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March 31, 2011

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I really enjoy this blog. I really do. I am here because I have been a fan of Jon ever since he wrote for the Arizona Republic. He was and is one of the very few who have a public voice and ALWAYS speaks "the truth".

However, I face a real personal dilemma when it comes to most of the discussions on this blog.

After 60 years of observing human behavior, I firmly believe that the human species was meant to exist with families in no closer proximity than one family per acre. Anything closer ultimately leads to results like that rat experiment of the 50's and 60's.

I am fully aware that with 309 million rats in this country, my theory is not a real possibility. With the population in this country and around the world, my theory is dilusional. I accept that.

But, it is my theory and I'm sticking to it.

Motivated by respiratory disease and claustrophobia, I'm happily hunkered down in Fountain Hills. Jon may see schlock but I think FH ranks well down the scale.

While I value the concept of a vibrant center and the diversity it attracts, I'm at a life-stage where peace and quiet are the priorities. Our house is right-sized, well insulated, far from the heat island and pretty well shielded from the sun . . so all in all, I'm happy with our choice.
If our circumstances change and force us to relocate to high density cluster living, I'll hope to have an Rx for the requisite "feel better" medication!

Morecleanair:

There's plenty of concrete, asphalt, and stucco in Fountain Hills to keep temps from cooling down at night. Yes, the urban core is warmer, but unless you have a north/south facing house that is well protected from the sun through awnings, sun screens, window tint, frost resistant trees, etc, then the 7 months of hot temps anywhere in the Valley are pretty much unbearable. Apparently, it used to cool off at night in the 50's and 60's in the summer here, but no more thanks to the real estate industrial complex.

It also makes no sense to have East/West facing houses, and two story houses or high rise living in the Valley because that just draws in heat and creates higher energy costs and a negative effect on the environment with 7 months of air conditioning.

Happs: we'd lived in the Valley for more than 30 years, made our share of mistakes and learned from them. Downsized 8 years ago and bought a modest place that took advantage of those lessons. The only wisdom we acquired was acquired through a series of OMG experiences that led us to stuff like a foam roof, low e dbl pane shade screened windows and a high efficiency a/c system with big assed air filter.

Country boy goes to the city: As a tad pole I swam out of the birth canal onto a dirt poor 80 acres in the black soil river bottom of Middle River Iowa just off highway 69 between Des Moines and Indianola. No doctor, no electric, no running water. I immediately began to blow snot as ragweed season was in full fury. Barely surviving hunger and cold at age 10, I made my way to the land of tuberculars. I thought I had arrived at that heaven they kept moaning about in church. I was sure that where I came from must have been that hell they kept screaming about in the same church. I settled down to not blowing snot and discovered there were things you could wipe your ass with besides corn cobs, two red, one white, two more reds, one more white and occasionally a Sears catalog. Of course the boys kept the women’s underwear section hidden away for those needs of release. In the Slope, Sunnyslope, I quickly adapted to selling doughnut holes to the tuberculars at the Wabash trailer court, delivering newspapers and catch and selling every desert creature I could capture, including scorpions to Dr Stanke at ASC. (Now ASU). I have to admit the CITY had some definite advantages over the country. To get something to eat like fish or squirrel you actually went to a building where someone would sell you about anything you wanted for MONEY. In the long run I became a rat dweller and slowly acclimated to living with more and more rats in the box. Due to a testosterone urge I became a father which required me to switch from being a Slope hood to a Phoenix cop. Actually the transition went fairly smooth as after I got out of the academy they put me in Sunnyslope since I knew all the bad guys. The reason for all this bull is that 70 years later I would like to believe Jon and others will be prophetically correct but I got this strange feeling that it’s going to “Collapse” as pointed out by Jared Diamond. After the world population crests at 30 billion and about 2400 and I picture a Mad Max world where there are about ten smoldering cities and in between hunter gathers scavengering the planet to survive. I know this is really a shitty view But then the world needs a few pessimists, so I volunteer!

Jon, I forwarded this piece onto Greg Stanton. Also I had a conversation with Stanton at Urban Bean a few days ago and I asked him if he would welcome you back to the city as an adviser to him if he gets elected mayor. He is a politician so the answer was he really likes you and that was an interesting thought and then he moved onto another topic like how could I vote for him when I was somewhat saddled up to friends of Wes Gullet. My answer cus I can.

Bummer, Phoenix voted most miserable metro area out of 20 cities. Looks like you folks really have your work cut out for you.

Me being the optomist that I am, my take on this is "Yea baby, finally, we won something".

My advise on how to get started: Tell 3,000,000 people in the county that they won a free trip to Disneyland. Once they cross over into California, close the gate, weld it shut. Hang up a "Closed for renovation" sign.

After WWII, Germany (East and particularly West) set about to reconstructing their cities. The bombed-out cathedrals, public buildings and apartment blocks were made whole again with a level of craftsmanship that in retrospect is astonishing. I lived in Bonn in 1971-2, a small city that had been heavily bombed, and marveled how much they were able to do. Many commercial buildings were "modern" but they obeyed the original scale and kept the city's core functionality.

I went back to Germany a few years ago and saw those stunning cities again. Not just beautiful and maintained, but inspiring and exciting. As I was walking through Nuremberg I muttered to myself: now who won that war?

It was all an accident of history, I suppose. America, the new colossus, rich and unchallenged, exercised its bounty of industrial supremacy and destroyed itself for the sake of the new. We took our wealth not to enhance cities but to privatize the American dream: car, suburban house, and shopping center. We then tore down significant parts of our cities and replaced them with freeways, parking garages, inert modernist boxes, and public housing for the underclass. Liberals and conservatives alike were in essential agreement here. We were rich and we could do anything we wanted.

The soul-crushing ugliness and sadness of the American landscape is the legacy of too much, too cheap, and too careless. It wasn't just an aesthetic disaster, either. There's no way we can really know each other through car windows and television. If there aren't public spaces and a visually manifest history, we stop being comprehensible to one another. Our politics becomes neurotic and anxious. And instead of building beautiful cities, we indulge ourselves in lonely bacchanals of overconsumption. We're free to be fat, feckless, stupid, and pampered.

The animated movie Wall-e caught the pathos of this situation perfectly. We were so rich that we recklessly destroyed the planet if only to reward ourselves for being so entitled. We have cars - no need to walk! We have cheap energy - live as far away from others as you like! We have TV - who needs people!

When I was a small child I remember being downtown with my parents. It was evening and we walked through the neighborhood on Roosevelt west of Central. The density and grace of this area was unlike anything I had heretofore known. It was the anti-Sunnyslope, not raw but settled and dignified. There were rules here. You couldn't just build any ugly old thing you wanted. You couldn't just drive by that neighbor you'd prefer not to know. And the spatial relationships were different, closer and more intimate. This was heaven.

soleri,
to be fair, after WWII cities like Cologne, Stuttgart, etc. went on a spree of building disgusting 50s-70s architecture and planning according to 'traffic-accomodating' principles. The results are still visible today: unsociable neighborhoods slit by multilane traffic arteries. Plus there is suburbia, European style, around the cities, also called "flab belts", mostly resembling inner-ring suburbs in North America. But the cores and their historic buildings remain and they are still viable. Also, the desolation of low-density, strip-mallesque development is rare simply because there is not enough cheap space.

Everyone across the Western hemisphere thought it was a good idea to take advantage of the car, which enabled the low-density and 'free-space' kind of development (fuck you Corbusier). The new players in China and elsewhere, informed by pop culture, still think it's a good idea though maybe less so than us.

Greer writes in his latest essay about how much [energy] can be too much. The blessings of plentiful resources can turn to a curse in disguise when the use of those resources exceeds the optimum.
http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2011/03/too-much-energy.html

Americans did gorge themselves on those resources but can anyone really blame them? Anyone would have done so, including the Europeans they descended from. The blame is for missing the multiple turn signals from the 70s onwards and tuning into the Happy Weather Channel of Infinite Growth.

Awinter, I don't disagree. A tourist, of course, is going to see the old city, not the new suburbs, and what you see is really wonderful.

Germans, in particular, love their cars, although they don't depend on them nearly to the same extent we do. There's enough density and transit infrastructure in place that you can live there car-free. Much higher gas taxes help, too.

The suburbanization of Europe is a sad fact. Once the post-war reconstruction was done, the skill-level of craftsmen began eroding dramatically. By the late 50s, monotonous apartment blocks were being built everywhere. The banlieus of Paris are famous, but Amersterdam and Stockholm are filled with these horrors. There's an Italian film, Gomorrah, a docudrama about organized crime, that drives this point home about Naples.

Because Bonn was close to Cologne, I spent a lot of time up there. What sticks in my memory is how the urban scale of the city was tight and made cars not only unnecessary but pretty much a hassle. Seemingly every square block had a corner grocery and bakery. Streetcars were everywhere, needless to say.

I was in Munich for Oktoberfest in 2008 and watched thousands of suburbanites disgorge from trains and walk to the fairgrounds were the event was being held. Nobody drove. The place was jammed with loud and aggressive drunks. Germans are, for the most part, quite civilized but I won't endure that experience again, at least in this lifetime.

One city that intrigued me was Turin. The Italians have a great design sense, which you see in their newer apartment buildings. Construction is masonry so there's less of that jerry-built flavor you get here. The old city is magnificent, a kind of of ode to 18th century rationalism with great city squares and public buildings. Of all the cities I visited, Turin remains the one most indelibly etched in my memory.

Europe had a few hundred years (thousand if you push it) "head-start" on the U.S. in terms of urbanization. The only cities in the U.S. with any true European like city building histories are New York and Boston; probably why they are the truest dense cities in America. On this blog many have discussed the inevitable rise in energy and gas prices, is it not then reasonable to assume that shortly, small-scaled urban communities in old downtowns and Center Cities will be the new Anthems, Verrados, and San Tans? At least that seems to be the case for many in my parents' generation and younger. They decided on a central location rather than a suburban one.


Azreb, I found that new ranking of most miserable metros rather amusing. Seattle was the third most miserable city followed by cities like San Francisco, and Portland...

Jon writes:

“Most (Americans) want their imitation English country estates crowded together as lookalike tract houses in suburbia”

I actually disagree with this. Most Americans would choose a traditionally-designed walkable neighborhood over post-war modernist sprawl without hesitation. Many make the mistake by assuming that just because sprawl is built and “consumed”, that it must be serving people’s preferences well. Sprawl resulted from a combination of government market distortions and the delegation of power to create our built environment to the real estate industry.

Once business-interests were put in charge of city and town building, they – predictably - designed an efficient system of building, financing and regulating using newly-learned principles of mass production. While the assembly-line format produced a miraculous new abundance of everything from toasters to dress shoes and hamburgers, it turned out to not be so miraculous when it came to the vastly more important work of neighborhood building. Our physical society was essentially commoditized.

Don’t mistake supply with actual demand. Shelter is a basic necessity like food, not a “widget” that can serve as a yardstick of consumer preferences. People will buy what is available as long as they can afford it and it meets their basic needs (e.g. safety, schools). Value, not the number of transactions (population growth), is the gauge of demand – and walkable urban real estate is generally much higher priced than unwalkable suburbanism.

Andres Duany has an interesting theory of the origins of NIMBYism. The destruction of nature (think the high-Sonoran around Fountain Hills) for the sake of development, he writes, has always been historically accepted as an “even trade” because society received a town in exchange. Towns were once beautiful and a valued asset. It was when the horror of sprawl replaced traditional town design that people decided that the destruction of nature for development was not a fair transaction.

Traditional neighborhoods constructed by architects and engineers – under the guidance of community supported urban planners (in lieu of untrained, Robert Moses like business managers and traffic engineers) created are truly great places to live. Americans at one time were the best neighborhood builders in the world – we simply need to reclaim what we gave away and relearn what we forgot.

PhxPlanner makes a good point. When DMB was planning Verrado, they surveyed people and were shocked to discover they didn't prefer red-tile-roof hell. They actually wanted something like Palmcroft and Willo. The problem with Verrado, of course, is that it is sprawl and has no real public spaces. Imagine if house-builders filled in central Phoenix with City Beautiful Movement neighborhoods... Some of this actually happened, on the scale and within the aesthetic limitations of today, in downtown Charlotte's First Ward in the 1990s. It began with a Hope VI grant, which Phoenix squandered remaking the Henson Homes into a suburban apartment complex with gravel everywhere.

Jon and PhxPlanner, while running through downtown and midtown neighborhoods I often discover small little unknown places that are never discussed and widely unknown. I ran on 6th Ave south of Roosevelt last night and noticed "Roosevelt Commons." Granted, the dense apartment buildings behind the remodeled bungalows and historic homes aren't architecturally charming or that well built but they seem to integrate well with the neighborhood. I also didn't see any parking until I ran down the block and saw some parking in what was the alley.

Can this new urban form be used to remake the southern area of Roosevelt before the downtown gives way to high-rise sections nearer Van Buren? Similar investments like this rehab, with better apartment/condo design (and a few more floors of apartments, 5-7), would go a long way in reinvigorating downtown. If only the Henson Homes had such a design asthetic…

I'm with AZrebel. When the utopians were extolling the city for the workers it all sounded great. Then the workers got wages they could live on and they fled the cities to the 'burbs. Maybe this says something about US cities or our rural roots (I'm only two or three generations away from farmers).

My brother and I collected toadstools or mushrooms for Dr Stanke once. He lived in our 'hood -- Sherwood Heights (sounds funny typing it out here!).

Does anyone know who the person or organization was who developed the housing scheme where houses were changed in the following manner:

In the "good ole days", houses were built so that activities took place in the front yard. Kitchen windows faced out the front. Mothers at those windows were the watch dogs of the neighborhood. Those eyes never missed anything. Kids were safe. A sense of community existed.

In the "bad ole days" of the present, front yards are for decoration. Kitchen windows face the back yard. Neighbors don't know neighbors. Kids are not safe to play outside.

Who moved the kitchen window from the front to the back? Any ideas? It boggles my mind that moving one room in a house can change a whole society.

soleri, good posts as always, but it begs the question, do we need to bomb Phoenix into rubble in order to redo the place. I know that's not feasible, but it would speed up the process.

Mass depopulation, bulldozers, bombings. So many choices.

Phxsunsfan,

When we completed the urban form plan for Downtown in 2008, the neighborhood you are referring to - “Roosevelt South” - was rezoned to maintain a mostly to a low-rise scale of generally 5 stories or less with strict pedestrian oriented design standards. So the regulations are in place to shape the type of development you are referring to.

As you mention, the elongated blocks in the area bounded by Fillmore, Van Buren 1st and 7th avenues (roughly 60 Acres or ~ 18 blocks) are all zoned high rise - and, obviously, there are is no high rise in this area (and only a handful of buildings worth preserving). So, just in this one section of Downtown, there is probably enough zoned land to supply all high rise demand in your lifetime (and I’m guessing you’re under 40)

The plan for this area calls for the continuation of Taylor mall somewhere around the Bail Bond building north of the Y and continuing to 7th ave , effectively shortening the block sizes andconnecting a larger ASU downtown. If this becomes a reality (and a relocated college of law in this area is a real possibility), it could possibly catalyze more intense development on these blocks.

azrebel,

My neighborhood was built in the early 1950s. The two-bedroom homes have a kitchen that faces the front yard, but the three-bedroom homes face the backyard.

I was blessed to grow up in what are now Willo and Storey, real walkable neighborhoods, with houses and porches facing the street, etc. Kunstler's "The Geography of Nowhere" and "Home from Nowhere" are excellent examinations of our loss of great civic design and how to reclaim it.

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/03/the-conservative-states-of-america/71827/

Pause and reflect on the last paragraph of this short piece by Richard Florida. It should give you a body shiver on this hot day.

The self-fulfilling prophecy in dumbed-down states like Arizona is reduced spending on education and investment in infrastructure and research. That's because dumb voters tend to put their homespun "values" above those real-world considerations. If Phoenix were a genuinely urbane place, this would be less of an issue in Arizona. The average citizen wouldn't care more giving fetuses gun rights than taxing ourselves in an appropriate way for future prosperity.

Azrebel, the way Phoenix eventually implodes is less important than its increasing inevitability. I'm not Nostradamus so I shouldn't guess. Still, in the interest of conversation, I'll predict that 2040 as the date that the census shows a decline in population. Of course, by then it will be obvious that our water resources can no longer support further growth. Climate change will also be obvious, and Mexico will be a failed state. On the other hand, Joe Arpaio will announce he's retiring as Maricopa County Sheriff.

I have loved your work since I worked on the Citizens for Growth Management campaign. If energy is a crucible for the 21st century - and I think it is - then we *must* think about how we get around, how we power our 21st century lifestyle - in cities, in small towns, you name it. Thank you for keeping the focus on these important issues.

"energy is a crucible for the 21st century" - Renée Guillory

True. And those places that built for this inevitability will fare better than those that failed to look forward.

Phoenix was built for 'today'. In the comming tomorrows, Phoenix will learn the real cost of a hot, dry ocean of shoddy, decaying, leaky McMansions.

A Michigan businessman spells it out, and it fits perfectly to the last two posts about Urbanity + Detroit (+ Phoenix):
http://rustwire.com/2011/03/11/michigan-business-owner-soul-crushing-sprawl-driving-us-away/

The older I get the cooler I hear it was at night in the summer: that's not how I remember it, though. I remember summer nights being hotter than a three-dollar pistol on saturday night, lying under the swamp cooler, its damned pads tormenting me with the scent of wet Aspen from the faraway mountains. Rich folks sent their families to San Diego, the rest of us went to the mountains for a week or two. And those summer nights were pure magic, especially if you were out and about. Even swamp coolers couldn't divorce the citizenry from that irrigated, chicken-in-the-yard, freight-train-at-night mockingbird and cicada opera that was old Phoenix. It took AC to do that. It's why I'm a hypocritical, selective Luddite. I'll at least half-heartedly try to kill anyone who tries to take my electricity and indoor plumbing away, but I don't think AC is right or good for Phoenix. Houston, Atlanta, fine, but Phoenix could've been a real Oasis instead. By the way, does anyone know why Upton Sinclair lived in Buckeye? Just asking, cause I sure as hell don't.

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