I just finished reading Grady Gammage’s book, “The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons From Sustainable Phoenix.” I recommend it to anyone who lives in an auto-oriented desert city and wonders about its long term prospects.
The myth of the lone cowboy going out to the open desert amidst the saguaro cactus with a pick up truck and a shotgun is a quaint daydream. In reality five million people couldn’t live in the Valley of the Sun today without highly organized collective action and Big Government.
The Phoenix metroplex only exists because of massive federal and state investments in water, power, transportation, and other public institutions. Without the Central Arizona Project, Salt River Project, Interstate Highway System, Sky Harbor Airport, and Arizona State University there would be no Phoenix – at least not the Phoenix we know today.
Gammage explains that modern Phoenix is no more or less sustainable than the older Eastern and Midwestern cities that often dismiss the Arizona urban landscape as a giant mistake. Phoenix simply has different challenges than Boston or Minneapolis. And those challenges aren’t physical as much as cultural.
For example, Arizona has obsessed about its scarce water supply for the past century. As a result Phoenix has successfully managed its ground water resource, implemented conservation and efficiency programs, and is recycling its waste water for non-potable uses. The amplitude of variability of available water will likely increase in the years to come, but this is something Phoenix has already gotten good at managing. In contrast, how will Miami or Lower Manhattan deal with rising sea levels?
Likewise, air conditioning in Phoenix requires half the energy than heating a similar amount of space in Chicago. A heat pump is twice as clean and energy efficient as a traditional furnace. And since air conditioners run on electricity which can be generated from a wide variety of sources Phoenix’s climate control infrastructure is more flexible than the oil and gas heaters of other cities.
Gammage insists the dispersed horizontal auto-dependent suburban pattern of Phoenix isn’t different from New Jersey or Ohio. Everyone will have to deal with the cost, availability, and pollution of transportation fuel in the future – one way or another. But Phoenix’s orthogonal grid pattern lends itself to reinvention and adaptation. Intensification of land use along corridors served by light rail could allow the population to grow without the need for more cars. Urban car shares, Uber, Lyft, autonomous (possibly electric) vehicles, and telecommuting could keep the cul-de-sac population mobile in a cleaner and more efficient manner.
The real challenge for sustaining Phoenix isn’t physical. Instead, it’s the institutional immaturity, transient high turnover population, and short sighted reactionary politics that are the real hurdles that must be cleared in the years to come. Phoenix has done this well in the past. It can do it again in the future. But the jury is still out.