I am on the edge. Not emotionally or psychologically — although this could be the case — but literally, physically, spatially, geographically. As I write this, I am sitting on the balcony of a hotel room in Miami Beach, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Behind me is the whole State of Florida and, indeed, the entire North American continent. In front of me: the boardwalk, a narrow beach, and then a lot of water — and not much else between here and Mauritania, a distance of more than 4,400 miles.
This is what urban designers call an “edge” — a transition between, you might say, something and nothing. Urban designers think constantly about things like edges, nodes, paths — anything, as the brilliant urban designer Kevin Lynch showed us in his classic book The Image of the City, that makes a city “legible,” easier for people to navigate and understand. (The famous architect Edmund Bacon, longtime planning director of Philadelphia and a contemporary of Lynch’s, was obsessed with paths; virtually all of his work revolved around this concept.)
Most people don’t think much about urban design as a field of study, but they do respond to edges like you wouldn’t believe. In the big picture, nearly 40% of the people in the U.S. — more than 130 million people — live in counties that hug the coasts. But even more compelling is the close-up: tall buildings and dense districts hugging an edge in order to be near something natural-seeming, something different from the city around them. What else do Central Park West, the Texas Medical Center, and Miami Beach have in common? They are all densely built-up edges, high-rises pressing up against nature: the great, green expanse of Central Park, the parklike setting of Rice University, the boundless Atlantic Ocean.
I grew up not far from an edge. My house was 30 miles from the southern shore of Lake Ontario, a lake so wide that you can’t see across to Canada. But I wasn’t much of an edge guy. I grew up riding my bike around my hometown, sometimes along the local river and occasionally out by a nearby narrow lake you could easily see across, not that much of an edge. I was more of a mountains-and-lakes guy, and in some ways I still am. Lakes are attractors for sure, but with a few exceptions — the Great Lakes, Lake Tahoe — they are not really edges in the way I am thinking.
The edge began to attract me when, as a young man, I first saw the beach towns of the Jersey Shore, scruffy though they were in those days. But the power of the edge truly hit me when, at the age of 25, I arrived in Santa Monica on a warm, sunny day in January and first dipped my toe in the Pacific. As I put it many years later in The Reluctant Metropolis:
“Reaching America’s western shore at Santa Monica, most cross-country travelers are overwhelmed, practically tearful at what lies at their feet. And no wonder. They arrive at the ocean after covering almost three thousand miles of landlocked territory. The last thousand miles of this land is the hottest, driest, most inhospital desert in the United States. The last fifty or sixty miles is endless city — nothing but buildings and cars and streets and pavement and sun and heat and, often, smog and haze.
“Yet here it is different. Suddenly, where there was land, there is ocean; where there was pavement and blistering stillness and stifling traffic, there is nothing but clear, serene blue water and ocean breeze. Anyone who has seen the ocean knows how liberating a view such as this can be. Multiply that feeling by a continent, and you begin to understand how Santa Monica appears to the grateful land-bound escapees from the East and Midwest who have been migrating here for decades.”
I was trying to universalize the experience, but of course I was describing how I felt when I first made it to the Pacific Ocean. It was not that different than the feeling I’m getting right now, on the other side of the country, in Miami Beach.
Indeed, beach towns like Santa Monica and Miami Beach are the classic “edge towns,” places that have a strong sense of place and organization because they are crowded along an edge rather than sprawled across the landscape. (I don’t want to confuse “edge towns” with Joel Garreau’s concept of “Edge Cities” — Edge Cities as Garreau defined them are large job centers in traditionally suburban locations. “Edge towns” are places that are literally on a physical edge.)
I have always liked edge towns because they’re casual and walkable. Casual because when your daily life revolves around the beach and the sand, and business suits don’t make much sense; you’re likely to spend a lot of time in flip-flops and swimming trunks. And walkable because, uncharacteristically among American cities, they’re built to be dense, and nobody minds. Proximity to the beach, to the edge, is so powerful that people will do anything to be close. They’ll put up with tall buildings, no yard, narrow streets, terrible parking options — all of the things that suburban America typically won’t tolerate.
The impulse toward the casual and the walkable was part of the reason I lived in an “edge town” for more than 25 years: the laid-back beach city of Ventura, California, where I also served as mayor. I never lived at the beach itself; I couldn’t afford a house and wasn’t willing to rent a typical ratty beach apartment. But I could comfortably walk every day to the beach from both my home and my office. I loved living on the edge.
And it has always been fun as an urban planner to understand how to use the edge as an organizing principle. Many years ago I did work for the “South Bay” cities in Los Angeles, a diverse collection of small cities including beach towns like Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach; inland towns like Carson, Hawthorne, and Inglewood; and a few cities like Torrance, which were both.
Ostensibly, the goal was to find ways to reduce automobile use in a dense but low-rise, car-oriented setting. But in the end, all the cities had the same question: How can we be Manhattan Beach, the stupendously affluent town in their midst. The answer, I said, was pretty simple: “If you want to be Manhattan Beach, all you have to do is get yourself an ocean and a hill. Everything else will follow.” (With a nudge, of course. Lately, Manhattan Beach has been heavily criticized for its decision almost a century ago to use eminent domain to purchase Bruce’s Beach, then a prominent beach owned and patronized by African Americans.)
Of course, the Manhattan Beach example reveals one of two major concerns about edges: Because they’re so desirable, they typically belong only to the affluent who can afford them. And, of course, they’re fragile.
Affluence is always obvious on the edge. Walking along the Miami Beach boardwalk — which is not really a boardwalk at all, but a lovely, paved walkway near the beach — it’s obvious that an already-upscale area is going even more upscale. At the much-ballyhooed 57 Ocean building near my hotel, four-bedroom penthouses are going for close to $10 million, and up and down the boardwalk you can see older buildings undergoing renovation, their undersized 2,000-square-foot condominiums combined to create easier-to-sell 5,000-square-foot units. In Santa Monica, which was still a sleepy, middle-class suburb when I first dipped my toe in the Pacific Ocean decades ago, the median home price is now almost $2 million.
This bent toward affluence is part of the reason why we see periodic public policy efforts — through both regulation and land purchase — to make sure the edge experience is affordable to everyone, not just rich folks. A half-century ago, voters in California passed the Coastal Act, which declared that the beach is public (at least up to the mean high tide line) and set into motion a series of public policies designed to ensure public access through easements, walkways, viewing spots, ample parking (not always favored by urban planners), and a bias toward “visitor-serving uses.” (A lack of specifics as to what a “visitor-serving use” consists of has led to occasional battles; for example, the posh Bacara Resort outside Santa Barbara was built only after a lengthy legal fight over whether a $1,000-a-night hotel was the kind of visitor-serving use the voters had in mind when they passed the Coastal Act back in the 1970s.)
And, of course, edges are the place where different ecosystems often collide and mix together, a characteristic vital to the successful functioning of the natural environment and attractive to people drawn to the edge, but also one that makes the edge fragile: No matter how much we want the edge to be hard and permanent, natural edges are fluid in ways that humans don’t like.
From New Jersey to Florida, barrier islands form the edge along the Atlantic Coast. Virtually all are inhabited, and many are built up with beach homes and condominiums. (Both Miami Beach and Palm Beach are on barrier islands, which is why the City of West Palm Beach is actually on the East Coast of the U.S. — it’s west of the barrier island where Palm Beach is located.) Many of these islands regularly get hammered by hurricanes and other storms, and homeowners basically gamble that the truly devastating storm will come along after they die.
In my adopted West Coast home town of Ventura, we made the mistake many years ago of building a bike path and parking lot right on the beach where the Ventura River enters the Pacific Ocean. Nature eventually reclaimed its territory, gradually eating away at both. In response, the city embarked on a not-always-graceful “managed retreat” plan, essentially allowing the bike path and parking lot to be destroyed until the shore found its natural landing spot.
So that’s the dilemma I’m thinking about here on the hotel balcony in Miami Beach. Edges — especially dramatic natural ones such as Miami Beach and Santa Monica — are extremely compelling to us. But managing human interaction with such fragile places and keeping them affordable is a tough trick. Even dramatic edges made by humans are almost impossible to keep affordable. (Think, once again, about Central Park.)
Thus, urban designers will have to learn how to use edges in different ways. As Superstorm Sandy and other disasters have demonstrated, we have to create softer, greener approaches to dramatic natural edges like oceans. There are lots of smaller, less-dramatic edges around the country — rivers, lakes, parks, urban-growth boundaries, anywhere that the built and natural environment interact — and we have to learn to use them more intentionally to enhance our lives. And, of course, urban designers and landscape architects can create more “artificial” edges as well; sometimes something as simple as putting a short building next to a tall building or creating graceful built public spaces alongside natural settings. Because even as our most famous edges become unaffordable or wash out to sea, the natural human impulse to hang around near them isn’t ever going to go away. We like being on the edge.
This essay originally appeared in Common Edge.
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Bill Fulton is Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and a former Mayor of Ventura, California. His newest book is The Texas Triangle: An Emerging Power In The Global Economy. To email him or be added to his email list: firstname.lastname@example.org.