In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Edge Cities and Urban Sprawl

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Geography Edge Cities and Urban Sprawl
Ben Gerlofs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0195


In the decades following World War II, the United States witnessed great population shifts away from major cities and the mass residential and commercial development of outlying metropolitan areas. These processes of suburbanization yielded new patterns of low-density urban development, or sprawl. Also appearing in various socio-spatial valences across the globe over the last half-century or so in particular, sprawl presents unique political, social, environmental, economic, and transportation challenges. Despite these concerns, considerable debate exists on the desirability of urban sprawl as spatial form and planning norm, as exemplified not only by charged academic discourse but also by the continuing preference of metropolitan residents for spatially diffuse locations and settlement patterns. Consensus has also been elusive on how best to define, measure, and practically contend with sprawl and its proliferating spatial forms. One such spatial form is the edge city, a term coined by Washington Post journalist Joel Garreau in his text of that title in 1991. Setting off a flurry of academic and popular interest and inquiry, edge cities—economically significant and spatially distinct suburban agglomerations of the US postwar era—have proven both equally difficult to precisely apprehend and equally confounding to normative consensus. Increasingly cited across the globe, edge cities vie with traditional urban cores for commercial activity in complex, multinucleated metropolises. They often contain the “command and control” functions previously housed in older city centers, such as the headquarters of global corporations but often also disrupt regional labor and retail markets in a variety of other ways, yielding new patterns of socio-spatial behavior and new geographies of development. This article provides an overview of the complex debates and research frontiers surrounding the topics of edge cities and urban sprawl more generally, placing these issues in larger and more long-standing literatures of decentralization and metropolitan spatial form and providing indications of the many conceptual and practical challenges that researchers, policymakers, and the general public face in light of their emergence and consolidation. The article largely draws on US-based scholarship and empirical examples, reflecting both the literature on these topics and to some degree the peculiarities of the postwar US context in which these empirical and conceptual developments took root, though the uneven internationalization of these literatures is given significant attention as theoretical and empirical corrective and extension.

General Overviews

Edge cities and urban sprawl name not only socio-spatial phenomenon extant in the shifting metropolitan landscapes of the United States (and to some degree the globe) but also purported paradigm shifts in urban development more generally. For Teaford 1997, the special economic agglomerations known as edge cities signify significant shifts and recombinations in regional political economies. Some conceptual specificity is provided by journalist Garreau 1991, whose extended explication of the edge city concept begins with the assertion that the sprawling, differentiated spatial form of Los Angeles has become the dominant city-building paradigm, propelled by the economic engines provided by edge city commercial nuclei. Great concentrations of retail and office activities, Garreau argues that edge cities developed in the latter half of the 20th century, usually along transit corridors at the outskirts of US metropolitan areas. Lang 2003 and Lang and LeFurgy 2007 both build upon and critique Garreau’s concept, positing yet further novel spatial forms. For Lang 2003, apprehending metropolitan economic shifts requires the companion concept “edgeless cities,” or more diffused spatial patterns of office activity. For Lang and LeFurgy 2007, “boomburgs”—rapidly growing cities not previously considered the core cities of their respective regions—are the parallel entity. Far from inconsequential, Harris and Vorms 2017 and Walker 1994 both emphasize the significance of conceptualizing urban peripheries, both for furthering understanding and for effecting change. Together, edge cities, edgeless cities, boomburgs, and other spatial developments form a general pattern of urban sprawl as explored by Duany, et al. 2010; Gutfreund 2004; and Kuntsler 1993. In a departure from familiar characterizations, Bruegmann 2005 places sprawl in a larger spatial and temporal context, and argues for its positive as well as negative societal impacts.

  • Bruegmann, Robert. Sprawl: A Compact History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226076973.001.0001

    In a break with the majority of academic appraisals of urban sprawl, Bruegmann draws exemplary material from a wide temporal and spatial frame to argue that sprawl is a socio-spatial phenomenon not unique to the United States nor to the late 20th-century frame often ascribed to its development. Bruegmann also highlights the many positive social aspects of sprawl alongside its oft-cited ills.

  • Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point Press, 2010.

    This highly influential text—written by urban design practitioners and appropriate for a general audience as well as specialized researchers—pits patterns of suburbanization and sprawl against those of traditional towns and cities in the United States, in the process providing useful broad-based definitions of sprawl and elaborating well-founded critiques of suburban design and planning.

  • Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

    A former Washington Post writer, Garreau lays out a theory of the edge city and its various manifestations across the metropolitan regions of the United States. Edge cities, Garreau argues, are defined by five common features: (i) five million square feet of leasable office space; (ii) 600,000 square feet or more of leasable retail space; (iii) more jobs than bedrooms; (iv) a local perception as “one place”; and (v) transformation from rural or residential land after roughly 1960.

  • Gutfreund, Owen D. Twentieth-Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Gutfreund focuses primarily on changes in transportation (including at the level of policy, notably subsidization) in this history of US suburban development, providing important historical context to the sprawling cities of the contemporary United States.

  • Harris, Richard, and Charlotte Vorms, eds. What’s in a Name? Talking about Urban Peripheries. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017.

    This edited collection presents a global perspective on contemporary suburban space and development and the variety of ways in which spatial peripheries are produced and, moreover, understood in disparate contexts, from Beijing and Quebec to Java and Bombay. The rich contextual material drawn from this broad range of metropolitan places lends empirical support to the Walker 1994 claim about the significance of naming in the assessment of suburban space.

  • Kuntsler, James H. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. New York: Touchstone, 1993.

    This text sits at the center of the broad critique of suburbia. Journalist and cultural critic Kuntsler traces the development of the sprawling suburban environments of the postwar United States in particular, in a highly readable and widely influential text for general audiences.

  • Lang, Robert E. Edgeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003.

    Using office space as a proxy for understanding urban growth, Lang is highly critical of Garreau 1991 for the author’s characterizations of edge cities, finding in some metropolitan areas a very different distribution of economic activity than had Garreau, including the delineation of edge cities. In addition to clarifying the definition and distribution of edge cities, Lang proposes a parallel focus on “edgeless cities,” a more dispersed form of suburban commercial activity.

  • Lang, Robert E., and Jennifer B. LeFurgy. Boomburgs: The Rise of America’s Accidental Cities. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2007.

    Based on residential population data from the US census, these authors define “boomburgs” as “an incorporated suburban city with at least 100,000 in population, as not the core city of their region, and as having double digit population growth in each census since 1970” (p. 6). Their work highlights suburban growth in places with little cultural, economic, or political profile outside their immediate regional contexts.

  • Teaford, Jon C. Post-Suburbia: Government and Politics in the Edge Cities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

    Using six significant suburban counties as case studies (“among the pioneers of the post-suburban world”: Suffolk County, NY; Nassau County, NY; Oakland County, MI; DuPage County, IL; Saint Louis County, MO, and Orange County, CA), Teaford explores the emergence of a “post-suburban polity” and its attendant governance structures in an age of ascendant economic centrality on the spatial peripheries of US cities in the 20th century.

  • Walker, Richard A. “Edgy Cities, Technoblurbs and Simulacrumbs: Depthless Utopias and Dystopias on the Sub-Urban Fringe.” Paper presented at the Contrasts in Urbanization: LA & SF Conference, Los Angeles, 1994.

    Informed by several decades of political economic analysis of US suburbanization, Walker here takes aim at the novelty of the edge city concept and its academic use, along with that of the broader conversations of postmodern urbanism and postwar suburbanization of which it forms a part. Far from inconsequential, Walker argues, “What we name the urban fringe has much to do with what we think about it and how we conceive of the processes that gave rise to it” (p. 1).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.