Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood... — Daniel Burnham
Hard as it is to believe for someone my age, it's been 50 years since construction began on the Space Needle, the iconic symbol of Seattle and the centerpiece of the 1962 World's Fair. Seattle leaders elbowed out much better-known cities, including New York, to gain international accreditation of the event, which was a coming out party to the world for the Emerald City. The site is now Seattle Center, a cultural mecca in the central core right down the monorail from downtown. It was actually Seattle's second world's fair and had initially been developed to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, whose grounds became the University of Washington campus. Another one of my adopted hometowns, San Diego, also held two world's fairs, in 1915 and 1935 — their legacy was magnificent Balboa Park.
My real hometown never did one world's fair, even though it passed the population mark to be a big city more than half a century ago. It may be just as well. Unlike Seattle or San Diego (or even Knoxville, Tenn.), Phoenix would have built something out in the middle of nowhere and, unlike Seattle lucking out with the timeless Space Needle, suffered the worst of modern architecture. Maybe the dusty streets for an empty subdivision would have been left behind. Indeed, I was approached by a group of well-meaning folks in the mid-2000s to promote a world's fair in the former gravel beds of the Salt River. That it was far from downtown never seemed to have occured to them.
Still, this is another sign of Phoenix's astounding lack of ambition. It plays in the majors. It just doesn't want to admit it. I recall hearing from someone who moved to Phoenix and tried, within his modest means, to push forward a project of civic betterment. He was taken aside and told, "People move to the Valley to be left alone. That's the way they like it. You either have to live with that or move." He moved.
The growth machine and its mentality have instead destroyed Phoenix. Urbanist Jim Kunstler has written it off in the Long Emergency of climate change, expensive energy and collapse of the ten-thousand-mile supply chain:
Some newer U.S. cities occupy unfavorable sites, and they will simply go out of business. Phoenix’s fate is sealed: without mass motoring and cheap air conditioning, it will collapse. You can’t grow food in the desert without heroic irrigation, and all their water comes from elsewhere and at great expense.
I'm not quite as pessimistic, but only if Phoenix returns to the footprint of the renewable Salt River Project, creates quality density with lots of shade and as little concrete as possible, and returns to its farming roots while also building a real 21st century economy. It would necessarily have fewer people. But achieving this would require an ambition Phoenix lacks. And a realism: Buckeye and Pinal County are dead as future exurban homes to a million people. Superstition Vistas won't happen. And the continued decentralization of assets will only further hurt competitiveness, sustainability and livability.
When I was a child, the city still had business leaders with real clout and capital; then, the thinking was that somehow things that made real cities would just naturally follow population growth. Now it has 4 million people, yet it is a back-office town, an 800-pound weakling. The big that there is somehow dissipates quickly: ASU is the nation's largest (real) university, yet it can't even support Mill Avenue compared with the "Aves" of other college towns. Chandler is tomorrow's Akron, with the exception being that the tilt-up "fabs" abandoned for new locations in Asia won't have any of the haunting charm of the old factories and railroad yards of the Rust Belt.
I use the Daniel Burnham quote above because it perfectly encapsulates the great city-building spirit of America before suburbia intervened, then the oligarchy went on a 30-year looting spree of the national economy not yet completed. Perhaps it was impossible for Phoenix, coming of age in its peculiar moment in history, to have done better. But I don't buy it. The future was not pre-ordained. The mistakes that led to this horrid cul-de-sac were made one at a time over fifty years. And for every victory, such as light rail (we built it, you bastards), there were a hundred blunders (decades of underfunded transit, sprawl, Desert Ridge, the malignant vampire squid of north Scottsdale, etc. etc.). The lack of pricing in the externalities of population growth (and taxing accordingly), engaging in sensible land-use planning and focusing on the core were especially ruinous. Then there's that sun-baked enervation without parallel — Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, all hot as hell, all bursting with ambition, with boosterism that actually achieves something beyond cheap subdivisions with championship golf.
So Phoenix is left with a large cohort of retirees, frazzled working poor, immigrants to be reviled and kept in their place, all the anger, all the white-right grievances and all the guns. All the budget cuts atop years of insuffcient revenues for such a big place, with the consequences to be seen for decades to come. But no ambition. And thus no sense of urgency for the disasters bearing down on it like a runaway train, much less the gumption to get the hell moving in the direction to save the place.