II. The Case for Urbanism in Phoenix

Downtown Phoenix, from my vantage point on Grand Avenue.

I forgot the meat of my last post. Calling for inclusive urbanism without first arguing for why the Phoenix metro needs to take a turn toward urbanism in the first place (and being several weeks late on top of that) is more than a little embarrassing. So without further ado,

Why do we need to become more urbanist?

1. Looming Housing Crisis

Construction of the 7th Street mixed use building in Tempe.

First off, we’re a young city. Contrary to popular belief, Phoenix in has a much larger percentage of young people than average, with 28% of our population under 18 (compared to LA’s 23%), and only 8% over 65 (compared to LA’s 11%). We also have a significantly younger than average median age, with 34 years (compared to 38 nationwide). Our stats contradict common assumptions about Phoenix being a retirement city; they also reveal just how skewed our politics are toward Sun City and Scottsdale retirees — we should be far more invested in education and transportation for future generations than we are given our demographics.

Maricopa County (containing Phoenix) is the fastest growing in the country.

But aside from politics, our city’s youth (and Tucson’s, which has a median age of 33), sets up a dilemma. As our young citizens begin searching for housing, there will be a shortage. Despite all the talk of multi-generational housing making a comeback, as the economy recovered from the great recession, that trend has reversed and then some. The average number of people per housing unit dropped from 3.3 in 1960 and 2.6 at the peak of the recession to just 2.5 today — and that number continues to decline. With household size dropping and population growing as it is, more housing units are needed than ever before — and single-family homes in sprawled out subdivisions can’t match demand. Despite the high-density housing boom in Tempe, most of what is being created is ugly, unaffordable, and not meeting regional demand for multi-family housing. Millions of new residents will also be moving to the Sun Corridor. So many, in fact, that America 2050 predicts that the Phoenix-Tucson area will go from about 5 million people today to about 12.3 million over the next 30 years. So what will that growth look like? Will we grow smart, or will we fail to match the challenges placed before us?

2. Disappearance of the Sonoran Desert

Cactus bloom near Phoenix

The signs aren’t good. Here are two great examples of what we’re facing:

The entire area outlined in red (146 square miles) has been annexed by Buckeye, AZ.

Buckeye’s land grab is one of the clearest cases of looming sprawl. The massive swath of land more than 100 square miles West of the White Tank Mountains has grown infamous. It was talked about excessively in Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross, which caused the Phoenix metro to receive a scathing round of bad press back in 2011. More recently, news of Bill Gates’s supposed Smart City on the annexed land brought the topic up again. What he’s actually doing is investing in the development of tract homes in the area, so not really that smart. Long term plans also suggest further annexation, down the 85 corridor to Gila Bend (which itself is preparing to become a subdivision of Phoenix). Buckeye’s population now: 73,000. Buckeye’s population in 2050: 488,000. Hundreds of square miles of pristine desert, turned into tract homes for the rich.

Casa Grande has similarly annexed large portion of the land around it.

Casa Grande, the largest city in Pinal County, sits smack-dab in the middle of the expanse between Phoenix and Tucson. It is the poster child of the Sun Corridor idea: commutes to Tucson make up half the commutes,and commutes to Phoenix make up the other half. Few people live, labor, and play in their community. What once was a small agricultural town has become a no-mans-land suburbia for suburbia’s sake. While its expected growth rate is not projected to reach the stratospheric level of Buckeye, Casa Grande’s more than 120% growth rate is nothing to scoff at. Particularly when other towns in the county like Eloy and Coolidge are going through the same sort of expansion. The exponential growth of Pinal county cities will be the death knell for both agrarian lifestyles and the open desert between Phoenix and Tucson, turning us into a continuous metro area.

Sand Tank Mountains, between Phoenix and Tucson

We can’t go down this path. The Sonoran Desert defines Phoenix and the Sun Corridor as a place, and its immense beauty and power should be preserved for future generations of Arizonans. There are things we can do: we can create urban growth boundaries, and we can place costlier impact fees on tract home developers.

TLDR: The population of Phoenix will double. If we do not urbanize, much of the desert we love will be swallowed by suburbia.

And I didn’t even talk about the freeway plans that go with all this development:

Every colored line on this map is a new freeway.

3. Social distance and mental health issues created by Sprawl

In her last book, Jane Jacobs (the penultimate urbanist icon) argued that sprawl divides us, makes us less social, and increases racial resentment. She even predicted Trump, all the way back in 2004. There is a lot of emotion in this point for me, having grown up in a suburban neighborhood where I struggled to find community. But beyond myself, it is hard to make and maintain friendships in suburbia, due to the lack of public spaces for interaction, and the isolating social atmosphere of the “American Dream”. Suburbia’s car orientation makes many activities that would normally involve interacting with other people turn into driving from parking lot to parking lot. The Phoenix metro area is really one, big, continuous grid of this anti-social suburban alignment. It defines our culture as a city. This has led to numerous mental health problems beyond causing severe introversion. It is no secret that both Phoenix and Tucson suffer higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide than the rest of the nation. Of course, Phoenix is a microcosm of a larger problem, but we stick out partially because of our excessive suburban structure. Living in the relative isolation of endless suburbia has proven toxic to human health, and when combined with underfunded community services, it results in endless mental health problems. We lack the social infrastructure to tackle these problems, for the same reason we lack the physical infrastructure. Sprawl builds the “every man for himself” mentality, which makes it impossible to come together as a community to fund and take part in handling the addiction problems that emerge from mental issues, gets in the way of taxation that could extend mental health services to the working class, and builds opposition to things that increase opportunity for residents.

TLDR: Suburbia is a mental health hazard.

4. Suburbanization of Poverty

I’m still working through “Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty” by Scott Allard, but his argument bubbles down to this: gentrification has led to poor families being pushed deeper and deeper into suburbia, leaving poor folks farther from transit, critical services, their jobs, their communities, and opportunities to climb out of poverty.

While gentrification IS a factor in Phoenix, the largest problem in the Valley may be less that rich people have been rent squeezing the poor out of urban neighborhoods. Rather, it is the lack of centralized urban housing at all. It should be noted that the densest census block in Arizona is “Sin City”, a quarter-mile block of low-rise apartments in Tempe, not Downtown Phoenix. Rather than creating a new suburban poverty problem, in Phoenix we’ve only amplified an existing one. My grandmother’s neighborhood, while great in many ways, is exhibit A. Constructed about five miles from downtown, it was originally a middle-class White suburb. As Phoenix’s working class population increased (along with every other income bracket), the neighborhood, which was older and filled with small houses, was cheap enough for some families to afford. As Brown families trickled in, White flight kicked into high gear, creating a housing glut and falling land values. This allowed impoverished Brown families to pour into the neighborhood, making it what it is now (a majority Latino, cultural community). This has happened over and over again, as new homes are created on the fringes, and old homes fill with working class residents. As the impoverished population grows here in the Valley, so does the landmass of Phoenix that is low-income suburbia. However, many of the new neighborhoods becoming working-class neighborhoods don’t have the advantages my Grandmother’s neighborhood has (canals, proximity to downtown, Phoenix public services, some multi-family housing). Instead, they are upwards of 15–20 miles from employment centers, exist in food deserts, have no apartment buildings, and lack the cultural resources that older neighborhoods have developed over time. The problems created stick out like sore thumbs: the privacy of suburbia makes it more difficult to keep eyes on the street, the lack of fast transit connections mean longer, more expensive commutes, which in turn increases child care costs, and mental health issues.

Maryvale, the epicenter of suburban poverty in Phoenix.

Additionally, Phoenix has been demolishing housing in the urban core. Having Sky Harbor situated so close to the central business district has been both a blessing and a curse to urbanism in the Valley. While it offers a quick light-rail journey from both Downtown Tempe and Downtown Phoenix to an International Airport, it has resulted in the wholesale elimination of neighborhoods. Golden Gate Barrio is the most known example of airport-driven eminent domain, but more recently, Nuestro Barrio, a six square mile area stretching from 24th Street to 7th Street, is being emptied out as I write this in order to allow more airplanes to pass over. Golden Gate and Nuestro Barrio represented a large chunk of the more walkable grid neighborhoods in the city; their loss should be a clarion call to urbanists, greens, and social justice warriors to rally around saving what is left.

This was once a thriving residential community.

While Sky Harbor has been the big contributor to displacement, we shouldn’t forget the numerous other projects that have resulted in the destruction of affordable urban neighborhoods (Chase Field, the Convention Center, ASU’s expansion, SR-51….etc, etc).

TLDR; Pushing poor and working class families away from their choice neighborhoods makes life more difficult, and makes commutes particularly terrible. Also, don’t destroy working-class neighborhoods for more planes.

5. Our current urban fabric is incomplete.

Downtown Mesa is the only part of the metro area that has its shit together.

I’ll say it point-blank:

Picket-fence and grass lawn suburban sprawl favored by anti-urbanists is a Midwest middle-class fantasy, and should never have been spread across West of the Rocky Mountains. This desert that was never intended to support the kind of water usage, or the demographic homogeneity required to maintain such colonial wet dreams. While Portland-obsessed urbanists and their imaginations for the future of Phoenix are admittedly terrible, most Phoenix anti-urbanists don’t even see Brown people as human, and think that God “will give us water if we pray hard enough”. Most conservatives in the burbs crave a metro area with no public housing, and no buildings taller than two stories. Their vision is broken and we must look beyond it. Reinforcing the multicultural identity of a Phoenix with density, good streets, and more things to do is critical. We are sitting in a hostile urban environment that will only worsen if action is not taken. Bland, distasteful office parks, meandering suburban streets, strip malls, and apartment complexes that face parking lots dominate the landscape.

On top of that, Phoenix lacks a lot of defining places for all kinds of people to come together and share experiences. Our urban village model is a wreck, with most of the supposed “cores” are nothing more than glorified strip malls and maybe a post office. It’s embarrassing. The few great spaces here in Phoenix have a tendency to be evicted after a while(Phoenix Renews community garden, Carnegie Library), which makes things worse. This lack of a citywide identity or community pride has eroded our civic responsibility, and empathy for one another. Creating good, central public spaces is a core tenet of urbanism, and sorely needed in the Valley. Some ideas I will be talking about in depth later include livening up Central Station (not Union Station), bringing back Phoenix Renews in a central location, and capitalizing on building public courtyards and pools as our version of floor-area-bonuses.

Mesa Arts Center Courtyard, a prime example of Arizona architecture.

Perhaps most importantly of all, we have to urbanize because we deserve a better built environment to spend our youth, raise our families, and grow old in.

Next time: The Tools We Have To Fix It.