An interview with...
Futurist/Author of Edge City
A phrase from
your book Edge City jumped out at me. The book came out in '92
-- are we still "making it up as we go along"?
Sure, every chance
we get. We never follow the leader in this country. We're always just
inventing it as we go along and hoping for the best. Usually we're able
to get to the point ultimately where it's pretty close to right, but
it's terrifying to watch us half the time.
I know you've
worked on scenarios for the future of the Central Valley. Can you outline
a little of what you've found in those scenarios?
Well, what was interesting
about the scenarios for the Valley was that when we first came in an
awful lot of people locally didn't want to believe that the Great Valley
existed. They were just convinced that the North Valley was way different
from the Sacramento region, which was way different than the South Valley,
and they just didn't think that there would be anything in common. In
fact, that was one of the problems we ran into: trying to create a sense
of community and a sense that there is something here where "we're
all in this together." And sure there are differences between Bakersfield
and Redding, and everybody who has lived in either one knows that. But
what was really intriguing to me doing this through the three regions
was that for all the scenarios there ended up being two sets of variables
that everyone thought was incredibly important. In every one of the
scenario sets that we created, the people were basically concerned about
what kind of cards they were going to be dealt and how well they were
going to play it. We didn't force that outcome on them but it was exactly
the same thing in all of these regions. Some people's concerns were
different about the kind of cards they were going to be dealt. Some
people worried about water, some worried about development, others worried
about clean air, others worried whether there would be ethnic conflict,
bordering on war. The details, Chico was different than Stockton in
significant ways that you can totally predict. But nonetheless there
was this enduring unity within the entire Central Valley about what
it is that they were worried about. And interestingly enough, what they
were worried about was whether they would have the wisdom and the gumption
to do right by whatever cards they were dealt. They were worried about
themselves at least as much -- if not more than - what the external
world was going to throw at them.
When were these
They were done over
a period of about six months in late 2001 and early 2002.
Do you think
they grasped the concept? Do you think they have a handle on what its
going to take?
I hope so. The scenario
planning is an exercise in creating learning organizations. The scenarios
are not the point of this. The original idea behind scenarios is that
the one thing we know for sure about the future is that it's not going
to be a straight line projection from the present. Anyone who thinks
that they can go, "1995 was like this, and 2003 was like this so
therefore a straight line to
" Nobody anymore expects that
to be how reality works. The notion of scenarios is that it's better
to be never completely wrong than to be occasionally completely right.
These scenarios are visions of the future that can be occurring in the
Great Central Valley. What you are focusing on isn't your certainties;
it's your uncertainties. What is it that you're really worried about
that you don't understand? And you pick out four points in the future.
One is everything goes right; the cards you are dealt are terrific and
you play them perfectly. Another one is the cards you're dealt are just
awful and you really blow it, so you have different worlds. The scenarios
are important but they're not the whole end in itself. Scenarios are
about making snap decisions slowly. Scenarios are trying to think through
what it is that might be coming at you in the future so that when the
future does catch up to you you'll see we've rehearsed this. This is
like Navy pilots in Top Gun. When they're in those simulators what they're
doing is scenario planning. What we're doing with the Valley here is
trying to put them through the simulators of the future so that when
the future comes at them they'll say, "I know, we've rehearsed
this. We can handle it." It's the learning organization that's
the big thing. The way you know you've succeeded -- these people that
just spent en enormous amount of time on these scenarios -- the way
they know if they've succeeded is if they walk into a 7-11 someday and
they hear two people buying cigarettes talking about their scenarios
and these guys had been nowhere near the scenario process. But they
just kind of picked it up somehow and they've incorporated into how
they think about their own future. That's what success looks like. That's
when you know you've got a learning organization, that you've made a
learning organization out of this Valley.
Can you talk
a bit about how technology drives the kind of growth we're going to
certainly shapes growth in a lot of ways. Economic growth -- there's
a lot of economists sitting around trying to figure out what drives
economic growth. It's basically the world wanting more of whatever they've
got than they used to. The shape that it takes is influenced incredibly,
especially in cities, when it comes to the various technologies of transportation.
If your state-of-the-art transportation technology at the time of Jesus
is saddles and donkeys then what you've got is Jerusalem, because donkeys
have these sharp little hooves and so they can go straight up those
hills and that's how roads got laid out in Jerusalem. You flash-forward
1,500 years after the time of Jesus and the state of the art freight
technology is horse-drawn wagons. Well, at that time Jerusalem is just
out of luck because you can't pull these horse-drawn wagons up these
hills. So cities get laid out in a completely different way. And what
you end up with in the 1600s is Boston, for example, or Antwerp and
places like that. If the state of the art becomes the railroad in the
1800s, you end up with Chicago with the stockyards bringing the wealth
from the prairie into the center of the city to be processed. You also
have the El, which is the loop, the intraurban rail. When the state
of the art becomes the automobile you get Los Angeles. We built the
1 millionth Model T in 1915, and that was the last downtown we built
in North America when that happened because Calgary, Alberta, Canada
was the last railroad town, that was 1914. You never built a downtown
from scratch after that. We had another enormous inflection point when
you had the rise of the jet passenger plane in the late 50s. As recently
as the mid 50s the southwestern most baseball team was St. Louis; that
was a far as the southwest got if you were the major leagues because
you just can't run a major league schedule across the whole continent
if you are just moving people around on trains, its just going to take
too long. That's why to this day St. Louis baseball has one of the best
radio networks, because to a lot of people in a certain age it's still
the hometown team to a lot of people in the South and West. So think
about that -- all of a sudden all of these places that were kind of
colonies of the industrial Northeast like Los Angeles and Atlanta, Dallas,
Denver, Houston, Seattle
suddenly all of these places could be
opened up into world capitals of their own and that changed the world.
things now is that the state of art is now the automobile, the jet plane
and the computer. You have to think of the computer as a transportation
device, which is hard for some people because they're just getting around
to the idea that it's a communication device. If you think about it,
it really does move goods and services in important ways. The corporations
as far back as the 50s began to figure out that they used to have all
these headquarters downtown and everybody had to go down to the headquarters
to work because face-to-face contact was the only kind of contact that
they had. But let's say a big corporation like Marriott, for example
-- the hotel people - asks, "Why do we have these reservations
clerks coming down to our expensive real estate down here? They're on
the telephone all day; they can be on the far side of the moon if we
have enough telephone lines." This started the revolution in which
the corporations decided that they could put each piece of their puzzle
wherever they thought they would have comparative advantage. They could
put the headquarters one place and the R&D in another place and
the salesman in the third place and the backshop in the fourth place.
This is what helped create the rise of these edge cities, because each
one of these places had different strengths. Especially in the Bay Area
where you see the rise of Contra Costa County and the I-680 corridor
and a lot of that is backshop and R&D that benefited from this dispersion.
The situation that we're in now is that the price of computing is dropping
exponentially and that means that individuals are having the same type
of choices now that the big corporations used to in that the individuals
can now pick where they want to have their place to work and where they
want to have their place to live and where they want to have their place
to play, and they can come up with an enormous number of combinations
that had never been available before and that's as big a revolution
as the donkeys being overtaken in Jerusalem.
You talked about the development of rail; these towns up and down the
Valley were spaced really because of the rail lines. That has to have
a terrific impact on what happens to places like Clovis and all those
farm towns that are only there because of the railroads.
Sure, they used
be called tank towns because the reason they were there was because
they needed a big tank of water for the steam locomotive.
So what happens
to those places?
They find another
reason to exist or they die. Nowhere is it written that cities are forever.
Cities die. You haven't heard much lately from the Babylon Chamber of
Commerce. The thing is more often we find new uses for these places.
For example one problem we've solved in this country is what to do with
a little bitty rail station. We got this figured out; it took us thirty
or forty years but we've pretty much got it figured out. What you do
is turn the ticket booth into a bar and then turn the rest of it into
a restaurant and then in the piece of genius that everybody thinks is
the greatest thing they've ever seen, they get a caboose and that becomes
the cocktail lounge. So we've pretty much totally figured out how to
recycle a little train station. What's a much more complicated problem
is what to do with an old downtown. Its reason to exist is no longer
there. There's no reason why everyone has to come to one location to
work anymore. The automobile and the computer and the telephones have
pretty much solved that problem.
So what do you do
with these old downtowns? Well, for the longest time people were predicting
that we were going to be growing row crops on Main Street and putting
John Deere tractors down Main Street just for the land. Well, that's
not what happened at all. What happened is that we discovered that these
places that were built in the 1800s in pedestrian scale had some advantages.
They were easier to walk around. They're easy to have face-to-face contact.
Now we have three kinds of downtowns in this country. The first kind
is like San Francisco or Boston or Washington D.C. or Manhattan or Seattle.
This is first tier and they have totally solved the problem of how to
recycle an old downtown. They have an industry where it's entirely face-to-face
contact. That's what it's for. Its tourism, it's conventions; it's a
place where young people like to be to look for members of the appropriate
sex. These are the places that are being so successful that the real
estate prices are going so high that the artists and the poor people
are being driven out -- and the big question is if these places are
going to continue being funky and fun to be at if there are no artists
or poor people.
That's the problem
that San Francisco has right now. On the scale of problems that's a
much different problem than people ever though the downtowns were going
to have. There's about six or eight downtowns in this country that have
problems of success. So then you have the second tier, which is places
like New Orleans, which has got a great chink of face-to-face contact
in the French Quarter of New Orleans. You have a place like Baltimore
with the Inner Harbor, which a great place for tourists and conventions.
But the trouble is, even though these places have thriving face-to-face
contact neighborhoods, they are then surrounded by a fair share of misery
and poverty and crackheads and just general urban evil. The big question
is going to be whether these face-to-face 21st century tourism and convention
locations will be able to create enough money to solve the problems
of the rest of that city.
And then you end
up with the third tier places like Camden New Jersey or Worcester, Massachusetts.
Those are places where if you didn't have to go there for some reason,
is there any reason that you'd want to go there? And if the answer is
no, then they're going to die; it's a natural process. Some of the places
that are going to die are also going to be some of what I call "Edge
Cities" -- these new urban cores that are equally unhappy places
to go to because they are all cubicle farms with no particular reason
to be there, no reason to be face-to-face. It's interesting to see places
like Walnut Creek that are busy adding amenities as fast as they possibly
can because the one thing that they realize that they need is to become
a place that people want to go to. I think that Walnut Creek is going
to do all right but there some of these other places and these other
edge cities that are people warehouses and if they don't come up with
some interesting reason to make people want to go there I don't see
how they are going to compete.
the edge city concept a little bit. Is Walnut Creek an edge city of
San Francisco or Oakland, or is it now its own city?
Yeah, it's pretty
Are edge cities
by Walnut Creek going to start sprouting up?
It could be. We're
going through yet another fundamental shift here as computers become
more available to all sorts of individuals. It turns out there 87 classes
of real estate whose needs and uses are being reshaped by the computer.
Take the supermarket, for example. Suppose they decided they didn't
want to waste money heating and lighting this building anymore or paying
taxes on it. Suppose they figured that they could make more money for
themselves by shutting the building down and delivering your toilet
paper to you on demand. The question becomes if you had that option,
would you go for it? If you didn't have to go to the Safeway ever again,
would you feel bad about that? Cities are about choices. I asked myself
that question and I realized that 97% of the things in that Safeway
are flash frozen, shrink-wrapped, mass marketed and if they want to
send me my barbecue sauce to make a little more money that's just fine
by me. I don't think I'm going to cry a whole lot about missing that
trip to the Safeway. Is there anything in that Safeway I would drive
for? Yes, just about anything I'd find in a farmer's market. For example,
I want to have a face-to-face relationship with my tomato. I don't trust
the kid to pick my spareribs. Although if he were working for somewhere
called the French Market, I might. Again, places like the farmer's market
thrive because they offer face-to-face; they offer taste and touch.
That I think is the only reason for urban conglomerations of cities
in the future. is face-to-face contact -- period, full stop. And that's
different from the era of the edge cities. One of the questions that
came up was office buildings: why do you need office buildings if you've
got computers? Whatever happened to telecommuting?
Well, I'll tell
you what happened to telecommuting. Telecommunicating is boring. It's
excruciatingly boring. That's why people don't do it, because the work
on the computer is the most boring 20% of your day. The interesting
part of your job -- if you have an interesting job -- is that you are
hanging out with people and somebody asks you what you are working on.
And Jane's working on this, and somebody says, "There's something
that I just read that I'll send to you on the machine. It's somebody
you have to talk to
I'll send you the phone number." This
kind of face-to-face, this creative bubble is probably the most useful
and creative part of your day and it's extremely difficult to imagine
how you're going to create that on a computer. There's really something
about face-to-face that has lasting value. Now, having said that, you
say, "Fine, face-to-face is tremendously important. Do I need five
days a week of this?" Suppose you decided that you get all the
face-to-face you needed two days a week. Would Sonoma County start looking
good to you? Would the coast of Oregon start looking good to you? Suppose
you decided that you got all the face-to-face that you needed three
days a month? Would the Baja start looking good to you? How about the
Caribbean? So what this means is that I can imagine a future, in a very
short period of time -- in the next 10 to 20 years -- that I think of
as the "Santa Fe-ing" of America. What this means is that
you have two equal and opposite forces occurring simultaneously. This
is how it normally works when technology causes a change. On the one
hand you're going to have this incredible desire for face-to-face --
incredible desire for villages, for places to come together, and places
that are meaningful and friendly and warm. So a big market for villages
and coming together, while at the same time you see a big market for
dispersion that people, anyplace where they have gone on vacation, will
ask themselves, "Why do I ever want to go back?" Watch that
place. That explains the housing explosion in the Sierras; it explains
the enormous amount of growth in the Big Sky country in Montana, in
the Piedmont of the Carolinas, or any ocean front property. This is
the greatest amount of dispersion that we've seen since the rise of
the automobile. Even greater and faster I think, more dispersion than
ever before, plus concentration into villages so what I see is the rise
of more and more Santa Fe's, limited only by your ability to create
There was almost
an outbreak of applause when you mentioned in your speech this afternoon
that you foresee the possible demise of "big boxes." What
do you base that prediction on?
I think one of big
problems of the next ten years is figuring out what to do with all this
empty big box retail around here. You look at a place like Wal-Mart
and the reason for its incredible success is information technology.
This is one of the great information processes of the commercial world.
Wal-Mart has more satellite transponders than France -- they do! Their
system is one where you buy a pair of sneakers and run it though that
scanner, that starts a process which within 24 hours will fire up a
factory in Malaysia to start creating new sneakers to replace the ones
you just bought. This is one of the most highly efficient collectors
of information and processing of any corporation in the world. The thing
is that they are so good at it that
you begin to wonder, "Why
bother with the stores? Why don't they just ship you the sneakers?"
I think that's very clearly heading in that direction in the next ten
years. I mean it's not a trivial exercise getting all these trucks to
work. But I think it's going to happen because it's a lot cheaper than
running these buildings. I think that you'll see it first in the big
box stores because in order to lower their prices they have stripped
out everything that they can. What these things are, they are just a
place where you exchange money for a commodity, period. There's not
much social boost in going to a Wal-Mart. How many Wal-Marts do you
go to for a good time? There's this geezer out in front who's the greeter,
who's a nice guy and all that jazz but
I can't picture myself
getting into my car just for experience of hanging out at the Wal-Mart.
I haven't gotten to that point yet. Whereas at a farmer's market, that
is a plausible thing where I would go for the entertainment as much
as I'd go for the tomatoes. These places that have stripped themselves
down to the bare bones are going to be the first and most quickly to
see the virtues of going completely virtual and shipping it to you directly.
I can imagine that you're going to have an awful lot of empty big boxes
in the next ten years. The question I've asked myself: what are we going
to do with all these empty places. Can we make enough holes in the roof
to make them into greenhouses? Can you make them all into roller derbies?
Can you dig a hole and make swimming pools out of them? Non-denominational
evangelical churches? I don't know, maybe. This is a crucial question
that we have to start working on right away because this is going to
be happening to us real soon.
What does the
expansion of Sacramento's airport do for the growth and development
of edge cities outside the San Francisco and Sacramento regions?
Airports are real
crucial. Until we create some way of teleporting ourselves, airports
are enormously important. You look at a place like Chicago, the Chicago
region. You have a perfectly thriving downtown there, but you also have
this sea of edge cities around it. And if you look at the map, you'll
see that right smack in the middle of all this commercial activity,
at the very center, is the O'Hare airport. O'Hare airport is now an
edge city and larger by any urban standards than downtown Minneapolis.
It's got more office space. It's not really about the planes; it's just
where all the roads come together and the planes, and so forth. So it's
become a great corporate location for all sorts of people.
Conduct a little
experiment. You've just been named god, and you've just been given the
power to create force ten earthquakes. Bam! We've just hit Chicago with
a force ten earthquake -- everything is leveled. Here's the mental experiment:
which gets built back first -- downtown or the airport? Well, to ask
the question is to answer it. We saw it here in the Bay Area during
the Loma Prieta earthquake and the aftermath of that. The Bay Bridge
was back in business as fast as we could possibly do it; we put a huge
premium on it. It was back in business in a matter of weeks. Five years
later they were still debating what they were going to do with downtown
Santa Cruz. I think this tells you something about our value structure.
With our airports, you're not going to see major growth in an area that
is outside the range of a considerable airport. It's not going to happen.
People who can afford these kinds of lives are not going to drive three
hours if they have a choice. So that will be a limiting factor. There's
a technology on the horizon as a result of computers that's supposedly
going to allow a lot of small planes to fly like taxis out of small
airports. That could open up an amazing amount of opportunities in places
like the North Valley, where if you can manage to make flying on demand
economic, because you don't have to worry about all the air traffic
controllers and so forth, that might change things. All ports turn themselves
into cities sooner or later and that's just as true for airports as
it has for seaports.
beginning to bring to edge cities the best of what was in the original
There has been a
great movement in the last ten years called the "new urbanism."
That whole notion is that you should make the built environment friendly
not just to cars but to cars and people. That's had a certain amount
of luck; that's been a very hot topic. The one problem is that it's
complicated to do and it's easy to do badly, so it hasn't completely
changed the environment. But you do see places that quite clearly are
benefiting from having brick sidewalks and shops facing out to the street
and just generally being a more pleasant environment. And in general
those pleasant places are obviously going to attract a whole lot more
business than places that are boring and Stalinistic. But I'm not sure
if we've seen the whole revolution yet. You can point to more places.
Walnut Creek's shopping center is basically a mall without a roof. That's
essentially what that is. And everyone thinks it's so cool because it
doesn't have a roof. Whatever floats your boat. They clearly are putting
a premium on entertainment and face-to-face contact. I have a friend
by the name of Jaron Lanier, who is one of the pioneers of virtual reality.
He has a lot of clients in the gambling business and they are very interested
in casinos and how to make them more interesting. Jaron says that the
way you know when the malls have become primarily a place for entertainment
and face-to-face contact is that the first things that will disappear
will be the escalators -- to be replaced by rides. The first time you
take a Ferris wheel to the third floor of a mall remember Jaron because
that's how you know. The first time you take a water ride from the third
level to the first, then you realize that this will be an entertainment
location where you can also buy shirts.
Some people worry
that we're going to be a wall-to-wall city from Redding to Bakersfield
by 2040. Is it possible for that to happen?
I don't think you
have that much water. For no other reason; I don't see where all the
water would come from. Here's some critical issues: the good news about
the Valley situation is that they are coming into this development pressure
relatively late in the game. They have 100 years of horrible examples
to avoid and they know it. There's all kinds of people that don't want
to be Los Angelesized or Contra Costasized, or whatever. And you do
see a learning curve here. You do see that the places that you build
in the first decade of the 21st century are real different from the
ones built in the 70s, are different than the ones built in the 50s
-- and they're better. They're more human friendly, they have better
resources. For example, it's now totally conventional wisdom among planners
and developers and everybody else that the way to go is mixed use. That
you should have jobs and retail and housing in one place. It didn't
used to be like that just a generation ago. A generation ago the object
of the game was to push things as far apart as possible for reasons
that seemed like a good idea at the time. We are on a learning curve
and we literally don't build them like we used to. That is good news
that the Valley is going to benefiting from a lot of the mistakes of
Now having said
that, one of the big problems is that there are critical infrastructure
things like land and water, and they are just dirt cheap in the Valley.
There are only four things you can do with water: you can either create
industry like power plants or factories; in the course of this kind
of industrial process that's number one. Or number two, you can do agriculture,
to create the most fertile agriculture the world has ever seen as you
have now in the Central Valley. Or number three, you can build cities
with it, build swimming pools and flush toilets. Or number four, you
can leave it alone right where it is for nature and have as wilderness.
In most of the west you don't get all four, that's the problem. In some
places like Utah, you're lucky if you get one out of four. In places
like that you see people who want to keep their kids home decide to
allow the building of industrial facilities such as power plants, and
for every acre foot of water that the power plant takes that's one more
acre of farmland that goes out of production. Here in the Central Valley
the good news I think is there really hasn't been much of an incentive
to save this water. There's an awful lot of waste; this is almost like
oil before the oil embargo in 1973. If the price of water ever started
going up there'd be all sorts of ways to conserve water that would suddenly
become very attractive. You've got to worry about who's going to lose
out in the water wars first. I can easily imagine, if you look at the
rice farming in the western part of the northern valley
growing rice in this valley -- it's a desert; get over it! Yeah, it's
a desert but once you get over that it's also geese and ducks and a
great natural boundary for wildlife. It's a multiple use landscape and
I don't know how you put a price on those ducks. I like those ducks
and I don't want to lose them. That's what I'm worried about, more than