As a native Westerner, my problem with "wide open spaces" is how many we've lost in my lifetime and how difficult it is to really live in what's left in a nation of 308 million. The constant move outward in metro Phoenix obliterates anything but the illusion. Today's wide vista out the window will be a Super Wal-Mart tomorrow. People who bought in Fountain Hills years ago — a development that annihilated one of the state's most lush saguaro forests, and it takes a saguaro ten years to grow an inch-and-a-half — are now partly surrounded by schlock. Same with Verrado, where the idiot David Brooks saw "the future." Prescott, a town with history and wonderful bones, is a planning and congestion disaster outside the old town. The same is true with Flagstaff, as with most small towns in America.
If you're rich and lucky enough to buy land adjacent to a National Park, maybe your panorama will have the illusion of the pristine, although we know the pollution, fire, sleazy land swaps and other stresses facing our public lands — and just wait for the GOP to privatize it. Move to the staked plains and you can find real emptiness, but good luck finding work. And if I want wide open spaces, do I profane them further with a new house, which by its very nature can't be "green," and total dependence on the automobile? Good luck finding a real, scalable, sustainable small town on a passenger train route.
For these reasons, as well as growing up in central Phoenix and for the eye-opening years I spent living in real cities, I choose to make my stand in the city. And it's a major focus of this blog. Most Americans don't "get" cities; they don't have urban values. Most want their imitation English country estates crowded together as lookalike tract houses in suburbia. The problems with this are manifold. First, the nation's population has doubled since Levittowns were first laid down. Thus, most suburbs suffer from urban problems without urban solutions. Second, they are artifacts of a moment in history defined by cheap gasoline, now passing away. Third, sprawl destroys vast tracts of valuable agricultural land, rural areas and wilderness, with numerous environmental strains. Fourth, for all the heavy subsidies to make suburbia work (freeways, flood control, etc.), it's a highly inefficient spatial arrangement. Suburbia is not merely boring and filled with anomie (American Beauty, etc.), it is now the epicenter of the housing crash, with attendant debt, poverty and very high carrying costs.
Classic American suburbia, the kind of thing built until 2008, has a very limited future. Most Americans just don't realize it yet, although more and more young people do, and even Baby Boomers are choosing to retire in great cities, not Sun City. The nation lost a chance to retrofit parts of suburbia for a high-energy future during the Great Recession, adding transit and trains and dense centers — in the process it would have created millions of jobs.
Europe does cities well. As world population grows, all the action is in cities. Some 136 new major cities are poised to make their mark, most of them in Asia. Getting cities right will be essential to dealing with high-cost energy and climate change, as well as generating innovative, diverse economies, tolerance and — gasp — being centers of culture and civilization. No matter that the planet is at or beyond its carrying capacity, the battle will be won or lost in cities. And within this, it will be won by cities with real downtowns, dense economic and social clusters, high quality of life and abundant transit and rail service.
When I think about it, the urban form of the Phoenix I was born into was pretty good. A real downtown, with concentric circles of neighborhoods, acreages, farmland, citrus groves and flower fields, and then the desert. It had a local economy and could feed itself. If only it could have kept this and built within it. Like most American cities, it was a victim of the car and sprawl (perhaps even worse than most — Soleri's "Lubbock on steroids" is apt). The influence of Robert Moses and his proteges on American cities was poisonous. So was the race and class warfare starting in the 1960s and exacerbated by the triad of sprawl building industries, automakers (GM helped dismantle rail transit across America in the 1930s and 1940s) and oil companies. Only in America would we allow a Detroit to collapse and decay. And across the heartland, beautifully designed cities graced with magnificent architecture fight for their lives.
This may not last. The core cities of the Midwest and east, with their great bones, may be highly desirable as the climate warms and the South and Southwest become more difficult to inhabit. I'd bet Cincinnati has more of a future than Charlotte, whatever the Census shows right now. New generations of Americans may not want the suburbia of their parents and grandparents, something that makes metro Phoenix's gamble on "active retirement living" so risky. This will be more so as the costs of Sunbelt suburbia grow. None of this means "all is lost" for Phoenix. But any sustainable future there will be based on the central city, a smaller population and doing the heavy lifting needed to implement urban solutions and build an urban civilization.
All this is why we talk so much about cities and urban issues on this blog, and will continue to do so.