10 April 2004

Edge City

I have feelings of strong ambivalence about Joel Garreau's book Edge City. On the one hand, Garreau was the first to clearly articulate what was going on as suburbs have grown into something much more complicated than just bedroom communities, and he describes the phenomenon with extraordinary clarity. The book is a fascinating read.

On the other hand, he has this bizarre optimism that they're not so bad as they seem, they're just evolving into something cool that we cannot yet fully imagine. Bunk. Edge cities suck. They lack public space, corrode community, and are ugly, ugly, ugly. They sap the soul. People live in them because in America they mostly don't have a choice, for economic reasons.

Kevin Drum has a nice summary of the book's explanation of how the logic of cars shapes edge cities.

The basic unit of density in an edge city development is the FAR (pronounced eff-ay-are), or Floor-to-Area Ratio, which Garreau describes this way: ''It is the developer's fundamental calculation of urban density, hence traffic, hence parking, hence human behavior, hence civilization.'' FAR is the ratio of the total floorspace of a building to the area of the land the building is on, and it is constrained by the rule of thumb that each worker in an office building requires 250 square feet and each car requires 400 square feet.
In other words, there's a gray zone between an FAR of 0.4 and a FAR of about 1.0 where it doesn't make economic sense to build much of anything. And it all hinges on parking.
Edge cities always develop to the point where they become dense enough to make people crazy with the traffic, but rarely, if ever, do they get dense enough to support the rail alternative to automobile traffic.

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