Phoenix had perhaps the worst luck of any major American city from the standpoint of urban design and civic beauty. It came of age in a huge spurt of growth after World War II. The City Beautiful Movement was forgotten. Suburbia, automobiles and long single-occupancy car trips moved to the center of American life. An old city still exists -- what wasn't torn down by City Hall from the '70s through the '90s -- but it's not much and most Phoenicians don't even realize it exists. When I lived in Willo, it was always painfully entertaining to be picked up by the airport shuttle, already full of people from the suburbs. They were giddy over the front porches! The shade trees! The old houses and walkable neighborhood and closeness to the center of the city! I learned that their real-estate agents had never even showed them this part of the city.
Suburbia wasn't always, as Jim Kunstler would put it, a cartoon landscape not worth caring about. Willo was once a suburb on the streetcar from a compact Phoenix. In Cincinnati, there's the magical Mariemont, a leafy "planned town" from the 1920s, which accommodated the American longing to "get out of the awful city," while creating a real community and a real human space worth caring about. It was accessible by car but also -- especially -- by streetcar and interurban railway to downtown Cincinnati. Now the latter two are long gone as America has embraced a life with fewer choices.
A large number of people in metro Phoenix and a majority of the Anglo middle class live in something altogether different -- a radical enterprise that has transformed civic life, urban form and even democracy: the "master planned community."
The "master planned community" differs substantially from ordinary single-family house construction -- even relatively large subdivisions, such as Maryvale in Phoenix or the blond-brick tract houses on the west side of the Sauerkraut Curtain in Cincinnati. Both those are organically part of their city. The "master planned community" -- I use quotes because it is a meaningless, feel-good marketing term -- is deliberately separate from its city, with profound and malignant consequences.
Imported from California (of course) in the late 1970s, these massive real-estate ventures promised hefty development fees to the cities to which they were nominally attached. But in exchange, the developers received tremendous latitude and powers in everything from usurping traditional roles of elected government to setting deed covenants to keep the area "upscale." I.e., segregated. Governance would come more from the developers and the so-called homeowners associations -- which gained standing before the law -- rather than from city councils. Among the first were McCormick Ranch (then larger than the extant city of Scottsdale), The Lakes in Tempe and Arrowhead Ranch, built on the citrus farm of Goldmar, partly owned by Bob Goldwater and family, and at the least on friendly terms with mobsters. Goldmar would play heavily in the 1976 Arizona Project by Investigative Reporters and Editors, following the bombing death of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.
The "communities" are different in other ways as well: scale -- they're usually huge; sprawl -- they often leapfrog out beyond the existing urban footprint; environmental degradation, both based on their size and the practices of some of their kingpins (George Johnson in Pinal County, for one), and highly questionable water supplies in many cases, especially of the newer developments begun or planned. Enjoy rapidly rising summer temps that last until Thanksgiving and lack of nighttime cooling? Thank "master planned communities" and the loss of citrus groves, farm fields and natural desert (not gravel) they obliterated.
They are death to real community. I remember speaking at a consultant's meeting to "blue sky" the future of Buckeye. A planner from Mesa said something to the effect of, whatever you do, please avoid master planned communities. In practice, these powerful development companies and the "master planned community" they leave behind hold enormous veto power over city hall and elected government. Yet the sheer size of the ventures imposes ongoing costs on the public that were never covered by the initial development fees paid the greedy politicians. Much of Mesa is hamstrung by "master planned communities." If Buckeye ever reached the ambitions of its boosters, it would be little more than a mass of these gigantic, semi-autonomous developments, each cut off from the other by walls, resulting in no real city.
Residents of "master planned communities" are by design separated from their nominal cities, both physically and psychically. I remember reading of the fairly routine abduction of a child or teen in Gilbert or Chandler and thinking, "That would be much less likely here in the historic districts, because we have houses with windows and porches facing the streets, and we know each other." The newer construction consists of roads, walls, garage doors and a focus on the "Arizona room" inside and the pool in the back. Shopping is a long drive to the mall, not a walk down to the corner retail district as in nearly every neighborhood of Seattle. Cul-de-sacs and few entry points keep the "community" separate from the community. Long roads wind through alongside subdivisions with nothing on either side but walls.
"Master planned communities" outlaw public spaces. This is on embarrassing display at Verrado, where the New York Times' clueless suburban apologist David Brooks saw, a la Lincoln Steffins, "the future." Verrado sought to mimic the feel and design of the Phoenix historic districts. Even now, on a Google search, it oddly promises "downtown Phoenix Arizona homes." Unfortunately, Verrado is about 30 miles from downtown Phoenix, a leapfrog "master planned community" that is nominally part of Buckeye. (And good luck with that, because such leapfrog development leaves the hapless house buyer to commute partly on rural Interstate -- because the developer sure as hell isn't going to pitch in for a wider freeway, much less commuter rail). What is most striking about Verrado is its town center "park." But it's not a public park. It's privately owned, existing only as part of commerce. No homeless person can loiter there, as he or she can in, say, Encanto Park. The central cores of real American cities must serve as the last resorts for the castaways of multitudinous suburbs.
It would be bad enough if these dreary developments were merely soul-deadening, socially isolating and a driver of a dysfunctional society. But, as noted above, they have tremendous power over city government, short-circuiting democracy, through deals negotiated by savvy developers years or decades ago. The power extends to the house-owners, too, as anyone who has tried to use an "unauthorized" paint scheme or even display an American flag has found. Throughout the Sun Belt, "Master Planned Communities" have been ground zero in the catastrophic housing bust. Highly profitable in good times, they were ideally suited to a moment of large, consolidated house builders, a world awash in capital for real estate and cheap gasoline. Now the unbuilt or partially built-out "masters" are busted dreams and public liabilities. They are foreclosure central. Their unfinished houses are stripped of copper and aluminum by thieves like something from the Third World, the big promises of developers dust in the mouths of struggling municipalities. The infrastructure costs of the leapfrog developments pushed out into the future remain a drag on state and local taxpayers long after the real-estate sharpies became wildly rich.
This is the dominant form of development in Phoenix. Millions file unquestioningly in and out of its dead ends every day. The dreamers in the Real Estate Industrial Complex imagine millions more living that way in Buckeye, Maricopa and the rest of Pinal County, Superstition Vistas in huge "Master Planned Communities" yet to come...Please, God, give me one more boom...
Yet even now some of the older "master planned communities" are starting to inevitably morph into linear slums -- this is what happens when you have a low-wage, low-quality economy, a devil-take-the-hindmost society. They will be particularly resistant to retrofitting for transit or walkable neighborhoods with close-by retail -- things that will be demanded by a higher-cost energy future and a talented cohort of people who don't want lives of garage doors and endless driving (or even championship golf!...whatever the hell that means). If you think central Arizona has the water to support "master planned communities" for another 3 million or 6 million fools from the snow...well, I have some land to sell you.
They are indeed dead ends. Walled off. Unsustainable. So very 1970s. And defining much of metro Phoenix. Perhaps the best outcome can be an orderly retreat to a sustainable core city, with the "communities" bulldozed and returned to the farmland, groves, (real) ranches and desert from which they sprang. The cooling and close-by food supplies will be badly needed.
Think Phoenix has no history? Read the entire Phoenix 101 series here.