Office Sprawl: The Evolving Geography of Business

Robert E. Lang
Robert E. Lang Former Brookings Expert

October 1, 2000

Suburbs now contain the majority of office space in many of the country’s top metropolitan office markets, according to this survey. Before 1980, central cities dominated the office market, but over the last two decades, office space has become much more dispersed. A new urban form, an “edgeless city,” is emerging.

Key Findings

An analysis of the location of office space in 13 of the nation?s largest metropolitan commercial real estate markets between 1979 and 1999 found that:

Between 1979 and 1999, cities’ share of metropolitan office space significantly diminished.1979, 74 percent of office space was found in central cities and only 26 percent was found in sub-urbs. By 1999, the central city share of office space dropped to 58 percent while the suburban share grew to 42 percent.

Distribution of urban and suburban office space varies greatly among metropolitan are five metropolitan areas where the majority of the metropolitan office space is found within the core central city (Houston, Dallas, Chicago, New York, and Denver) and five metropolitan areas with the majority of space in the suburbs (Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, DC, Miami, and Detroit). In three metropolitan areas (Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles), there is roughly even division.

Metropolitan commercial office space is no longer found within a few high density clusters. While 38 percent of all office space in 1999 was located in a metropolitan area’s traditional downtown, nearly the same amount (37 percent) was found in highly dispersed, “edgeless” locations lacking well-defined boundaries and extending over tens if not hundreds of square miles of urban space.

In 1999, New York and Chicago were the only metropolitan areas with the majority of office space located in their primary downtown. Philadelphia and Miami already have more than half their office space in “edgeless” locations.