Imagine living in a place where this is an everyday occurrence:
I was in Barcelona a little more than a week ago where public spaces full of people of all ages recreating are just a matter of course. This along with the great transportation options, including everything from heavy to light rail to buses to bike sharing to a fantastic pedestrian environment, make this and other European cities an urbanist’s dream come true.
In the past, when I have returned from overseas travels to world-class cities like Barcelona, it would take me weeks to get over the depression caused by the fact that I lived in Phoenix, not in those vibrant, beautiful, historic, and people-friendly cities.
But this time, I noticed something about Barcelona. I noticed that everyone was dressed relatively the same way, they conformed to a certain broad style. I didn’t see very many people with tattoos or people who had an overtly funky sense of style. I noticed that the established tradition and culture, however beautiful and rich it may be, was very strong and that, in a way, stifled individual expression and creativity.
Furthermore, the fact that Barcelona is nearly perfect in many ways, makes it almost impossible for any one person to have a significant impact, to have her voice heard or to make her mark. This is not to say that Barcelona and cities like it aren’t able to change and improve with the times. For example, in Seville, I saw a cutting edge recycling and conservation campaign, as well as a remarkable bicycle path network and a robust bike sharing program. It turns out that European cities are quite nimble when it comes to adopting sustainability strategies on a government level, much more so than most American cities, and certainly more so than Phoenix, which is hampered by one of the most conservative, anti-regulation, and anti-sustainability State governments in the country.
I noticed how happy I was to be getting back to Phoenix, which, compared to Barcelona and the other Spanish cities I visited, is a blank slate. It lacks the strong culture and tradition that is present in Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba and Seville. There are definitely some negative consequences to this vacuum, but on the other hand, it makes Phoenix one of the most creative and experimental cities in the world. In place of a tradition that has evolved over hundreds of years, there is a culture of invention and self-expression in Phoenix, which is unparalleled in every major city I’ve visited including London, Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Johannesburg and Mexico City.
Yes, Phoenix is plagued with empty lots, but I understand now, more than ever, why William McDonough said that these lots aren’t empty, they are full of possibility. Our vacant lots are emblematic of our city as a whole. Phoenix, in some ways, is one giant empty lot full of possibilities. There is so much work to be done here, and we all know that change is not going to come from the top down. The onus is on us, the residents of Phoenix to make our mark, to make our voices heard, and to build the city that we want to see.
We are on the ground floor when it comes to Phoenix, you see. Right here, right now is ground zero and this is what makes Phoenix the perfect place for entrepreneurs, creatives, activists, and anyone who wants to think outside the box. There is no glass ceiling, no strong tradition or good ol’ boys club dictating how funky or creative you can get. Our city, devoid of a strong culture, is a great petri dish for new ideas.
The Great Recession has paved the way even more so for creatives to make their mark. No longer is outward growth the dominating conversation in Phoenix. Downtown revitalization, transit-oriented development, temporary use of vacant lots, and infill development are now terms we hear all the time and what we are seeing unfold before our very eyes.
This is a very exciting time to be living in Phoenix. Let’s seize the day and build our city from the ground up, learning from the great cities around the world, but at the same time embracing our uniqueness and creating our own inimitable identity.
Photo Credit: A sidewalk cafe in Seville. Photo by Rosemine Khatri, my sister and companion on our recent trip to Spain.