous exterior, but no central air meant it was brutal in the summers, so the rent was quite reasonable.

    • Alon Levy

      You’re right that there is an effect on boundary neighborhoods, like Columbia Heights. But farther away, there’s practically no effect. Building more housing in the DC core or in Georgetown, in the amounts that are considered politically palatable, is going to do exactly nothing for people in Anacostia. Many would like to move out of Anacostia, but wouldn’t be able to afford any of the three options you outline, so instead when they get a little bit richer they move incrementally farther out, which is one of the reasons black America is still suburbanizing in the senses of higher incomes leading to more suburbanization and of higher population growth in the suburbs.

      The point here is that most people in the working class do not live in boundary neighborhoods, and therefore do not really benefit from short-term increases in core housing supply. There are long-term knock-on effects – Anacostia, too, will gentrify eventually if things in DC continue as they are – but in the short term, very little. So regional and national working-class organs, whatever they are, don’t have any reason to support more development in the core. Local organs in boundary neighborhoods do, but once you’re getting to the local level, you’re getting into a very different sort of activism. Working-class community organizations have a much easier time harassing local developers and demanding affordable housing setasides and stronger rent regulations than advocating for large-scale upzoning in other neighborhoods; it’s generally easier to be NIMBY in your own area than to attack the NIMBYs of other areas.

      • Nathanael

        I’m going to give you an interesting example from my small city, Ithaca. The Mayor and City Council are approving lots of new multi-story apartment buildings — the first in decades. First zoning, then historic preservation as well, basically halted apartment building construction from the 1950s until very, very recently. Meanwhile, old untouchable houses were converted into offices or divided into apartments.

        The new apartments are *immediately* being occupied by relatively wealthy people (here, that’s students, grad students, professionals, business owners), who were previously living in 100-year-old conversions.

        The downtown 100-year-old conversions are immediately filled up with the next tier of the population (people with decent jobs, students with less money), who were living either in cramped 50-year-old apartments some distance out, or on the fringes of the county.

        The cramped 50-year-old apartments some distance out, and the places on the fringes of the county, are immediately filled up by the next tier, people with slighlty less money who were living in the neighboring counties.

        The housing in the neighboring counties (which is rural *and* is decrepit junk) is then being filled by people who were driving — or taking the bus — *two counties over* (from decrepit junk housing in other small cities) to get to work.

        The already-fairly-empty housing in the other cities, like Binghamton and Cortland, then becomes cheaper for people who actually have jobs in Binghamton and Cortland, because they’re no longer competing with people who have jobs in Ithaca. The people working in Binghamton and Cortland may still choose to live in rural housing by preference, though.

        “So regional and national working-class organs, whatever they are, don’t have any reason to support more development in the core. Local organs in boundary neighborhoods do, but once you’re getting to the local level, you’re getting into a very different sort of activism. ”

        Perhaps in a small town like Ithaca there are *only* local organizations — and arguably everyone is in a boundary neighborhood, right out through the farmland. The effect of allowing more downtown apartment construction is obvious, however. Poor people were, literally, living two counties over, and they’ve been able to move closer.

        I’m not entirely sure how the politics aligned, but the mayor is a young guy with college debts living without a car, and that may have a lot to do with it. The forces who opposed apartment buildings have basically mostly died off and no longer have much voting power. There’s still hyper-local opposition to individual upzonings from neighbors, but the developers win more often than not, because the bottom line is that almost everyone wants more downtown housing.

        Perhaps the fact that the “low-density” housing has mostly turned into office or apartment conversions has something to do with it. A single-family homeowner might want to preserve all the low-slung houses, but a bunch of apartment dwellers and office workers in the *same* low-slung houses don’t have much investment in preserving them.

        • Alon Levy

          I think it’s somewhat different given how small and remote Ithaca is; in cities that don’t thin into rural areas so quickly, most people aren’t suddenly going to be able to move one county closer in. Now I’m curious how things look in college towns located in somewhat more central regions, like Leiden or Oxford or Cambridge (the one in England) or Ann Arbor.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Israel is slightly smaller and slightly less populous than …. New Jersey…

          • Alon Levy

            Yes, and Jersey comprises two separate metro areas, even though American commute distances are much longer than Israeli ones.

  8. Matthew

    I have been dwelling on this post with regard to happenings in Boston. Obviously the hey day of Route 128 represented a dispersal to various “edge” nodes in an 8-10 mile perimeter of Boston. Nowadays the hot thing is what I might call “neighborhood edge cities.” Well, I’m not sure if they deserve to be called edge cities if they are within walking distance of the downtown CBD, but they do seem to behave like it — and everything is smaller in Boston anyway. Menino tried to kickstart the so-called “Innovation District”, which has been more attractive to well-connected, high powered firms rather than start-ups, really. The Longwood Medical Area is a booming employment center, and Kendall Square is…well you already know. Of these three, only Kendall Square has really good transit access, and even that’s not as strong as other nearby Red Line stations. But Kendall and LMA make sense in that they were seeded around nearby, strong institutions. The “Innovation District” in the Seaport was Menino trying to play SimCity, and it shows. The funny thing about the Seaport is that space in the supremely well-served Downtown Crossing has become cheaper and more attractive to tech start-ups, and that’s a good thing I think.

    Kendall Square’s success has become the envy of some city planners, I’ve noticed. Over in Assembly Square, with the new Orange Line station, Somerville managed to entice Partners Healthcare. And of course the whole Federal Realty development/mall. That area is cut off by I-93 and the river, so it might qualify as an edge city under any definition.

    And with the Allston Interchange project freeing up Harvard’s land in the Beacon Park/old CSX railyard, I know there are some folks eyeing that as the “next Kendall Square”. Except… without the Red Line. I really am starting to wonder about the wisdom of trying to attract that kind of investment to an area hemmed in between the highway and the river. Commuter rail is an option but is subject to the usual MBTA incompetence. This could easily become another Seaport where the presence of the Mass Pike interchange combined with poor transit results in overreliance on car commutes.

    Is this all just to avoid building up the CBD? Well, maybe, maybe not. There’s certainly proposals on the table for various pieces of downtown that are decent. And Downtown Crossing should look completely different in 5 years.

    What do you think? Do these examples count as “edge cities?”

    • Alon Levy

      Well, I hesitate to call Kendall Square an edge city, since it’s so close to the CBD – about the same distance as Back Bay, along a better subway line. It’s 6 minutes from Downtown Crossing to Kendall Square. Between this and its age, it feels like a secondary downtown more than an edge city – even Back Bay, which is clearly a secondary downtown rather than an edge city, triggers an “ugh, modernism” reaction in me more than MIT does. On the other hand, it’s 10 minutes by RER from Chatelet to La Defense, which is clearly an edge city (if a transit-oriented one), so it can’t be a huge difference.

      Assembly Square and Allston Interchange aren’t even edge cities: a single office park is the mark of an edgeless city rather than an edge city; neither of these developments is poised to be of the same scale as Tysons Corner, Stamford, White Plains, Century City, or any of Silicon Valley’s massive office parks.

      In Boston, unlike in Paris and Stockholm, there is a high-rise CBD. But once you get out of it, you very quickly run into high-income urban neighborhoods, where people will never agree to any CBD-ification, for the same reasons that I bring up for Paris and Stockholm. The other factor is that as in the rest of the US, in the Boston area, car ownership in the top half of the income distribution approaches 100%; powerful people in suburban neighborhoods want these auto-oriented edge cities, because it’s easier for them to drive there than to deal with traffic and parking around Downtown Crossing. So between these two populations of rich people – the one in Beacon Hill and Back Bay, and the one in the suburbs (including suburban neighborhoods like Hyde Park) – there’s nobody of importance who wants any horizontal expansion of Boston’s high-rise CBD into adjacent neighborhoods.

  9. betamagellan

    Access to Longwood is pretty much the main reason I think a Boston urban ring subway idea would be worthwhile (and to some degree better access to Kendall/MIT—it seems like it’s usually envisioned as an outgrowth of the Orange Line, so I guess Assembly might be on it, too).

    • Eric

      Kendall is on the Red Line – upgrade the Red Line’s antiquated signalling and Kendall will instantly have top-quality transit access.
      The western parts of MIT are underserved (20 minute walk to Red or Green lines), but I don’t think that justifies a whole new rapid transit line.
      Longwood already is within walking distance of the Green Line.

  10. Matthew M. Robare

    But is the CBD an eternal given? Before the middle of the nineteenth century they didn’t exist. You had offices, homes, retail, industry and everything all jumbled together. In 1800, the City of London — now London’s CBD — was home to over 100,000 people. By 1900 it was less than 20,000.

    We need to get rid of the zoning that keeps office jobs and other CBD stuff out of the rest of the city.


    • Adirondacker12800

      In 1800 your commuting choices were walking or the walking speed of a horse.
      By 1900 could spend the same amount of time on a much faster train and go to the much cheaper real estate in the suburbs. In the really dense CBDs they still do.
      In 1800 there were very few businesses that needed armies of white collar workers. By 1900 there were. They had cheap artificial light to work under. And elevators making it possible to work someplace higher than than the 4th or 5th floor. And the building materials to build buildings higher than 4 or 5 floors.

  11. Nathanael

    I’ll tell you when the trend ends: when the rich people are really down to the 0.1%. (Not merely the 10%.) When there are so few of them, even if they want to preserve their vast mansions and country estates, there becomes a prisoner’s dilemma problem: whichever nobleman decides to let millions of poor people live on his land wins, becoming richer and more powerful. At this point you get private housing development/transit schemes such as you had in the 19th century.

    • Nathanael

      Another way to put it is that the dynamics you describe can only happen when there’s a strong upper middle class. When the upper middle class is impoverished and the society really becomes 0.1% ruling over everyone else, the dynamics start becoming impossible, and you get different dynamics. For what it’s worth.

  12. Pingback: The NITBY Problem | Pedestrian Observations
  13. Pingback: Edge Cities | Purple City
  14. Eric

    Wasn’t Midtown Manhattan once an edge city located in a rich suburb? And over the decades it was built up until it became the main CBD, with the transit capacity to match it?

    Was it ever realistic or desirable for NYC’s economy to remain cooped up on the tip of Lower Manhattan?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.