Job Sprawl in the US vs. Europe

Both American and European cities have prominent central business districts with high job density. But when jobs sprawl beyond the CBDs, they do so in very different manners on the two sides of the Pond, which is both a cause and an effect of higher US automobile usage. Much of this job sprawl happens in places that people on the other side of the Pond would not recognize as part of The City. Besides the obvious misunderstandings, this can compromise the quality of analysis of urbanism and the transportation required to serve it. In short, the European model, for which my models are Stockholm and Paris, is that jobs sprawl contiguously from the CBD, enlarging its physical area, whereas the North American model, for which my models are New York and Washington, is that jobs leap large swaths of residential neighborhoods into auto-oriented suburbia.

CBDs and job density

Office towers are rare in European CBDs. Paris is largely built up to 6 to 9 stories, and the higher end is more common in residential areas like Nation than in the CBD, which stretches from Les Halles to Saint-Lazare and Etoile. Stockholm has a total of five towers in its center, none especially tall. Contrary to the common European belief that high-rises don’t add density, the mid-rise character of most European CBDs leads to a real limit on their ability to agglomerate. The job-densest arrondissement of Paris, the 2nd, has 60,000 jobs in a square kilometer (look for table EMP T6 here); Midtown Manhattan has about 800,000 jobs in 4 square kilometers.

Not all jobs are in the CBD. Some are local community facilities, such as schools, supermarkets, and hospitals. But even more exportable jobs are not all in the CBD. Some industries cluster in sections of the CBD (such as advertising on Madison Avenue in New York or, traditionally, the media on Fleet Street in London), and similarly some cluster in off-CBD locations, perhaps near one firm that located idiosyncratically. In the other direction, not even the job density of Midtown can contain every workplace that wants a central location, and this pushes out firms that can’t compete for CBD office rents. The difference between the North American and European models is where these firms are likely to locate.

Contiguous sprawl

In both Paris and Stockholm, the solution to the restricted job density of their city centers is, superficially, high-rise clusters in a particular suburban place: La Defense in Paris, Kista in Stockholm. The job density at the center of La Defense is actually higher than in the 2nd arrondissement, though it drops drastically outside the very center, whereas the Paris CBD maintains a density of about 50,000 jobs per km^2 over 4 or 5 square kilometers. In both cases, this leads to spatial inequality: in Paris, the richest suburbs are in the west and southwest, and La Defense is west of the city; in Stockholm, Kista itself is surrounded by working- and middle-class areas, and the favored quarter is separated from it by a lake, but the ill-favored quarter to the south is the farthest away.

However, there is much more to Paris employment than the CBD and suburban office towers. Paris has a total of 1.8 million jobs, with only around one eighth to one sixth of them in the CBD. There are corporate headquarters in La Defense and a number of other suburbs on the RER, but there are job clusters all over the city. My arrondissement, the 12th, has 120,000 jobs in a little more than 6 square kilometers, giving it the same job density as is average for the city. According to OnTheMap, Upper Manhattan, defined to be north of East 96th and West 110th Streets, has 150,000 jobs in 19 square kilometers, and the Upper East and West Sides, defined to be north of 62nd Street so as to exclude Columbus Circle jobs, have a total of 175,000 jobs in 9 square kilometers. While the Upper East and West Sides hold their own, in large part thanks to the hospital cluster around Weill-Cornell, Upper Manhattan does not.

These clusters in Paris are everywhere. In my arrondissement the cluster in question is Bercy, home to the Ministry of Finance; there’s also the university cluster in the Latin Quarter, an under-construction judicial cluster around Clichy-Batignolles, and high-end professional services spillover west of the CBD in the 16th and 17th arrondissements. In effect, office uses are sprawling into otherwise-residential neighborhoods.

In Stockholm, the same situation occurs. Spotify is headquartered two T-Bana stops north of T-Centralen, a short walk from where I used to live in Roslagstull (in fact, one of the people viewing my apartment as I was leaving it worked there). There’s also a prominent peak travel flow of students heading to KTH and the University on the trains from points south. In the south, Södermalm has its own secondary CBD around Slussen, the second busiest T-Bana station after T-Centralen.

Office park sprawl

North American cities do not have high overall job density in the core when one counts both the CBD and surrounding inner neighborhoods, which are typically entirely bedroom communities like Upper Manhattan. Instead, there is discontinuous job sprawl: jobs hop over residential areas into farther-away places, typically suburban office parks. The most famous in American urbanist discourse is Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia, but the Washington metropolitan area is generally replete with edge cities, including Reston, Bethesda, and Silver Spring, all located in the northern and western favored quarters of the region. Kista is really a high-rise version of these edge cities.

Washington is the purest example of office job sprawl. However, even there, there is a complication: there are some nearer job clusters like the Pentagon. New York and other large American cities are the same, with even more complications like this. In New York, the in-state side of the metro area has large suburban job clusters such as White Plains and Stamford, but the New Jersey side includes the formerly independent Downtown Newark, contiguous job sprawl in Jersey City directly facing Lower Manhattan, and very decentralized job sprawl in Middlesex County, contrasting with the centralized office sprawl of White Plains.

Robert Lang and Jennifer Lefurgy call Central Jersey edgeless cities and White Plains and Tysons edge cities. While edge cities exist in Europe, edgeless cities do not. Exurban retail in France resembles American exurban retail, with Carrefour inventing the hypermarket at the same time Wal-Mart did, but there is almost no equivalent of the small American office park. The closest I am aware of, Sophia-Antipolis, is an edge city with a large concentration of jobs, just built at automobile scale without any walkability.

New York is large enough to have an intermediate form: namely, a secondary CBD that’s not contiguous with the main city center. Downtown Brooklyn arose as such a CBD, serving Brooklyn, even though it’s contiguous with Lower Manhattan across the water. Jamaica is the best example, as it is quite far from Manhattan. La Defense should be put in this category as well – it is contiguous with the dense built-up area, if not with the CBD itself, and it is closer to Les Halles than Jamaica is to Midtown.

Favored quarters

There are multiple instances of large American firms moving their entire headquarters to be close to where the CEO lives. IBM moved to Armonk and General Electric moved to Fairfield, both leaving New York, to avoid making executives drive in Manhattan traffic. In Europe, too, the edge cities tend to be in rich areas. The corporate headquarters around Paris cluster in La Defense and to a lesser extent northwestern and southern suburbs, and not in Seine-Saint-Denis.

This is a straightforward consequence of the fact that rich Americans left city centers starting in the early 20th century, culminating in middle-class white flight in the 1950s, whereas Paris and Stockholm remain richer than their suburbs. The inhabitants of the 16th arrondissement of Paris are unlikely to be interested in job sprawl. Instead, the Paris CBD is slowly migrating westward, as retail and office rents at the western end (Etoile) are higher than in the center (the Opera) and eastern end (just west of Les Halles).

One would suspect that in American cities that are richer than their suburbs, the phenomenon of job sprawl would not occur. The problem is that there is no clean example today. Boston is still poorer than its suburbs; Cambridge is quite rich, but is functionally one favored-quarter wedge. San Francisco is overall richer than most of its suburbs, but really the entire strip of land from San Francisco down to San Jose is rich, and at any rate Silicon Valley formed in a then-independent metro region, rather than sprawling out of the center the way White Plains and Tysons Corner did.

However, as white flight is giving way to gentrification, and American cities are economically outgrowing their suburbs, this theory would predict that job sprawl should decrease, with more corporate jobs shifting back to the cities. This seems to indeed be happening: General Electric moved from Fairfield to Downtown Boston, and United-Continental moved its headquarters to the Sears Tower in the Chicago Loop; Aaron Renn periodically talks about the resorting of the American economy, in which the highest-end jobs are back to city centers whereas lower-end jobs are in the suburbs and smaller cities.

Is the US Europeanizing?

There is some evidence to suggest that American cities not only are reducing the extent of job sprawl in the highest pay categories, but also adopting the European pattern of contiguous CBD sprawl. This process is haphazard, and many urban boosters overrate the extent to which near-CBD locations like the West Loop in Chicago or the Seaport in Boston are attracting jobs, but these areas are nonetheless growing.

Boston is perhaps the best example of this trend. Locally, urban boosters anxiously talk about transportation connections to the Seaport, but the biggest action is happening in the other direction. Kendall Square is growing as the Cambridge CBD, with a cluster of tech firms, two stops out on the subway from the central transfer points. Boston is unique that Back Bay is a nearly-contiguous secondary CBD as well, based on extensive postwar urban renewal next to a rich residential neighborhood. This situation is especially notable given that both Cambridge and the Seaport are separated from the CBD by water, with unpleasant walking environments on the bridges, making the organic process of CBD extension more difficult.

Outside Boston, several more examples are notable. In San Francisco, tech jobs within the city cluster not in the Financial District but in the adjacent South of Market (“SoMa”) area. In Chicago, in addition to some growth in the West Loop, there is some job growth on the Near North Side. In New York, the tech jobs cluster in the Meatpacking District: the Google building, which I believe is the second largest Google office after the Googleplex, occupies the block between 8th and 9th Avenues and 15th and 16th Streets. But even before Google, there was growth in adjacent secondary CBDs across the water: Jersey City and Long Island City. Lang and Lefurgy’s writeup on edgeless cities classifies Jersey City as a secondary CBD rather than an edge city because “its context is old”: it’s built out of a near-CBD residential and industrial area, rather than developed from scratch near a road or rail intersection.

Starting last decade, urbanist writers in the United States noted that the US was Europeanizing in its pattern of rich cities and poor suburbs. Brookings was writing about suburbanization of poverty in 2010, describing a 2000-8 trend. The growth of near-CBD office clusters in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago suggests that the US is also Europeanizing in its pattern of how jobs spill over from the center. Instead of the traditional auto-oriented office park near the CEO’s residence, the highest-income, highest-prestige jobs in the US are decamping to the same near-CBD locations where they can be found in Paris or Stockholm, leaving the sprawl for the poor.


  1. Benjamin Turon

    Interesting post. “Jobs Sprawl” is a major reason why public transit is so hard to do where I live in the Capital District of Upstate NYS, you have downtown Albany and Schenectady, but most jobs are located outside the city centers, in suburbia. Its a land of office parks, big box shopping centers, and cul-de-sac residential subdivisions. Hard to connect all of this with rail transit.

    But perhaps even this is changing, there is a lot development happening in regional downtowns, for example downtown Schenectady is home to the headwaters of MVP Healthcare and Goulb/Price Chopper (regional grocery gain). A local developer has moved his corporate HQ to a new mixed-use development on the waterfront. GE still has a few thousand jobs on its campus just south of downtown. Union College is close by, Ellis Hospital is a little further away, but is always expanding, a short drive or 30-min walk away from city center. Proctors Theatre is the economic heart of downtown, there are now everyday at least several events going on at the complex built around the historic Main Stage. There is a new casino on the waterfront, several new hotels, a new cinema, new residential buildings going up on State Street. And a new rail station is under construction.

    This trend described above in the “Electric City” can be seen in other local downtowns as well, including Glen Falls, Troy, Albany, and of course Saratoga Springs, which seems to have started first with the redevelopment of its urban center in the 1970s.

  2. Michael James

    Good description of the phenomenon, so I suppose my comments are just nitpicking:

    an under-construction judicial cluster around Clichy-Batignolles, and high-end professional services spillover west of the CBD in the 16th and 17th arrondissements. In effect, office uses are sprawling into otherwise-residential neighborhoods.

    Throughput your piece I think you are misusing the term sprawl. As your point about Sophia-Antipolis shows, there is almost nothing in France equivalent to either the true meaning of sprawl or its examples in the US. Almost nowhere in the Ile de France can be so-defined because almost everywhere has a density close to or greater than the second-densest urban area in the US (ie. outside of NYC, it is San Francisco at about 7,000/km2). And whatever fine points one might argue about the term, “low density” is assuredly always fundamental to sprawl.
    To American readers at least, to describe Clicy-Batignolles as “offices sprawling into residential neighborhoods” is very confusing when/if you tell them that the new judicial centre is a mere 2.5km from the 2nd arrondissement (not a whole lot further than when it was located on Ile de la Cité), and of course still within the city of Paris (ie. in the 17th arrondissement). And La Défense is a mere 6km from Paris–which is about the same as Uptown to Downtown NYC, and effectively much shorter using the RER. I can think only of the Universite Paris-Saclay as a candidate for real sprawl in the Paris urban area, as it is about 20km out of Paris and kind of in the middle of nowhere (though well served by public transit, which is why most people who work there don’t live there–but that is what might change … one can almost imagine towns of Palo Alto style bungalows).
    But on this perhaps you have the EEA on your side? (Wiki):

    In Continental Europe the term “peri-urbanisation” is often used to denote similar dynamics and phenomena, although the term urban sprawl is currently being used by the European Environment Agency.

    really the entire strip of land from San Francisco down to San Jose is rich, and at any rate Silicon Valley formed in a then-independent metro region, rather than sprawling out of the center

    Hmm, that seems to ignore that Leland Stanford relocated his university out of central SF and created the Palo Alto science park for the same reasons why such office sprawl happened elsewhere in the US. (And is the closest equivalent model for Saclay to follow.) Cheap land that he happened to own, and could make a commercial killing on.

    The job density at the center of La Defense is actually higher than in the 2nd arrondissement, though it drops drastically outside the very center

    Maybe I am wrong but that just strikes me as strange. I haven’t been up there for years (hmm decades!) but maps indicate a pretty even spread–though with a higher concentration in the lower two of its four sectors (but I can’t see any breakdown by 4 sectors or 14 quartiers).

    The corporate headquarters around Paris cluster in La Défense and to a lesser extent northwestern and southern suburbs, and not in Seine-Saint-Denis.

    Well yes, as planned. IIRC an early attempt at St Denis, the Tour Pleyel, failed miserably. Business really does like to aggregate according to function so La Défense is going to continue to get most of the FIRE and related industries. OTOH, St Denis is aggregating creative industries, as the Luc Besson’s Cité du Cinéma (“Hollywood-sur-Seine”) and the de-industrialisation of that and adjoining areas (like St Ouen and its docks). Further upstream on the old Renault car factory site, Ile de Seguin, is planned as a university + performance quartier (again I haven’t visited there but read about the Stanford U campus and La Seine Musicale). Again one would be stretching it to label any of this as sprawl seeing how it is all directly adjacent to intramuros Paris, plus in hi-density residential areas.

  3. Eric

    The spread of Seattle downtown to South Lake Union (anchored by Amazon) seems to follow “European” patterns.

  4. Martin

    Over the last few decades, cities and downtowns became “cool” again to live in. While older companies were always in downtowns, the newer companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook were much slower to recognize that. However, in order to attract talent that didn’t want to live in burbs, the tech shuttles begun transporting workers from dense SF to sprawling business parks. The next generation of executives – which likely rose up the ranks – is pushing companies to establish offices in downtowns. Facebook purchased lots of office space in a new luxury tower, while Google and Amazon are slowly expanding their operations. Today, the dream job for college grad is to work for a company with an office in SF and also be able to live in SF.

    The high cost of living isn’t lost on these companies, so where as your grandparents had an office, and your parents had a cube, today, people work along long tables to maximize use of the expensive real-estate.

    • adirondacker12800

      My grandparents worked at a long table. So did my parents and I still use it to work on. I don’t make a living with it anymore but I use it for work. With objects and tools. Some of the tools over a century old. Still have the stools that are the right height for the table too. Kept a few of the machines too, the smaller ones, they make good bookends.

  5. ardecila

    For a transportation-focused blog, this post is unusually light on the transportation factors. Namely – a hub and spoke layout for both transit and highway systems puts the CBD at an immense advantage compared to outlying locations. With the highway system, a radial/circumferential interchange offers some of the same advantages as a CBD. It could be possible for transit also, but American cities have not invested in building circumferential transit. DC’s Purple Line is about the only example I can think of that got off the drawing board, or HBLR in New Jersey.

    European cities often do provide circumferential transit to the intermediate zone between city and suburb, and have interchange points in these zones, so it’s not surprising that the jobs would follow.

    • Alon Levy

      I wanted to say something about this… but Stockholm has an incredibly monocentric transportation network, whereas Paris is much less monocentric. Washington is almost as monocentric as Stockholm, it just has one additional node beyond the CBD, i.e. L’Enfant Plaza. Chicago might beat them all on monocentricity, since the lines don’t have good transfers for diagonal commutes, whereas in Stockholm everything converges on T-Centralen.

  6. Untangled

    I found this document from the regional planning organisation in Sydney that touches on this topic a while back, there are some things I could criticise it for and some things have changed since it was released but it’s mostly pretty good. Essentially, the document identified 4 main types of job distributions in metropolitan areas across the world (including Paris and Stockholm) but within that there are variations.

    Click to access Lessons_from_International_Experience_(Prof_Greg_Clark_and_Dr_Tim_Moonen).pdf

    • Untangled

      Looks like the comment algorithm forgot the .pdf part or the URL, just copy and paste it. Also, the report includes New York, that’s 3/4 cities this article covers in the pdf report.

  7. Henry

    New York should implement RX with the goal of creating secondary jobs hubs at East New York, Jamaica, Jackson Heights, and The Hub. At that point all of those areas will have access to the other outer boroughs, Manhattan, and direct access to the commuter rail network.

  8. Minato

    There are 6 million jobs in Paris metropolitan area, a little above 2 million of them are in the City of Paris and La Défense.
    A little under 3 million if you combine the City of Paris and the western Hauts de Seine departement (where is located la Défense and other offices heavy inner suburbs like Boulogne Billancourt, Levallois Perret, Neuilly, Issy-les Moulineaux, Reuil-Malmaison and etc).
    A little under 3 million out 6 million,, that’s just half of the total employment.
    Where is the other half ?
    In many other areas. The analysis of Paris jobs repartission seems quite incomplete.

    PS: There are many office development in Seine Sant-Denis. The area has had the highest jobs growth of Paris region since the 90s. Especially in Saint-Denis, Saint Ouen, Aubervilliers, Pantin, Montreuil and around CDG airport.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, Paris has 1.8 million out of about 5.9 million jobs (and out of about 4.1 million intra muros plus the petite couronne): 30% of jobs, just 18% of residents. In New York, the numbers are more Manhattan-centric within the city, but the city overall is less dominant within the metro area than Paris and the petite couronne are within Ile-de-France.

  9. Adam

    On a macro level you can see rail induced sprawl by looking at a map of the United States, with a common density and distances between cities settled before the advent of rail, all east of the Mississippi, slightly larger distances and less density for the mid 1850s migrations, and catastrophically low density and gargantuan distances after the transcontinental railroad went in.

    This is largely a factor of carrying capacity, the distance between cities must be approximately twice the distance a farmer can travel to market (in the City in a day. Because absent refrigeration, food has to be fresh, and if food has to be fresh it can only be so far away. And if it can only be so far away, cities cannot sprawl, people have to live densely within the city limits or they cannot be fed.

    Once rail came in, cities had room to sprawl because farmers only had to get their wares to the rail station, not to market. And once refrigerated transport kicked in in the 1930s, on a large scale the sprawl of the late 1940s and 1950s was technologically possible without imploding into starvation.

    This is a roundabout way of saying that Huntington built Los Angeles around an extensive rail network that connected all the local farmland to the CBD as well as to the ports etc. the notorious Los Angeles sprawl was often just urban infill replacing farm land no longer needed in the age of refrigeration

    • Eric

      Denver is far away from Kansas City, but that fact has nothing to do with the sprawling nature of late-20th century US cities.

      Parts of Long Island are just as sprawling as Denver and more sprawling than Los Angeles.

  10. michael

    Much of the dis-contiguous nature of american CBDs seems to be a result of de-industrialization beginning shortly after WW2. For example, Chicago, which has one of the more job dense cores, was until a couple generations ago surrounded by several high job density bands extending outward across the south and west sides along the rail corridors. Those jobs have evaporated while the industrial land previously occupied is often problematic for new development due to contamination, leaving previous walk to work neighborhoods more or less stranded. The jobs moved to greenfields outside the city.

    • Alon Levy

      Deindustrialization isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon, though. France and the UK were hit just as hard. In London, the biggest industrial site, the West India docks, got turned into Canary Wharf, 5 km east of city center. Other industrial sites near train stations were erased to build residential and commercial development, or public facilities like the British Library, which occupies what used to be the goods yard of the Midland Railway. Somehow, the mind-boggling levels of coal pollution didn’t prevent redevelopment.

  11. michael

    We’ve approached de-industrialization very differently. In the US, it’s left gaping holes in the urban fabric across pretty much all of our industrialized cities and/or their inner most working class suburbs, with job growth occurring at the periphery of the metro or the CBD. But many jobs used to be in many of those neighborhoods that are now bedroom communities of the CBDs as recently as the 70s. Whether it’s true or not, the reason given by developers for not redeveloping the land is that it’s prohibitively expensive due to environmental issues. At least looking at chicago from google earth, the amount of de-industrialized property is nearly incomprehensible, so I do think that while the situations may be similar, there is a clear difference in scale versus London or Paris.,-87.7301287,12497m/data=!3m1!1e3

    • Alon Levy

      Hmmm, it could be scale. I will say, New York did redevelop deindustrializing areas close to the CBD (the Jersey City waterfront used to be railyards and is now a secondary CBD), but maybe it’s still much smaller than what Chicago’s had to work with.

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