“Shakespeare had it wrong,” Washington Post senior writer Joel Garreau said on a recent visit to Chicago. “Instead of ‘Let’s shoot all the lawyers,’ he should have written ‘Let’s shoot all the planners.'”

Garreau didn’t always harbor such views. Ten years ago, provoked by developers who surrounded his ten-acre exurban retreat with tacky “tract mansions” and well aware of similar urban sprawl around other U.S. cities, he set out to write what became Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. It didn’t turn out the way he expected.

“As a typical Washington Post reporter, I figured I would get to the bottom of this, find out what devils were doing this to us, and get the SOBs indicted. I started out with all the typical liberal-arts preconceptions: that we need more planning, that Americans’ attachment to their cars is inexplicable and bad, that suburbia is morally corrupt and boring. I genuinely planned on looking Satan in the eye and–you don’t get this opportunity very often–asking, “What exactly is the pleasure in raping the land?’ But the more reporting I did, the more I became a traitor to my intellectual class.”

Garreau defines “edge cities” as bedroom suburbs, plus malls, plus workplaces with more than five million square feet of leasable office space (about what downtown Memphis has). Other people have called them urban villages, technoburbs, suburban downtowns, suburban activity centers, major diversified centers, urban cores, galactic cities, pepperoni-pizza cities, cities of realms, superburbia, disurbs, service cities, perimeter cities, even peripheral centers. In his list of edge cities outside Chicago, Garreau includes the O’Hare area, the Schaumburg-Hoffman Estates area, the lake shore corridor around the Tri-State and the Edens, and the I-88 corridor from Oak Brook to Aurora.

His treason is twofold. First, he no longer automatically disapproves of such places on principle. Having compared planned communities with those that grew up under comparative anarchy, Garreau suspects that anarchy works better, reminding us that the prototypical beautiful European city, Venice, grew without benefit of a plan. And he doesn’t think that edge cities compete destructively with downtowns; most big-city downtowns, after all, flourished during the 1980s.

Second, and worse, Garreau no longer believes edge cities are being forced upon an unwilling American public by rascally developers. He thinks they’re what most Americans really want. As a group, he says, developers are neither smart enough nor bold enough to conspire against the wishes of millions of Americans if they truly preferred to live in traditional downtowns and get around by bus and train. In fact, he contends, most people with a free choice prefer to live with more greenery around them, and they also prefer to live, work, and play in different places and different combinations of places–which means cars.

“There’s no reason we couldn’t have built another Chicago out there in Aurora or Schaumburg if we wanted to. The millionth Model T came off the assembly line in 1915–we haven’t built a new downtown along traditional lines since then either. People have been voting with their feet for a long time now.” What will it take, he wonders, for the planners and other deep thinkers about urbanism to realize that edge cities are the cities of the 20th and 21st centuries?

Nationwide, Garreau counts 123 edge cities and 35 traditional downtowns of comparable size. He’s not just talking bulk and shiny buildings. In his opinion edge cities have pretty much everything it traditionally took to be a city: industry, governance, commerce, safety, culture, companionship, religion, even diversity.

But they don’t have attractive public spaces. The malls, stores, and campuslike corporate lawns are privately owned and carefully patrolled. “In Edge City,” writes Garreau, “about the closest thing you find to a public space–where just about anybody can go–is the parking lot. In Edge City, no commercial center could survive if it had as poor a reputation for safety as do the streets of most downtowns.” He quotes George Sternlieb of Rutgers University: “They don’t want the strangers. If it is a choice between parks and strangers, the people there would sooner do without the parks.”

Is this an antiurban attitude? Not according to Garreau. “It’s easy to forget now, but all the way back to Gilgamesh, safety has always been a primary urban concern. That was the point of having walls–people were supposed to feel safer inside the city than outside of it! I don’t think wanting safety is the same thing as being racist; black people don’t like to be shot at any more than anybody else does.”

Garreau is no edge-city Pollyanna. They could go wrong, he acknowledges, with underclass gangs assaulting a hermetically sealed exurban preserve. But they don’t have to. Nor do they all have to look the same, he points out. They do now only because they’re all about the same age. “We’ve never seen an adult one yet. These are the larval stage.” And as the overheated building boom of the 80s cools off, he expects there will be stiff competition between edge cities for survival–and as a result, more distinctiveness.

Edge cities can already provide anything a developer can pay to put in place–pet stores, jogging trails, day care–so Garreau expects they will start competing on the basis of less tangible quality-of-life factors, “the squishy stuff: is it a good place to fall in love? to bring Aunt Tillie when she comes to town? to find a secondhand bookstore? or an artists’ hangout?” The last is hard to imagine amidst the gleaming towers on I-88, but Garreau is serious: “I’m waiting for the first artist to find out what a fabulous space an old K mart is.”

Of course edge cities do have plenty of cars and depend on them utterly. Garreau doesn’t mind–and this may be his third treason against planners and others who think, as he used to, that cars are the preeminent symbol of suburban American extravagance, irresponsibility, and unsustainability. But he sees cars as the logical result of Americans’ desire to live and work in diverse and changing locations. He says cars don’t have to be fueled by oil and congestion could be controlled by road-use tolls and a slight increase in the average number of people riding in each car.

Garreau studied nine edge-city clusters, from northern New Jersey to southern California. (He didn’t do Chicago–Detroit beat us out because it gave him a better venue to discuss the automobile.) His thinking changed more than the scenery did. “I used to think architects were the guardians of the built environment. I thought planners had some idea of how the world works,” he told me ruefully. But when he asked them about these weird new places–places growing so fast that when he returned after a year he would get hopelessly lost–they knew little and cared less. “They not only regarded the suburbs as sprawl gone morally wrong, they considered these places and the people in them so banal as to be utterly remote from their experience and interests. They viewed themselves as having a higher calling.”

Garreau once spoke to the American Institute of Architects convention in Houston, and afterward one architect asked him how to find an edge city. “Well, I said, you get into your car and head straight out Westheimer until you see more big buildings than in downtown Copenhagen, at which point you start cruising around. And he got this stricken look on his face. Car? he asked. Car? My God, he said. Can you get a cab in this town?

“Now I do not mean to derogate this man’s sincerity in any way. But a building designer who comes to Houston for a convention and does not rent a car is not part of the solution; he is part of the problem. In a culture like America’s, in which more households have a car than have a water heater, he is not being morally pure. He is being willfully and aggressively ignorant of the stone-cold realities of the late twentieth century. Going to Houston and not renting a car is like going to Venice and not hiring a boat. It is missing the point.”

There may be worse things than missing the point, though. If you find Garreau’s treasons at all plausible–if edge cities are basically OK and the result of free choice–then a benevolent dictatorship by planners dedicated to high density and mass transit begins to look less benevolent and more dictatorial. By way of example, Garreau found cosmopolitan architect and urban planner Jonathan Smulian plying his trade in one of Houston’s main edge cities, the Galleria. Smulian agreed with one of Garreau’s major premises: “Most people do not appreciate the compactness and the high densities of cities,” he told Garreau. “I can tell you that every Frenchman would like to have his little villa outside Paris. Every Londoner I can think of would be only too delighted to have his little house out in the countryside. It’s not an American characteristic by any means. It’s a people characteristic.”

But if Smulian were in charge of an edge city, he would turn it into just what he says most people don’t want: “Give me 100,000 people and I’ll make your Edge City into a place that’s worth being in. And not 100,000 suburban dwellers living within a mile or two miles. I want them living right here. I’d raise the gasoline tax by 300 percent. I’d raise the price of automobiles enormously. I mean I would just limit movement. I’d limit movement completely and there would be a massive rush to live near your work, your social or commercial activity. . . . There would have to be sufficient demand for smaller, less individual residences.”

It’s one thing to choose the old compact central cities and try to make them work. It’s quite another to imagine them being made more or less compulsory. Even the gawky growing pains of Naperville might be better than that.

Edge City: Life on the New Frontier by Joel Garreau, Doubleday, $22.50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.