I flew to San Diego for Christmas, and had a two hour layover in Phoenix. I’ve made the same trip many times, but it’s remarkable how spending six months reading about urbanism can change a perspective.
Phoenix has long baffled me. While many major cities are situated along major waterways or other advantageous geographical features, Phoenix sits deep in a landlocked desert. My one visit to the city as an adult left me with the impression that it was a miserable, sprawling city, borrowing from the worst elements of Las Vegas and Southern California hyper development. (Here, here, and here is some additional reading on the city.)
So why is Phoenix a big city? More specifically, why is it bigger and more financially successful than the urban corridor along the Wasatch Front (or, the Ogden-SLC-Provo metro areas)?
There are a lot of historical, political and other reasons for Phoenix’s success — and I wouldn’t want Utah to be plagued by the kind of sprawl that has made Phoenix miserable — but flying over both regions this weekend, one thing stood out: space.
Whereas Phoenix looks like a big, sprawling expanse of light at night, the Wasatch Front looks more like a ribbon. Obviously, this says a lot about the financial situations of these regions; Phoenix’s success has allowed it to grow (or, sprawl) more than cities in Utah. But it also raises a sort of chicken-and-ege scenario. After all, cheap and fast construction in places like Phoenix were one of the things that bolstered the economy there, and then laid them low.
In other words, Phoenix’s geography was ideal for sprawl, which fueled a kind of economic growth.
That didn’t happen in Utah — or rather, it happened on a much smaller scale. As a result, we’ve had less quick economic growth, but now have the potential for more dense, sustainable communities. Today, our region looks like a narrow ribbon of light when viewed from above at night. What might have seemed like an economic disadvantage five years ago, now means we have a chance to avoid the mistakes of Phoenix — both architecturally and economically.
Unfortuanately, Utah cities can’t really look to wonderful places like Seattle as examples of growth. Our geography simply is too different. However, Phoenix offers an interesting example of how to achieve commercial success, as well as how not to build a phyiscal infrastructure.