11/302011

How Does Phoenix Stack Up in the Resurgence of Cities?

By: Taz Loomans

How should we design the city of our dreams, asks Will Doig in his article for Salon.com. He mentions concepts like the transformational shift from cars to bike and rail use, making use of empty lots and rooftop gardens. He talks about the recent resurgence of cities and how this is a time of ‘spectacular innovation’.

Specifically he cites how New York has turned large parts of Broadway over to bikes, benches and cafes. And how Los Angeles is implementing a plan to turn its car-addicted residents into rail-users. He makes mention of the incredible story of how New Orleans is actually tearing down an elevated expressway and replacing it with a tree-lined boulevard that will reunite two historic neighborhoods. And he also talks about how Minneapolis has put in place a citywide bicycle network that has made it the number 1 city for bicycling in the country, despite its unimaginably cold and hard winters.

How does Phoenix fit into this race to be the most livable, the most sustainable and the most attractive city in the country? Well, it seems that we have a ways to go, but the good news is that we are asking the right questions.

We are finally starting to question our car-centric city and looking towards other models of not only transportation, but of lifestyle. Who would have thought that Light Rail would be as successful as it is in Phoenix, a place where we are very much addicted to our big cars, ample parking spaces and wide streets.

Are we ready to tear down a highway and replace it with a tree-lined boulevard in Phoenix like they did in New Orleans? No. I don’t think we’re even ready to put a stop building new highways much less tear any down. Slowly (very slowly) though, with the advent of the Light Rail, people are starting to see new possibilities for the city that don’t revolve around the automobile.

With the first time full-time Bicycle Coordinator in the City of Phoenix, Joseph Perez, we are finally looking at improving bicycle infrastructure, some promising steps being the development of the Bicycle Boulevard, the proposed road diet on Central between Camelback and Bethany Home and the new bicycle parking corral at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market. Phoenix recently even got an Honorable Mention for being a bicycle-friendly city whereas in the past, we didn’t make it on the list at all.

The Light Rail has stirred up interest in other types of rail in the Valley too, most notably the Grand Avenue Rail Project, a project the proposes to bring back the historic streetcar to Grand Avenue. And we’re even making progress on putting empty lots to use with great demonstration projects like The Valley of the Sunflowers.

Doig brings up a very good point in his article which is that all this innovation, this movement towards more livable cities has only priced out the poor from enjoying the improvements and created a deep economic divide. He says, “The dirty secret of our urban rebound is that today’s cities are more economically segregated than they were in the ’70s.”

This issue of social equity and whether everyone, including the poor, are benefiting from improvements the city is making is very real here in Phoenix. It’s a big part of what Andrew Ross complains about in his book, Bird on Fire Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, saying that only the rich are living the clean, green lifestyle with their Priuses and ample green spaces while the poor are left with pavement and food deserts.

We may be able to take advantage of the fact that we are a little behind the eight ball here in Phoenix and incorporate social equity early in our quest to being a more sustainable city. An extension of the Light Rail to South Phoenix would be a great start, along with looking at how to mitigate urban heat island effect in the poorest parts of town which tend to be havens for concrete and ashpalt pavement. One major step in the right direction is the Sustainable Communities Fund which is looking to help develop mixed income and affordable housing along the Light Rail so that people of a wider range of income can benefit from the amenity.

Doig concludes by saying that “cities tend to decline similarly but succeed in their own unique ways.” If we are to rise to the top as one of the best cities in the country, our job here in Phoenix is to embrace our unique qualities, have pride in ourselves and build on those qualities. We could become a great hub for urban innovation, especially around solar power, retrofitting suburbia, and infill development but first we need to overcome business as usual thinking that has led to such recent missteps as suburban City North and automobile-oriented Cityscape and embrace new approaches that have brought us the Downtown Phoenix Public Market and the emergence of a vibrant Roosevelt Arts District in Downtown.

Read Will Doig’s full article How Should We Design the Cities of our Dreams?

Photo Credit: Photo by the author.

2 Responses

  1. Phil Allsopp says:

    Timely article for sure…..its part of the growing recognition (certainly by “younger” age groups) that we have to actually DO some radical things to transform urban areas we inhabit in the greater Phoenix region. Its going to take a lot more than the usual “build-it-and-they-will-come” real estate plays. Its going to take – at the core – innovation. The process, the ideas, the culture of innovation have to be embedded in the genes of every community and every organization living and working in our region. Its what I do for a living so maybe I’m a bit biased, but if we don’t step aside for a while from the production-line, profits-at-all-costs juggernaut we’ve been on for a century and a half and take stock of what quality of life actually means, our region may indeed remain far less sustainable than our political and business leaders might imagine.

    If we can begin to tap into the creative energies of our communities and the engineers, physicists, artists, families and designers living there who are all itching to DO something, then we could indeed embark on the wholesale and long-overdue re-shaping of our own human habitats so they measurably support the diverse range of endeavors in which we are all engaged. Right now, our habitats are shaped by the regulations we’ve established to make driving around in a car as convenient as possible. Result? Inhospitable environments that are toxic to humans and frankly dangerous places in many instances. Just look at the intersection of Thompson Peak and Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard. 125ft wide streets designed for high speed traffic, little if any shade and certainly no place for bicycles.

    The US ranks 23rd in the world as far as privately-owned cars per 1000 population. Yet other cities in other countries with higher densities of automobiles actually provide far more transportation choice – and more humane, walkable places – than we do. Maybe its why so many Americans choose to vacation in those cities. But I still find it odd that those travelers who speak so eloquently about the fabulous places they’ve just spent a week or so hanging about in, refuse to countenance changing our own cities to be as vibrant and as exciting.

    I think we do stand a chance of transforming the auto-centric sprawl of this region into a far more economically and environmentally diverse and human place. But we’ve got to start thinking and acting differently as well as apply pressure on city governments to ease up on the auto-centric highways regulations so that we stand a chance of thriving in our harsh climate when we aren’t behind the wheel of a car.

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