When Gertrude Stein said “there is no there there,” she was describing her hometown of Oakland, California. But she could just as well have been talking about La Défense.
Sitting on the western edge of Paris in what was once a sleepy suburb, La Défense is a glass-and-steel city unto itself, a facsimile of Midtown Manhattan just a few miles from the stone buildings of Haussmann’s boulevards.
Master-planned in the 1950s and 1960s, today it is home to eight of France’s ten tallest skyscrapers and Europe’s largest business district.
But La Défense’s successes don’t necessarily mean it’s a pleasant place to go, much less live in.
In its scale, its architecture, and its layout, it hardly feels Parisian. In fact, it hardly feels like anything at all.
As Georgi Kantchev reports in today’s New York Times, however, there are plans afoot to better integrate the city into the rest of Paris by remaking certain neighborhoods and encouraging a mixed-use, “24-hour” environment.
The new plans for La Défense are just the latest instance of policymakers grappling with the tricky concept of the “edge city.”
More than suburbs on steroids, edge cities are nodes of commerce, culture, and activity in their own right.
And while the concept is not new, urban areas from the developing world to Old Europe and even in the U.S. are beginning to change the way they consider the edge city in the context of their metropolis.
The approaches vary from country to country, but all point to a defining question: how cities can best bring the “global economy” to their doorsteps while still maintaining a distinct identity.
With La Défense, French politicians solved two problems. By providing cheap, plentiful, and new office space at a time when major corporations were demanding better commercial infrastructure than what existed in central Paris, La Défense allowed the French capital to remain a global center of business.
Simultaneously, it allowed the attractive inner city to remain intact by providing a “downtown” that was nowhere near downtown. To this day, there is only one high-rise building in Paris besides the Eiffel Tower.
Today, the lack of livability in La Défense makes the district seem outdated and poorly conceived, as the Times article suggests.
But that doesn’t mean the idea of building a brand-new edge city to “save” the central city has gone out of style.
In Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, a new master-planned city called the Tianfu New District is being built built five miles south of the city center.
Along with the world’s largest building (which opened earlier this month), Tianfu will feature a contemporary arts center designed by Zaha Hadid as well as an 80,000-person environmentally friendly “ecological city.”
Unlike a suburban development, Tianfu will be dense and walkable, with sleek office buildings placed not far from residential areas.
And by encouraging dense modern development on the edge of the city (the goal is to make it “China’s Silicon Valley”), the historic urban core—known for its serene tea-houses and laid-back atmosphere—will remain untouched and uniquely Sichuan, just as La Défense allowed Paris proper to avoid a good deal of the era’s “urban renewal.”
In the United States, by contrast, planners face the exact opposite problem.
Since American cities sprawl even in the absence of master plans like Tianfu or La Défense, it’s more often a question of how to retroactively create an identity for an edge area where development has already happened. As the journalist Joel Garreau wrote two decades ago, “Edge City’s problem is history. It has none.”
This lack of “history” is arguably the greatest challenge facing advocates of the Silver Line, the new branch of the Washington, D.C. Metro that will link several of Northern Virginia’s suburban commercial centers.
Since the line is being built amid office parks and highways, Fairfax County’s government is demanding that station names on the Silver Line evoke “relevant, brief, unique, and evocative” identities for neighborhoods that don’t yet exist.
The “Greensboro” station reflects the county’s goal of developing “vibrant 24-hour mixed use center” in the area around Greensboro Drive, which currently features low-rise offices and parking lots.
Following it will be “Spring Hill,” a “signature gateway to the urban center . . . expected to redevelop with retail uses, drawing people off Metrorail and into the neighborhoods.”
The challenge faced in Fairfax is the same as in La Défense—the only difference is how much local stakeholders seem to care.
Today, the main reason La Défense feels like a land forsaken, a quarantined edge city denied an identity to protect that of the urban core, is because it matters little to Parisians what La Défense looks or feels like. If the plans for La Défense reported in the Times ever come to fruition, they could mark an impressive change in the way Parisians conceive of its importance.
The balance of cultural power is different in Washington, where the geography of wealth and politics tilts toward suburbanites, who want a far more consequential role in dictating what their edge cities will look like. The shopping malls and office parks are their day-to-day reality, and as long as that’s where they live, work, and play, defining their existence through them is far more essential—even if it’s just through the names of Metro stations.
Along with Chengdu, what the cities share, though, is an implied recognition that the edge city is essential.
Economically, it keeps the region growing in ways the core city can’t. And through its very existence, it helps cities define their own spatial identities. Tysons is Tysons because it’s where the new towers are being built.
Paris is Paris because it isn’t.