Up For Discussion

What Should Phoenix Be Tomorrow?

Making A Desert Progeny Grow Old Prettily


Those of us who live in Los Angeles may love it, but no sane Angeleno would describe the metropolis as a model of urban planning. We’re too scattered and too crowded. Our buses work, but we don’t like them. Our subway works, but it doesn’t go very far. We sprawl, and we crawl. But what about Phoenix? It’s smaller and younger. Can it do a better job of planning for its future than L.A. has? In advance of a Zócalo event “Is Phoenix the Next L.A.?“, we asked several notable Phoenicians to weigh in on the following question: what should the Phoenix of tomorrow strive to be?

Phoenix Should Be the Envy of L.A.

Phoenix is the quintessential postwar American city, the embodiment of our national culture and values at their zenith. Its urban form is an homage to the automobile, chain store, and subdivision. Its population is the embodiment of the melting pot, drawing people of diverse ages and places of origin with promises of “more for less.”

L.A. attracts the ambitious and breeds difference. It’s a megalopolis of millionaires and deteriorating carport apartment dwellers. But Phoenix attracts the hope-to-be-content and breeds likeness, and everyone can live in a single-family home (if not own one).

As with the nation as a whole, Phoenix’s strengths–its easy, egalitarian consumption and inward, family focus–are also its weaknesses. As it comes of age in a 21st century of accelerating climate change, ethnic diversity, and financial instability, will Phoenix capitalize on these shifts and use its position as the “small town big city” to reinvent itself, to let our consumerist individualism become a communitarian conservationism? Will it take the ingredients from which it was made–the strip mall, tract home, and freeway–elements found in various concentrations in cities nationwide, and retrofit them to withstand the seismic shifts soon to come, becoming a “sustainable city” model that L.A. will seek to emanate?

The biggest conundrum is that Phoenix’s capitalistic American urban form has left it without the traditional public spaces needed to host debate and transform the city–not only large gathering places like parks and squares but also the porches and stoops that get neighbors talking to one another and planning for the future. The city’s biggest barrier to becoming a model for the 21st century is not its financial troubles or desert climes but its garagescape, where the home is not a portal but a capsule. Communal foundations will come, but probably from unexpected places that are a product of our rapidly evolving information age, such as the virtual spaces emerging from organizations like Zócalo Public Square.

Deirdre Pfeiffer is assistant professor at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University (as well as a recent transplant from Los Angeles).


Phoenix Should Be a Youthful 131

Just a few things that cross your mind when you turn 131 years old: In youth, when life is full of future possibilities, you’re flooded with waves of hope, excitement, and potentiality. In mid-life, after decades of sandblasted polish and seasoning, you either refine these possibilities and pursue them with renewed vigor or eliminate them to make way for life’s necessities. Finally, as the window of life begins to close, you’re left with only a few seeds of possibilities, seeds that are either carelessly scattered or meticulously planted.

This is Phoenix, young, middle-aged, and old all at once. It’s full of potential, brimming with possibilities, and energized with hope. It’s also challenged with outdated models, strapped for cash, and too familiar with success to revolutionize. It’s bursting with talent and creative energy, but it’s also vulnerable to the influences of decay and disenchantment and on the verge of its best life ever. It’s young but old enough to know better.

Phoenix in its youth rode the waves of hope, excitement, and potentiality by connecting its communities to interesting places with economic opportunities. Just ask the roadway engineers about their experiences digging up rail lines as they oversaw roadway expansion projects.

Phoenix in mid-life was sand blasted and seasoned with the reality that growth for the sake of growth would not create Shangri-La for all. Sunshine alone would not do the trick.

At least four “boom and bust” economic cycles have taken their toll on the Phoenix metropolitan region. Phoenix has had quite a ride as it weaves its way through its life cycle.

But Phoenix now has another chance before the window of life closes.

What should Phoenix strive to be as it advances in age? Here are some adjectives and nouns from my wish list: Inclusive. Diverse. Silo-busting. Interesting. Quality places connected to people. People connected to quality places. Creative. Authentic. Artistic. New voices. Celebrations of culture. Wise. Multi-generational. Balanced. In it for the long haul. Courageous. Ingenious. Different.

Will Phoenix live its best life? We are counting on it!

Shannon L. Scutari is president at Scutari & Co., LLC.


Phoenix Should Harmonize With Its Environment

Phoenix: Vibrant, inclusive, sustainable–a true city of the future. This vision of Phoenix is not of a futuristic city, one that ignores the needs of the rich variety of animals, plants, and people that populate the region. This Phoenix is not a city fashioned out of an overstated American Dream–one in which cookie-cutter homes replace rich and varied desert life with staged lawns and faux siding. No, the Phoenix of the future is a model for the rest of a country.

This is a Phoenix that arises from the ashes of the old, a city with an inbuilt appreciation for the land, plants, animals, and peoples from which it arose. The saguaro forests are honored for the unique homes they provide to a diverse range of living beings. Rather than removing saguaros and replanting them in master-planned communities as “signs” of desert living, we leave the land to reforest itself. People recognize that the desert is not some amenity to compliment their homes but a living process. Likewise, the range of human cultures represented in the Valley of the Sun is of central importance. In this city of the future, the ancient wisdom of the indigenous peoples is recognized. Homes are built in ways that draw on the nourishment of the sun rather than depleting a finite watershed. Phoenix is a place that draws on the wisdom of its many cultural groups to find equitable and sustainable ways of living with one another in the rich and varied Sonoran Desert.

Janine Schipper is an associate professor of sociology at Northern Arizona University, editor of Humanity and Society, and author of Disappearing Desert: The Growth of Phoenix and the Culture of Sprawl.


Phoenix Should Start Planning Now–While It Still Can

If the population of metro Phoenix doubles over the next 30 years, as projected by the U.S. Census Bureau, then it will be almost as large as the current population of Los Angeles. But that does not mean Phoenix will have to look like Los Angeles. And it won’t, if we start planning now and making thoughtful investments in infrastructure, parks, and schools.

Maricopa County and its cities must build commuter rail lines now, while we still have freight rail lines and rights of way coming into the center of the metro area. We need to expand the Metro Light Rail system, linking it to the commuter rail and the bus routes as much as possible. We must also build a high-speed rail line between Phoenix and Tucson. This will diminish traffic and smog, two of the worst problems in contemporary Los Angeles.

Green city parks, with public swimming pools, will be more important than ever as our average temperatures rise. The cities will have to allocate resources to plant, water, and maintain shade trees everywhere possible. We must continue to support public arts to maintain symphony orchestras, ballet companies, and art museums. A comfortable, appealing city like that will attract talented people and innovative companies. They will keep the economy of the Phoenix area strong, resilient, and diversified.

Michael Shelton is the international business development manager of the city of Phoenix.


Phoenix Needs to Develop Differently

The next generation of Arizonans will demand more sustainable, equitable, and healthy communities: good places to live, work, play, learn, and raise their children. Phoenix should be part of this.

Sustainable communities promote in-fill development to build out urban cores; higher densities to preserve open space and increase walkability; mixed-use development connected by mass transit; and support for local businesses. We must diversify our economy and reduce our reliance on housing development as an economic driver.

In this new paradigm, housing must be resource-efficient and located close to transit and jobs. There must be more rental options with services and amenities for students, singles, young families, and seniors who want to age in place. Neighborhoods should create a sense of place and offer access to opportunity to all.

To achieve these goals, Phoenix must change its traditional patterns of development and government–through investment, new partnerships, and cross-sectoral collaboration.

Teresa Brice is executive director of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), Phoenix office.

*Photo courtesy of Sam Howzit.