‘Edge Cities’ helps define southern New Hampshire

While it has not been a dynamic summer weather-wise, it has been a good one for summer reading.

I reached back to 1991 and pulled up a copy of Joel Garreau’s “Edge City,” a classic work on suburbanization and development of the “built environment” over the last 25 years.

Emerging “edge cities” are defined as follows:

• Have at least 5 million square feet of leaseable office space—the work place of the information age

• Have at least 600,000 square feet of leaseable retail space

• Have more jobs than bedrooms

• Are perceived by the population as one place

• Were nothing like a city as recently as 30 years ago

The area around Route 128 and the Massachusetts Turnpike in the Boston region is one local example. Southern New Hampshire is another.

In New Hampshire, we think of Salem, Nashua, Portsmouth and Manchester, and to a lesser degree Derry/Londonderry. But “edge cities” can be the Seacoast, the Massachusetts border, the Interstate 93 corridor or the Route 3 corridor.

In “Edge City,” the offices are factories of the information age. This is where problems are accumulated and the information of which they are made is mined for valuable nuggets. There it is digested and decided on by the workforce, transformed and repackaged.

“Edge cities” have been studied and written about extensively, but they are often market driven. Some planners have questioned whether it is possible to do urban planning in a society that reveres market forces. Others have asked if it is possible to do urban planning in a society that reveres the individual. An example is the southern New Hampshire communities that found themselves unprepared for the waves of growth that rippled up from Massachusetts over the past 20 years.

In 1991, Garreau theorized that homes had become financial commodities more than emotional entities. The run-up of home values have made them people’s prime savings depository. Today, Americans think nothing of moving. Average turnover is now every six years (every three years in Phoenix and Las Vegas!). It is almost as if people are renting homes rather than owning them. My folks lived in their home where I was born and grew up for almost 40 years.

So six years after the Tech Wreck of April 2000, New England looks out to the horizon and ponders its future. Is growth essential? What about redevelopment, a.k.a. the Restoration Economy? Should we invest in our older cities and downtowns? Does it matter?

In Concord, where I live, the community has spent eight years defining its vision of the city’s future. The Initiative for a 20/20 Vision for Concord is the result. When all was said and done, the 275-page report was sugared down to five “vision principles”:

• A vibrant livable downtown

• Neighborhoods served by walkable villages

• Preservation and access to the natural environment

• Economic vitality (not just economic development)

• Rational transportation that serves the community

The principles are easy, but the rub comes in their application for specific projects in specific neighborhoods. Not so simple then (i.e., not in my backyard).

If you think about the built environment and what our future might look like with $4 or $5 per gallon gasoline, this book will give you plenty to chew on.

Bill Norton, president of Norton Asset Management, is a Counselor of Real Estate (CRE), a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (FRICS) and a member of the board of The Initiative for a 20/20 Vision for Concord. He can be reached at wbn@nortonnewengland.com.

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