Chapter 3: Boston – Edge City Limits

TWICE AS FAR from downtown Boston as Walden Pond, yet close enough to the Massachusetts Turnpike that the road's rumble always sounds like a waterfall, there is a town-house subdivision called Lordvale.

The entrance to Lordvale is distinguished by what its developer is pleased to call an "active water feature." That. is a collection of trucked-in rocks, over which water is pumped. The sound of this new waterfall is not as pervasive as that of the Pike, but its size does catch the eye of the highway's drivers as they speed by.

There are perhaps two hundred town houses in Lordvale, arranged in eight-packs. The rhythm of their facades is garage door, front door, front door, garage door-each unit being the mirror image of the one on either side. They are stained in variations of two colors-beige and gray.

Given that Lordvale is forty-two miles into the countryside from Boston Common-a commute of more than one hour each way-it is heartening that the development pays some small homage to Henry David Thoreau's "life in the woods." Several dozen trees still stand on Lordvale's once-forested slope. Boulders have been added to accent the curving drives. There is even an assemblage of oval rocks that has been carefully stacked vertically, then horizontally, for no discernible reason. The residents instantly dubbed it Suburban Stonehenge.

For all that, Lordvale is not at all what most people have come to expect from suburbia. For one thing, there are few lawns. The patches where one might expect grass to grow after the snow melts turn out to be brown year round. They have been covered by wood chips. Wood chips are low maintenance. It is assumed that the buyers of town houses at Lordvale will be young, struggling, dual-career couples. Where would they find time to mow lawns?

More disconcerting than the lack of lawns, however, is the density of this development. Although there is no "town" for miles, these "town homes" are so crowded together that, as in a nineteenth-century city, there are few places for an active toddler to play outdoors, other than the street.

People who still come equipped with pre-Edge City expectations of what a suburb is, are amazed by places like Lordvale. They drive out from the old downtowns into what they think of as the wide-open spaces of the country, only to find themselves confronted by town houses jammed together at a distant exit, miles beyond even the outer beltways. Who would want to live "like that," these people invariably say, "out here"? Well, Gilbert and Caron Merrill, and their toddler, Wyatt, live "like that, out here," in Grafton, Massachusetts.

Their Lordvale town house is to the Information Age what the tenements of Boston were to the Industrial Age: it is worker housing. As such, it has become one of the distinctive visual marks of the new order marked by Edge Cities. Housing like the Merrills' offers exquisite lessons in the forces, worldwide, that make Edge Cities grow-or die.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, Boston was a fascinating place in which to examine the dynamics of growthas well as the backlash created by its limits. At more than 350 years, Boston's is the most mature metropolitan area in the United States. It was also the first area in the East to calve Edge Cities the way glaciers do icebergs. From the dawn of the computer age, the Edge Cities along Route 128 became synonymous with the romance of high technology. Companies that made history clustered around the verdant interstates-Digital, Lotus, Wang. The Edge City-driven Massachusetts Miracle of the 1980s in one decade lifted New England from the poorest region in America to its richest. In 1988, New Hampshire posted the lowest state unemployment rate ever recorded: 2.0 percent. Vermont was second in the nation, with 2.5 percent. Connecticut tied for third at 3.0. Rhode Island, at 3.1, was tied for fourth. Massachusetts, at 3.4, was sixth. Some business names that cropped up in Bangor, Maine-of all places-were Advanced Data Systems, Systems Management Services, Professional Financial Consultants of New England. In 1986, grim Worcester got a fashion magazine. Yes, Worcester. It was called Prelude.

This kind of extraordinary growth also resulted in the Boston area being among the first to discover the limits to Edge City in the twenty-first century. Despite-and because of-the velocity of this economic boom, Boston's growth imploded as the 1990s began. Growth was stagnant. The actual number of jobs shrank. How could such a brainy, high-technology boom collapse? A central reason is that the region from northern Rhode Island to southern New Hampshire simply ran out of capacity. There were few terrific places left to put new jobs and expanding companies.

Edge Cities are living, growing things. They are ecologies. By examining the first metropolitan area that, for better or for worse, really began to choke off the supply of what they require, it is possible to determine what Edge Cities' most important life mechanisms are. This, in turn, makes it possible to discern how Edge Cities can be shaped by individual and government decisions, both inadvertent and purposeful.

To understand these limits, says David L. Birch, you have to understand growth. And for that, he claims, first you have to understand entrepreneurs. Birch is director of MIT's Program on Corporate Change and Job Creation. He is also president of Cognetics, Incorporated, a consulting company that tracks growth nationwide.

Cognetics' headquarters, as it happens, is located in the Edge City growing up around the Alewife T (for Transit) station in Cambridge northwest of Harvard and MIT. Its office building has an atrium, indoor trees, blond wood, and hanging vines; the men's rooms have built-in blow-dryers. This is the part of Cambridge's uptown where a rail line connects with the Concord Turnpike-Route 2-which leads out to the high-rent suburbs near Walden Pond.

When a person growing a company starts looking around for places to put his people and his jobs, says Birch, he invokes the Rubber Band Principle of Edge City Location.

Imagine you've got a pegboard, says Birch, on which has been drawn the map of your region. Wherever on that map there exists something that is important for your business-an airport, for example-drive a peg. If affordable housing for your workers is important, drive a peg to the north, where you can find that. Easy access to your most important clients? Drive pegs to the west, where they are located. Access to universities? Drive pegs to the east. Fenway Park? Cape Cod? A mansion for the chief executive officer? More pegs.

Now, imagine you have a metal ring. Imagine that knotted around it are rubber bands of varying strengths. Here's the trick. Hook a rubber band around each peg that you've driven into the board. The more important the factor (peg) is to you and the closer you want to be to it, the more heavy-duty should be the rubber band that you attach to that peg.

Now, with all the rubber bands stretched out and hooked over all the pegs, let the ring go. When everything stops quivering, examine where the metal ring stabilizes. It will be over the point that is the best place for you to put your company. That place is the best compromise; the one that puts you as close as possible to everything you say you value.

This ingenious metaphor explains a great deal about why Edge Cities are located where they are. If, in the 1980s, you wanted relatively low land costs, attractive housing, good roads, and proximity to O'Hare International Airport, the metal ring would have settled for you in the Chicago metropolitan area somewhere around Schaumburg or Oakbrook, well west of downtown Chicago. That's why those areas became huge Edge Cities.

If you wanted to be near the most prestigious residential areas of Houston plus the medical research centers plus the towers of its downtown, the ring would have settled for you over the Galleria area.

Tysons Corner, Virginia, is not only in the midst of highly valued housing and roads; it is halfway between Dulles Airport and the Pentagon.

In the Boston area, however-and in other metropolitan areas where the problems of growth became crises in the late 1980s--the Rubber Band Method began to collapse. Therefore, so did growth. No matter how you configured your metaphorical pegs, and no matter how far you stretched your rubber bands, there were few places left for the metal ring to stabilize that did not prove to have fatal flaws. Growth simply had to move elsewhere, or not take place.

To be sure, forces other than geography were at work in the resultant Massachusetts Massacre. Edge Cities do not create wealth and jobs. They enable them. Edge Cities are dedicated attempts to clear away obstacles from the path of growth. For growth to exist, however, the world has to desire whatever it is you are producing. And in the Boston area, firms like Wang and Data General, which had bet their futures on pricy midsized computers, found their market in the rggos cannibalized by powerful and flexible personal computers. Outfits like Raytheon and General Dynamics, which rose with the Reagan military budget, also hurt when it contracted. Politicians like erstwhile presidential aspirant Michael Dukakis, who did not control spending when times were good, were clobbered by budget deficits when the boom years inevitably slowed.

Nonetheless, there are other quite comparable metropolitan areas in America that did not go the way of Boston. In other places, the natural cycle continued. Older companies faded, but they were replaced by new start-ups or concerns that moved in from elsewhere. In the Boston area, however, existing companies found it difficult to grow-the fastest growing high-technol-ogy companies in America in the late 1980s were typified by Microsoft, which thrived in Seattle, not the Bay State, and Compaq, which boomed not on 128, but in Houston. And moving a new company to the area from another region was a nightmare. The cost of everything from power to sewers to car insurance became prohibitive. "In almost every category we're first or second highest in the country," noted Anthony J. Ferrera, chief of the Boston office of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Boston area essentially declared itself full. The bust, therefore, came. And once again, Boston became a fascinating laboratory -this time, in which to watch Edge City Limits.

Overbuilding is as old as the Pyramids. The historian Frederick Lewis Allen wrote about Manhattan in the rggos: "The confidence had been excessive. Skyscrapers had been overproduced. In the spring of 1931, it was reliably stated that some 17 percent of the space in the big office buildings of the Grand Central district, and some 40 percent uptown, was not bringing in a return; financiers were shaking their heads."

Just so, since as much as 80 percent of the growth that was financed during the roaring real estate years of the 1980s occurred in Edge City, one might expect to find most of the empty buildings there today. But that is not generally the case. In Boston in 1989, for example, the downtown area had an average vacancy rate, compared with its Edge City competitors. Some of the more far out and hence more speculative locations were worse off than downtown. But the most prestigious and convenient Edge City locations were healthier than downtown. This was typical of most markets. High vacancy rates were not a function of whether a location was in Edge City or downtown. Vacancies were highest wherever the speculation had been greatest-and thus where it had been most easy for developers to overshoot the market. Manhattan's downtown-the Wall Street area-was a victim of speculative excess, as were the Edge Cities of Phoenix. The truly healthy places were those which had grown at only a moderate, boring pace during the boom-the Interstate 494 Edge City outside Minneapolis, for example. At the same time, the Chicago market became so comparatively healthy that in 199 1 it passed midtown Manhattan in having the highest rents in the nation.

This is why the lessons of the growth years are the keys to Edge City limits. Consider the distribution of Edge Cities in the Boston area. There are five of them, not counting downtown. Five more are in the embryonic stage.

The map of the Boston area makes the hearts of planning academics go pittypat. It is as close to their theoretical ideal as exists in the real world. At its center is a thriving downtown. As long ago as 1858, the homage accorded that core was so overheated that Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, "Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system. You couldn't pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar." Bostonians, naturally, completely missed Holmes's irony and blithely nicknamed Boston "the Hub."

No matter. Boston's quality of life is justifiably renowned, with beaches and mountains close, neighborhoods on a human scale, universities and cultural attractions of the first order, and, of course, the existential pleasures of the Red Sox. In the 1980s, downtown showed all the marks of prosperity. It was ripped up for tall buildings from Quincy Market to the Back Bay. But its future, too, was to be controlled by exactly the same limits as its Edge Cities.

Around this hub, in an arc with a ten-mile radius, the Boston area has one of the first beltways built in America-Route 128. About twenty miles beyond 128, there is a second beltway---I-495. That one describes a half circle from almost-Rhode Island to almost-New Hampshire. This outer beltway is highly unusual in American urban areas: it is not just on the drawing boards; it is actually built.

The two beltways are regularly intersected by almost a dozen roads that lead like spokes from downtown into the heartland. It is at each of the intersections of circulating beltways and spokes that, in principle, an Edge City should have sprung up. That is because each such meeting of two high-capacity freeways can be reached by an astounding number of people. "The developer's rule of thumb is this: a mall should have 250,000 people within a fifteen-minute drive of it. The quarter of' a million people the developers want within a ten-mile radius is more than live in Las Vegas or Des Moines. That's a lot of people in a fairly small place. It should come as no surprise that such intersections have attracted urbanization. It worked the same way when St. Louis rose at the intersection of the Missouri River and the Mississippi.

David Birch of Cognetics thinks that the first big corporations that moved out to Edge City environs did so primarily for the advantage of being near the interchange that allowed people to get there from home, and from there to the world. They did not care about being near other companies. Their relationship to one another was distinctly secondary. The AT&Ts and the IBMs of this world didn't have to be near any other company-they brought all their support troops with them, in-house. They didn't require proximity to outside lawyers or accountants or computer experts, of which the downnowws were full. It was just a pleasant coincidence, Birch believes, that these corporations ended up being near one another. They grouped around locations to which it was most easy for people to get. The seeds of Edge City were accidentally sown.

It was the small and medium firms, Birch says, that created true Edge Cities at these intersections. Outfits too small to support a company cafeteria, for example, were the ones that stimulated an appetite for nearby restaurants. They were the outfits that fostered the need for yet other small new entrepreneurial companies, from office-supply houses to helicopter services. They were the shops that gave rise to Edge Cities.

One might expect, then, that Edge Cities would grow up wherever there was a high-capacity interchange. That, however, is precisely what never happens. Ten major roads cross 128, but only four Edge Cities have grown on that inner beltway.

They include the considerable skyline of Quincy-Braintree. It is a backshop Edge City, meaning that it is full primarily of people performing routine functions on computers. With the rise of the chip it is no longer crucial for, say, reservations agents to occupy the same expensive headquarters office space as high executives. So corporations have begun to uncouple themselves. In this case, accounting and filing departments have floated away from downtown, down the T line to where the Southeast Expressway meets 128, closer to southern Massachusetts, where housing is less prestigious and more affordable. Since that means fewer drivers on the suicidal approach to downtown and Logan International Airport from the south that is I-g3, everybody's happy.

To the west, there is 128 and the Mass Pike, the largest Edge City in the Boston area and one of the oldest in the country, dating back thirty years. This is the one that really made 128 "America's Technology Road," as the highway signs read. It sprawls around some of the oldest suburbs in the world. Bostonians commuted by rail in 1850. There were three railroads into Boston before the first locomotive pulled into London. Brookline in 1873 became the first place in America to reject annexation by a major city, thereby creating the concept of suburb. Those who view suburbs as not progressive may take heart in learning that George McGovern got more votes in one election there than Ronald Reagan got in two. A vote was recently taken in Brookline on whether the annual town meeting should be opened with the pledge of allegiance to the flag. The flag lost.

Just a few miles up the beltway, in the northwest, is an Edge City in the area where 128 is met by Routes 3 and 1-g3 north. It is among the most dense of any Edge City in the Boston region. It is centered on the Burlington Mall and the famed Lahey Medical Center.

Then there is the Peabody-Danvers area in the northeast quadrant of 128, where America's East Coast freeway, I-95, resumes its path straight up the coast toward Maine.

Beyond 128, there are two Edge Cities emerging, and they are both on the same spokelike road: the Massachusetts Turnpike heading west toward the Berkshires and Albany. One is located where that highway crosses the outer beltway, at 495 and the Pike, sometimes also known by the name of the nearby town of Westborough. Data General is headquartered there. The other emerging Mass Pike Edge City is between the first and second beltways, near Framingham.

Two other Edge Cities are inside the beltways, in Cambridge. These, growing on top of a pre-existing settlement in the orbit of an old downtown, are comparable to Washington's BethesdaChevy Chase or Atlanta's Buckhead. One is near MIT and Kendall Square, right across the Charles River from downtown. The other is at the far end of Cambridge, around that Alewife T.*

Some apparently great locations for Edge Cities, though, have not panned out-in central Cambridge near Harvard, for example, or where I-95 meets 128 to the south. Others, meanwhile, are still in their embryonic stage-1-495 at southern I-95 near Foxboro, or the Golden Triangle area of southern New Hampshire by Manchester, Nashua, and Portsmouth.

For the spread of Edge Cities is hardly random. Nor is it infinite. The critics of Edge Cities who describe them as a cancer on the land are wrong. Cancer is life without laws. Edge City is more rational. It has not only patterns and rules but limits to its growth. The five Edge City limits are:

  • Insurmountability,
  • Affordability,
  • Mobility,
  • Accessibility, and
  • Nice.


In Boston, the first limit you have to contend with is Insurmountability.

Boston's beltways would work a lot better if they had an eastern half. But they don't. And they won't. Because east of downtown Boston is a whole lot of deep Insurmountability-Boston Harbor. Other places have similar fixes, simply less well understood.

It is no news that Los Angeles has the Pacific to the west and rugged mountains in almost every other direction. They don't call it the Los Angeles Basin for nothing; it's built like a sink. That's why it captures smog as well as it does. But less widely comprehended, until John McPhee memorably explained it in The Control of Nature, is that in Los Angeles, the mountains are not standing still, waiting to be built on. The ten thousand-foot San Gabriels are the steepest and highest mountain range abutting any major metropolitan area in the world, and they're getting taller every day. The tectonic plates are still pushing them up. That's why Los Angeles has earthquakes.

Mountains that fight back are a prime example of planetary Insurmountability. They really do limit your options. So do excessive snows in the industrial Northeast, or floodplains in the Gulf of Mexico, or lack of water in the intermountain west. Miami has dolphins on one side and alligators on the other. That's a problem. In the Chesapeake Bay area, one novel piece of Insurmountability is jellyfish. There is considerable development on the shores of that beautiful and fragile estuary. But it would have been far greater and doubtless more high-rise had not the region's most popular resorts ended up three hours farther east, all the way to the Atlantic Coast. That's because people won't swim in waters where they get stung.

Planetary Insurmountability is not an absolute barrier. Civil engineers fight Insurmountability with bridges and tunnels and dams and bulldozers. Enterprising capitalists, if they can get away with it, will cantilever their developments out over oceans. Condominiums built on jetties, offices built on piers, and houseboats tied up to docks are all just extensions of the local real estate market into shallow water. Big pleasure boats tied up to marinas are simply the vacation-home industry flourishing in the absence of dry land. The story is oft told of the Florida speculator newly informed that his land was under water. Came this thoughtful reply: "How deep?"

The filling in of wetlands is a classic example of developers shading Insurmountability. The Back Bay neighborhood of Boston used to be a bay in the back of town-until it was filled in. But wetlands are also an acute example of how Insurmountability can be created by citizen action. It is technically possible to build an Edge City in a marsh. But fertile, precious, and threatened ecologies have become such a cause that George Bush promised in 1989 there would be no net loss of them in his administration. This caused no little consternation among oil drillers, road builders, and developers.

Societal Insurmountability obviously surrounds such places as the Cape Cod National Seashore. No matter how much money is tendered, that sand will never be developed. One presumes. Other societal Insurmountabilities surround reservoirs, wildlife refuges, and parks. Especially in an area like Boston's, where Paul Revere rode and the Minutemen farmed and Emerson strolled with Hawthorne, Insurmountability surrounds historical sites.

These add up. It is now not uncommon to have more than 50 percent of a metropolitan area off limits to Edge City development because of Insurmountable obstacles that no amount of money will be allowed to overcome. It has been calculated that as much as 88 percent of the land in the San Francisco area is untouchable. This gets us back to the Rubber Band Principle. If your hypothetical metal ring stabilizes right on top of the Buzzards Bay Light or Harvard Yard, forget it. Start over again. Your allegedly ideal location is unavailable.

This issue of planetary, emotional, and class-based Insurmountability shades into the second Edge City limit: Affordability.

Edge City cannot grow unless and until it creates jobs. And it is pointless to create jobs if there are no workers to fill them. Therefore, Edge City rarely leads. Homes generally have to exist first. People have to be able to find a place to live at a price they can afford-given what they are going to be paid-if you want them to fill a job.

As the boom expanded in Boston, this became not possible. In most sane markets the rule of thumb is that people can afford to buy a house whose price is three times greater than their gross annual wage; if the household made $30,000, it could afford a $90,000 place. The typical single-family home in 1987 in the Boston area cost 7.7 times the average annual wage. The result, predictably enough, was a labor shortage.

"The reasons for the slowdown are clear enough," the Wall Street Journal wrote. "The median single-family home price in the Boston area rocketed to $167,800 in early 1986-the highest level in the country at the time-from $89,400 in early 1984. Meanwhile, household incomes weren't rising nearly as fast, despite the region's healthy economy. By mid-1988, the median family income was $38,652 and the median home price $ I83,800. In Minneapolis-to take just one contrasting example -the median family income was $40,171, and the median home price was $86,000."

"The Boston area is possibly the most dramatic example of how a surging economy can boost housing prices to the point where they begin to dampen economic growth," an alarmed Harvard Business Review wrote. "During the 1970s' oil boom, thousands of families moved to Texas . . . Today, however, people simply cannot afford to move to Boston. Even Boston's prestigious teaching hospitals can't attract enough residents, interns, and nurses."

Traditionally, in America, the solution to the problem of Affordability has been Farther Out. Find a more distant, thus cheaper, cow pasture, subdivide it into quarter-acre lots, and build a remote but more economical subdivision.

The slightly cheaper cow pasture was crucial. That is because of the North Star of economic certitudes of residential developers. Stated as the Law of Four, it goes: The house that makes a profit for its builder is one that sells for whatever the cost of the land under it is, multiplied by four.

That is to say, if the lot costs $50,000, you must put enough house on it for the whole package to sell for $200,000, or you court bankruptcy.

Here is where the Edge Cities of Boston had the distinction of being the first but by no means the last to hit the wall. No matter how far out you go, the dollars-per-hour of the jobs available within a reasonable commute go down quickly. But the dollarsper-quarter-acre do not.

Developers love to blame this condition on "no growthers"---people devoted to their country homes who value the landscape as it exists. And, indeed, the people of New England have been marvelously inventive in finding means to slow growth. In Hollis, New Hampshire, just west of Nashua, owners of a hundred or more lots can obtain no more than four building permits a year. Other towns have found that just running up a year's backlog on processing requests is a very effective means of curbing development.

But there is plenty of land equally unavailable because it is held by speculators waiting for the price to go up even further. Or its ownership is chopped up into tracts that big developers view as too small to offer the advantages of scale they seek. Or it is problematic to build on because of terrain or soil composition. Or it is environmentally or historically sensitive and protected.

As a result, only ten thousand home-building permits per year were issued in the Boston area at the height of the boom--the proverbial drop in the bucket in an exploding population area. And much of that was astoundingly high-end. Of the ensuing developer bankruptcies when the bubble collapsed and home prices headed south, one analyst noted brightly, "Guess we found out what the choke point was for $300,000 condos on the waterfront in Lynn." There are any number of reasons cheaper housing wasn't built. But one that researchers at Salomon Brothers in New York point to was psychological. Builders looking at a boom in high tech thought of high-paid software designers. Nonetheless, there are always far more families headed by heating and air-conditioning technicians and copying-machine salespeople than there are those headed by chief financial officers.

These limits to growth were not an aberration of the Boston area. They were common in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington. But note well that the key here is "available" land. Consider the low population density of the swanky suburb of Wellesley, outside Route 128. Life there is hardly that of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The typical house is in the $300,000-$400,000 range. High-end homes are called "estates." Lord knows the area has its share of land Insurmountably off limits to development. Does that sound like a place with sufficient elbow room to be attractive? Okay, suppose we decided to encourage the use of land such that everybody in the metropolitan area could be housed at that low a density. If we did, half of metropolitan Boston would still be left as complete and utter wilderness, as pristine as the day the Pilgrims landed. Even at that low density, every single one of the Boston area's four million people could fit into only half the area's land.

For that matter, if we were to figure out a way for all the people of the Boston area to live at the moderate density of the renowned, bucolic, prosperous, job-laden, planned Edge City of Reston, Virginia, four fifths of the metropolitan area's land could be left as wilderness. The entire population of the Boston area could be housed on 20 percent of the land.

Instead, of course, from the preservationists to the speculators, we collectively have ended up conspiring either to keep most of our land from being built on densely-or built on at all. The result is urban sprawl challenging yet more distant vistas while not really solving Affordability. This is how strange places like Lordvale get built. Density is accomplished, but in what is invariably described as "the middle of nowhere." Which gets us back to Gilbert and Caron Merrill.

The Merrills are each in their early thirties. He is a Bostoneducated attorney. She, until the baby came, was a market analyst for Prime Computer. While Gilbert was in school, they rented a cramped apartment in Watertown, an unfashionable but solid working-class neighborhood within three miles of downtown Boston.

After he passed the bar and they decided they deserved a home of their own, the Merrills discovered the Boston facts of life. They found nothing within forty miles of downtown that they could imagine living in. A small, two-bedroom, 1950s-standard bungalow that needed major work was as close as they came. It was going for $175,000.

The Merrills are quite a few notches up from typical, but even they began rethinking their position. Caron's job at Prime was in the Edge City of Framingham, more than twenty miles outside downtown straight out the Mass Pike, about halfway to Worcester. So the Merrills began to look for a place not just beyond Boston's first beltway, but nine miles beyond its second beltway. There they finally found a $139,000 town house with brand-new construction and appliances.

It was "only" half an hour away from Caron's job at Prime. But it was an insane commute downtown for Gilbert. Therefore, in classic Edge City fashion, shortly after they moved, Gilbert switched jobs. In order to accommodate his opportunities for housing, he left his Boston practice and joined a firm in Worcester-the old industrial city fifty miles west of downtown that Bostonians have always thought of as halfway to Montana..

And voila. The Merrills, by using their personal version of the Rubber Band method, successfully organized their lives to live near, and between, their respective downtown-quality jobs. There they sat, waited for son Wyatt to arrive, living "like that, out there" in their late-twentieth-century version of tenement housing for yuppies-Lordvale.

The Merrills are less than thrilled that anybody would want to describe their $139,000 town house as a tenement. But consider the similarities. Tenements were tightly packed three- and fourstory buildings in which each family occupied one floor. They were thrown up in a hurry to accommodate the legions of workers who flocked to the dazzlingly high wages of the mills of the industrial Northeast in the nineteenth century. These tenements were the cheapest and most efficient way of getting the highest number of people reasonably close to their jobs.

Brand-new town-house developments at distant locations are Edge Cities trying to do exactly the same thing, a hundred years later. They are worker housing thrown up in a hurry for the mills and factories of the Information Age-Edge City office buildings. These town houses are designed for people like the Merrills, who, just as in the nineteenth-century boomtowns, are making an amazing amount of money by the standards of their parents at the same age. The Merrills are surrounded by ameni-ties the previous generation never dreamed of, from microwaves to VCRs to central air conditioning (in Massachusetts!) to (fishwashers to clothes dryers to multiple automobiles.

The price the Merrills have had to pay, however, is measured in land. If the Merrills and their peers did not want to compromise on the size and amenities of their homes, they had to put up with less land. This meant living at relatively high densities, with as many homes as possible put up on every expensive acre.

These densities, in turn, became almost impossible in affluent, close-in suburban Boston areas because of what Miriam Maxian calls "snob zoning."

Maxian wrote her MIT graduate thesis on affordable housing, which to her means housing for people who make under $ I oo,ooo a year. She points out that the older a suburban neighborhood is, the more likely the land in it is zoned only for traditional suburban homes. This means that if a developer wants to develop town houses, much less an apartment building, he must go in for a zoning variance. And this, predictably, brings out all the "abutters," as Maxian refers to the people living nearby. The overwhelming majority virulently argue that such densities will lower their property values, Maxian says. "There's a stigma attached to it. It connotes the projects."

This is why America now finds itself with town houses far from the old downtowns. The land is cheaper there, and the density is politically more palatable in an area where a town house selling for $139,000 is seen as improving the neighborhood.

To complete the analogy to tenements, consider how these town houses are configured. If you look at them closely, you realize that what they are, architecturally, is tenements flipped over on their sides. Instead of stacking single flats one on top of another, now we rotate our worker housing 90 degrees and pack it side by side by side.

Turns out there are a lot of advantages to that. First of all, in such a town-house development everybody gets to enter her home directly from her garage. Ground-level access is a real plus when your arms are laden with babies and groceries. what's more, out back every one of these town houses has a tiny patio or deck. Good for a little barbecuing. The homeowners' association would have a fit if you tried to hang a clothesline out there and dry your underwear in the breeze. But the coziness makes it possible to gossip with your neighbors over the pressure-treated wood railings. How different is this from the porches, fire escapes, and social structures that used to grace each floor of a tenement?

Meanwhile, when the neighbors are separated from you by town-house walls-instead of tenement ceilings-living at these densities is inherently more bearable. It is easier to soundproof walls than floors. And think about it. In the old days if you could hear a baby crying in the upstairs apartment, that was maddening. In a town house, being able to hear a baby crying in an upstairs bedroom is a plus.

After all, it is your baby.

The third limit to Edge City is Mobility-the ease with which you can get around within an Edge City area.

Mobility is primarily a measure of commutability. All over metropolitan America the average speed on freeways is going down, and news reports focus on how grim the commuting experience has become. Boston is no exception. Massachusetts has always been famous for its insane drivers. But Route 128 is the only place where I've ever been passed, on the right, by two school buses, each marked as carrying handicapped kids, traveling bumper to bumper, at sixty miles an hour, in the breakdown lane.

Scholars have demonstrated that for thousands of years, no matter what the transportation technology, the maximum desirable commute has been forty-five minutes. When state-of-theart transportation was shoe leather, a city like Istanbul in the sixteenth century was never more than six miles across: it took forty-five minutes to walk three miles from the edge of town to the center.

This is why the goal in Edge City today is finding the magic combination of home and work that is at most a forty-five-minute trip for each person in the family.

But Mobility is also a measure of getting around once the workday has started-to make deliveries, sales calls, and the like. Mobility is so bad in the old downtowns that afternoon newspapers are extinct. You can't move the delivery trucks around sufficiently to give evening commuters a paper that includes closing stock prices. Big Edge Cities are beginning to rival downtowns in those problems.

One might think there would be a simple solution. Why don't Boston employers leapfrog their problems of Affordability and Mobility by moving even more jobs out to southern New Hampshire? For that matter, why stop there? Why not head out into the Berkshires or toward the Canadian border?

It turns out that Edge Cities have limits that control that, too. They are Accessibility and Nice.

If Mobility is the measure of how hard it is to, get around within an area, Accessibility is the measure of how hard it is to get into it from outside.

Nobody that I'm aware of has ever mathematically proven any Law of Accessibility. But there was a good one being thrown around as a strong hunch by people shepherding a lot of Edge City real estate. It went: Your boss's boss will never approve a remote Edge City location unless he can personally imagine traveling therefor a meeting without having to stay overnight.

That choke point is one and a half hours by car, one way. Or three hours by plane, nonstop.

The thinking behind this is that no matter what advantages the boonies offer, sooner or later there will occur out there a memorable, first-rate screw-up. When that happens, somebody from headquarters will have to come out to fix it. When that highly wound and highly paid executive has to go out to clear up the problem, she will be unhappy.

The Law of Accessibility states that if you think that, in matters involving white-collar jobs, she will put up with Wyoming or the Philippines under these circumstances, you are out of your mind.

Who knows whether this Law of Accessibility is absolutely correct? Maybe it's four hours by plane or two hours by car. (The Law of Accessibility simply assumes, by the way, that any potential remote location is electronically Accessible. No location is ever even discussed that is not served by high-quality, high-speed digital phone service. In a place with only rotary-dial service, Touchtone beeps are worthless. You can't even make your answering machine talk to you, much less access the home office's computer. Forget it.) The Law of Accessibility, nonetheless, is the best explanation anybody offered me as to why southern New Hampshire, despite its growth and its apparent advantages, did not in the early 1990s even approach the Edge City pivot point of five million square feet of leasable office space.

"Southern New Hampshire is just too far from Logan," explains David Shulman, director of research at Salomon Brothers in New York, and a pioneering Edge City analyst.

Boston only has one major airport, Logan International, built on landfill out into Boston Harbor. It is separated from New England by water and downtown. It has little room to expand, and is less and less Accessible. Two multibillion-dollar roads, which will be in the works for the next decade, are supposed to address this problem. One will be a third tunnel under Boston Harbor to the airport, and the other, known officially as the Depressed Central Artery, locally referred to as the Big Dig, will try to offer a bypass through downtown. As of this writing, both projects have done little save offer more cruel Dukakis jokes, poor man. Example: "We figured Dukakis could give the road a speech and depress it all by himself."

The only other serious commercial airports in the Boston area are Worcester, which is small and built on top of a hill, which limits expansion, and Providence, which is picking up a lot of traffic, but is more than halfway to Connecticut, which also is a problem. The number one topic among regional growth advocates is where to put a new superairport. Air Force bases are being eyed covetously. But in the absence of such a facility, the Law of Accessibility rules. "For all our reputation for liberal politics," says Glenn R. Miller, a professor of urban geography at Bridgewater State College, "We in Massachusetts are pretty conservative and hide-bound. New Hampshire is just too far away to put anything important."

A spectacular demonstration of the lengths to which people have gone to overcome the limit of Accessibility is the experience of Digital Equipment Corporation. Digital is the secondlargest computer maker in America. It is also the largest private employer in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. As a result, it has had to create its own "Air Force."

"I hear you want to know about the Air Force," says Nikki Richardson, of Digital's public information. "Yeah, that's what everybody calls it. The Air Force. Okay, we have one eightpassenger helicopter up here, and five four-passenger helicopters . . .

Whoa. Background.

"Digital is not really a 128 company," spokesman Mark Fredrickson had explained earlier. "It is a 495 company." Digital's headquarters, which employs three thousand people, is in an old woolen mill in Maynard, forty miles from downtown, with its marketing, sales, and administrative unit in Marlborough, ten miles south of that. Engineering and software are headquartered at Merrimack and Nashua, to the north. Virtually all its keyboards for its worldwide markets are made in an inner-city location in Roxbury.

As a result, Fredrickson said, Digital, being a way-out-there, second-beltway company, had relatively few problems with Mobility or Affordability. But when it came to Accessibility, he audibly sucked on his teeth. Somebody would get back to me with the facts and figures, he said. Enter Ms. Richardson.

Slow down, I said. One eight-passenger chopper and five fours. Okay, what else?

"We have one eight-passenger turboprop, and we have one twin-engine five-passenger job. The three jets are for going to the West Coast, the Orient, and Australia. Then there's the turboprop in Atlanta, the fixed-wing unit in Europe, and the helicopter in Puerto Rico."

Wait a minute. Back up. The six choppers, the turboprop, the twin engine-are they all for local transportation, to get from one Digital installation in the Boston area to another?

"Oh, yeah," she said. "I mean, define local transportation. But those are pretty much for around here. I mean, they're all based at Hanscom Field in Bedford," she explained, patiently. "It's impossible to get to Logan."

This gets us to the fifth and most intriguing limit to Edge City -Nice.

Nice is the truly double-edged sword for Edge City. Nothing cuts both for and against the growth of Edge City like Nice. It has no clear definition. Like the Supreme Court and pornography, the rule is "We know it when we see it." But at bottom, Nice is where the big boss will live. Not-Nice is where he will not live. And there is probably no more important law of Edge City location than this: whenever a company moves its headquarters, the commute of the chief executive officer always becomes shorter. In fact, a standing not-really joke in the real estate industry is that a corporate headquarters move is always determined by the following methods:

First, a blue-ribbon panel of respected corporate thinkers with long and deep understanding of the corporation's culture is named.

Second, they inventory all of the company's needs and goals. Third, they conduct a nationwide search of all the best possible locations for the company, comparing economic, demographic, tax, labor, and other competitive issues.

Fourth, they issue a three-inch-thick report, carefully analyzing the pros and cons of each location.

Fifth, the report is thrown away, and the headquarters is put as close to the home of chief executive officer as is physically possible without actually lowering his personal property values.

Little else is more important than Nice. Nice is more important than money. Some people think that Edge Cities rise primarily in locations that are cheap. Wrong. Cost is only one factor. If "cheap" was the only thing important, there would be strong development opportunities available near cheap, bombed-out, inner-city neighborhoods. Or cheap, blue-collar, white ethnic neighborhoods. Or older, cheaper, small-house suburbs.

Forget it. William H. Whyte, in his book City, has a great map showing that of thirty-eight companies that moved out of New York City in one period "to better meet the quality-of-life needs of their employees," thirty-one moved to the Edge City around Greenwich and Stamford, Connecticut. On Whyte's map, black circles show where the chief executive officer lived at the time the move was planned; white circles show where the new headquarters was subsequently located. Average distance from the CEO's home: eight miles. The bull's-eye, Whyte reported, was "a circle about four miles in diameter, bounded on the east by the Burning Tree Country Club and on the west by the Fairfield Country Club." The lesson? The thickest rubber band in the Rubber Band Principle of Edge City Location is attached to the peg driven into the place where you can imagine putting "executive housing." The final limit to Edge City growth is the quality that high executives-and, even more important, their spouses -absolutely will not do without: Nice.

What is included in Nice? Schools with astonishingly high average SAT scores. Cultural events. ("That's another thing about New Hampshire," says Professor Miller. "There's just not much to do.") Country clubs. Athletic clubs. Waterfronts. Scenic vistas. Large lots. Abundant parks. Horses.

There is precious little that drives up the price of land like horses. In New Jersey near Far Hills where the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team rides, or Virginia around Middleburg where Jackie Onassis rides, or California around Santa Barbara where Ronald Reagan rides, horse country causes real estate agents to roll their eyes.

In fact, horses demonstrate why competition over Nice is the main battleground on which the issues of growth are fought. Nice is the biggest attracter of Edge City there is, because of its appeal to the families of moored executives. At the same time, resistance to the spoiling of Nice is the greatest deterrent to Edge City. This is especially true if the people who are doing the resisting are of at least the same financial, legal, rhetorical, and educational class as the forces of growth-as is always the case in horse country.

It is this conflict-over what we shall do with our most Nice parts of the planet-that decides the fate of Edge City.

James C. Rosenfeld is the poor guy in charge of trying to build a 148,000-square-foot office building across from Walden Pond. "Yeah, it's my baby," he says, with a sigh, of the proposed Concord Office Park, which, if built, would feature a 518-car parking lot seven hundred yards from Walden's shore.

Asked when the battle started for permission to build, the senior vice president of Boston Properties flips through his notes and groans. "God, has it been that long?" Five years and counting is the answer. At the time.

"I really didn't expect a response of this nature," Jim Rosenfeld says. "You sound incredulous, but it's true. There's nothing particularly special about the site." Rosenfeld works for Mortimer B. Zuckerman, the wealthy Boston developer who has used his profits to buy The Atlantic, in the pages of which, ironically, Henry David Thoreau first gained a national reputation.

Jim Rosenfeld sounds like a truly wounded man. He goes on at great length about how his project offers setbacks-this and buffers-that; he's done Environmental Impact Reports until he's numb. Fifty percent of the eighteen-acre site, he says, would be left untouched. The Concord Office Park, he says, would make a great corporate headquarters.

He obviously believes that.

No, he says, no. "I didn't sit down and read the whole thing."

Rosenfeld was referring to Walden, or Life in the Woods, the full title of the 1854 book by Thoreau that recounts how he lived for two years and two months, walking this land, reflecting on Where, exactly, material wealth and civilization intersected. Yes, Rosenfeld says. He has a copy. The Thoreau Country Conservation Alliance sent every executive in the company a copy.

"I read parts of it," Rosenfeld mutters.

In a burst of passion, he explodes, "They think the ground is sacred! They really do! They think his spirit is there! They think it's hallowed ground! They literally worship him as a god!"

Rosenfeld genuinely doesn't get it. The only thing he can figure is that it can't really be half the citizenry of Massachusetts that has lined up against him, the way it sometimes seems. It is just this band of fanatics who do not believe that even Route 2 should be there. Look at Lincoln, the next town down the road, he says. "It looks like the Berkshires."

These people forget the source of the economy that supports them, Rosenfeld says. Business is conducted in buildings like the one he wants to build. Just wait for the economic downturn, he prophesies, if people keep blocking projects like his. If people suddenly have to start worrying about their jobs, start worrying about a roof over their heads, about not having as much discretionary income, they won't have time or resources to do all this protesting, he grumps. Then they'll be talking out of the other side of their mouth. Lose some of their cushy jobs. That Will change their minds.

You really think that's true? Rosenfeld is asked. That an economic downturn will change their minds?

Well, he says, no. Maybe not. But if they were busy looking for a job, maybe they wouldn't have as much time to protest.

It is Jack Borden's turn to sigh. He is a trustee of the Thoreau Country Conservation Alliance. Says Borden, "Thoreau once wrote, 'As the skies appear to a man, so is his mind; some see only clouds there.' By the same token, as the land developers look at land, all they see is office parks and condominiums. Then they build philosophies of progress around that bullshit to justify their greed. Thoreau is part of the nation's psyche, its ideals -self-sacrifice, individualism, hard work, working with your hands, kinship with the American land. Can't we keep something sacred?"

The kind of clash at Walden Pond over the Concord Office Park is the clash that is occurring again and again across the country, between two profoundly different sets of values.

Rosenfeld is doubtless not aware that he is playing the role of the Massachusetts Pilgrim, trying to bring what he views as civilization to this piece of howling wilderness, about which he says he sees "nothing particularly special." But he might have saved himself a lot of time and money had he, in fact, read a little of Thoreau before putting himself into the battle of his lifetime, the battle that goes back four hundred years and forward into our futures, the battle over who we are, how we got that way, where we're headed, and what we value.

The developers of the town-house subdivision of Lordvale, for that matter, might also have found it food for thought. For in Walden, Thoreau wrote:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation . . .

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived . . .

At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house. I have thus surveyed the country on every side within a dozen miles . . . In imagination I have bought all the farms in succession . . . I walked over every farmer's premises, tasted his wild apples, discoursed on husbandry with him . . . and withdrew when I had enjoyed it long enough, leaving him to carry it on.

This experience entitled me to be regarded as a sort of real-estate broker by my friends . . . The future inhabitants of this region, wherever they may place their houses, may be sure that they have been anticipated. An afternoon sufficed to lay out the land into orchard, wood-lot, and pasture, and to decide what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door . . . and then I let it lie . . . for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone . . .

I found thus that I had been a rich man without any damage to my poverty . . . I retained the landscape, and I have since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheel-barrow. With respect to landscapes,-`I am the monarch of all I survey, my right there is none to dispute . . . None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty . . .

I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not--but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them . . . I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters . . .

Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode . . .

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.


There is a replica of Thoreau's ten-by-fifteen-foot handcrafted house on the shores of Walden Pond today, rebuilt by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management. It seems as snug and handy as his place must have been 150 years ago, when he refused the gift of a doormat-preferring to wipe his feet on the grass rather than disturb the simplicity of his life by taking in an object he would only have to shake out.

"In the long chronicle of our American distrust of the city, two names stand out above the rest: Jefferson and Thoreau," wrote J. B. Jackson.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of his friend who built that tight, warm, one-room abode, out beyond what is now Route 128, "No truer American existed than Thoreau."

And to this day, Americans harken to his distant drum; there are still some things, it seems, they value far more than the building of cities.


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