The sprawling metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona, the sixth largest city in the US, sits at the northeastern edge of the scorching Sonoran desert, and is a poster child for our car-centric development model, with the city and its suburbs stretching for miles across the Salt River Valley.
The city, once an agricultural community that cultivated (and still produces some) cotton, citrus, and alfalfa, enjoyed massive growth thanks to its reputation for mild winter temperatures, its opportunities to expand outward due to the virtually limitless unpopulated areas surrounding it, as well as advances in air conditioning technology, which allowed its residents to thrive despite the high summer temperatures.
But this desert city has also been disparaged for its endless growth of single story ‘strip malls’ and its dependence on massive inputs of water, without which it wouldn’t survive for long, and its residents have increasingly been drawn to the ‘drivable suburbs‘ and away from its once thriving downtown area, leading some to call it “world’s least sustainable city.”
However, Phoenix is looking to revitalize and rebrand itself, not from the suburbs outward, as its growth has relied upon for many decades, but beginning in its downtown core, where it hopes to attract and retain a new cohort of people who want to enjoy the benefits of urban living without the high costs of living and business that plague other city centers. According to the New York Times, “every month or so, the city’s ambassadors are pitching downtown Phoenix to young entrepreneurs frustrated by the high cost of doing business in Silicon Valley.”
To sweeten the urban pot, the city’s recently-passed sales tax measure will fund an extension of the light rail system, a bike-sharing program is in its second year, the bid to bring more university campuses downtown has yielded a huge increase, and the city has been offering developers tax breaks and other incentives to (re)build the urban core.
“I don’t want people to move here because we have great golf courses and cheap homes. What I want is young college graduates from the East Coast moving here, and our college graduates staying here because they see their future here and we have a great urban community.” – Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton
Will these initiatives be enough to recreate a vibrant, walkable and bikable downtown urban area? It’s too soon to tell, but one thing’s for sure, the summers are not getting any cooler down in the Salt River Valley, so any bid to bring more entrepreneurs, startups, and young go-getters will probably also need to focus on creating more shade, and lots of it, in downtown Phoenix.
Image: Jerry Ferguson via Flickr, under CC 2.0