The Phoenix Lament (with apologies to J. K. Rowling)


Fifty years ago, Phoenix was Tiny Town in the Desert, smaller than Oshkosh or Santa Fe today. Now, it is larger than Philadelphia and the metro area has the bulk of Arizona’s population. That does not mean it gets any respect; on the contrary, it is, to many, a joke, with all of Los Angeles’ traffic and smog but without the ocean, the celebrities or the Lakers. When it surpassed the City of Brotherly Love, Pennsylvania newspaper columnists waspishly described the Valley of the Sun as ‘‘a loose accumulation of crummy vinyl-sided houses occupied by sunburned retirees who happen to share a zip code.”

They went on to note that “Phoenix has no downtown. . .and neighborhoods? None to speak of... [it] doesn’t rate as an actual city. . .it’s more like a place where a lot of people happen to live. Phoenix would kill to have a walkable city the way we do.’’ More recently, an anonymous commentator in The Economist reported that crime and other social ills were turning the city into an inhospitable and ungovernable mess. Time to roll up those sidewalks and move on—oh, that’s right, there are none. The worst opprobrium is generally reserved for the audacity, or insanity, of growing a city in a desert. As a blogger on the Grist site recently wrote, Phoenix is “a poster child for environmental ills.”

Phoenix is hardly perfect, and it certainly violates most traditional urban principles. A city of over three million, it possesses virtually no corporate headquarters. In a globalized world, Phoenix seems a nonentity, with virtually no corporate financial institutions. Home to the world’s sixth largest airport, it has few direct links to the rest of that world with the exception of a handful of daily flights to Toronto, Mexico City and London. This is the same airport that closed one summer when the temperature reached 122 degrees.

So then, why do people keep moving here? It is usually best to follow the advice of sociologist Juliet Schor and try not to start with the assumption that people are idiots. So, let’s rationally examine what keeps the place growing. The first factor is the weather. There is none. For half the year, it is warm, and for half it is hot. It rarely snows, and there are no tornadoes or hurricanes. It rains and it floods, but the water disappears by the next day.

The ground may be hot, but it’s also securely tethered—the earthquake risk is about as high as that for ice storms. This may seem trivial, but consider that liabilities from natural catastrophic events throughout the U.S. have exceeded $300 billion since 1988, and nearly three quarters of that can be attributed to tornadoes and tropical storms. Viewed this way, lots of people live in the wrong place but Phoenix is not one of them.

But what about the folly of living in the desert? How sustainable is that? Well, more so that you might think. A home in Minneapolis has to be heated from zero 60 degrees to maintain comfort, and must use energy for six months, 24 hours a day. A home in Phoenix needs to be cooled for less than five months, typically for 12 hours a day, in order to bring the temperature down from 110 to 80 degrees. Cooling devices are more efficient, and use less energy.

Research undertaken by Michael Sivak shows that the most energy efficient cities, like San Diego and Miami, are coastal, although these are also among the most vulnerable to catastrophic natural events. The least efficient are cold—Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver. In addition, Phoenix and Las Vegas come in right in the middle of the pack.

What about water? Like its neighbor Las Vegas, Phoenix loves to display fountains and other water features. The largest of these is the Tempe Town Lake, an entirely artificial recreational pond that evaporates the equivalent of five-acre feet each day. Where does this water come from? Largely from the development of agricultural land devoted to intensive irrigation, which consumes far more water per acre than suburban houses. Of course, this cannot go on forever—if nothing else, evaporation is a waste. But when water is properly priced, creating a natural incentive for conservation, it will be used more appropriately.

And what about the fundamental criticism, namely that Phoenix is a dreadful example of sprawl? Clearly Phoenix epitomizes a large, low-density city. But sprawl also occurs when people leave the downtown and move to the suburbs, as we see, for instance, in Detroit. In Phoenix, a growing population is filling up Maricopa County; we have few of the neglected areas that are common in many Northeastern and Midwestern cities.

Overall, the average journey to work is comparable with other American metro areas. And most important, low-density development is cheap development. Phoenix remains one of the most affordable large housing markets in the country, even after housing speculators from California took their equity and drove up costs in Arizona and other parts of the West in 2005-07. Current estimates suggest that when the dust settles, the median new house price will once again fall below $200,000.

Sprawl is perhaps one of the easiest insults to fling at any city. It is associated with everything from the collapse of civic life to the rise of obesity. Yet in Arizona, low-density development, which involves building large number of homes on raw land, is cheap development. Sprawl clearly involves the cost of new infrastructure, but that has to be placed against the high costs of renewing infrastructure in existing urban neighborhoods, which can involve deep excavation, specialized equipment and higher risks (like the cranes that keep collapsing in New York).

In the end, Phoenix’s growth machine succeeds in offering a commodity that people need—an affordable home. Few families want to live in small expensive apartments—many want the amenities of a low-cost house, and in Phoenix, that can mean as little as $150,000. It is easy to demand an end to sprawl, as has been tried in California and Oregon, but the result frequently is to price single family homes out of reach for most households. In a society that offers little to its working and middle class in terms of necessities like health care, it seems uncaring to demand an end to affordable single family housing as well.

Phoenix and its desert neighbors do not match up to the 19th century city. They lack the grand rail termini, the city halls, the cathedrals and the parks. The grandeur of the modernist era does not extend to these experiments in low-density private space—malls, office parks, homeowner associations. Yet they succeed brilliantly as bastions of successful low-cost development for middle class families. In the future they can also serve as laboratories for alternative energy usage, water recycling and, in time, more efficient transportation. The challenge is to let them change on their own terms, not make a vain effort to reconstitute them along the lines of older cities like New York, Chicago and Paris.

Andrew Kirby is the editor of the interdisciplinary Elsevier journal “Cities.”This is his 20th year as a resident of Arizona.