The big news back home is that Gilbert is now among the top 100 U.S. cities in population. When I worked as a columnist at the Arizona Republic, I would term these highly-played announcements as "growthgasms," an old Arizona obsession in focusing on merely adding people. A closer look at the data show that, in the metro Phoenix depression, they are faking it. Gilbert grew by 1.7 percent in the first year after the 2010 Census. That compared with 90 percent from 2000 to 2010. Any way you slice it, population growth has slowed dramatically in a place that values it above all else.
People are moving much less today because of the bad economy. But the Austin suburb of Round Rock clocked 4.8 percent in the same year and Austin itself grew by 3.8 percent. Denver increased 3.3 percent. Phoenix, which was kicked back a notch to the nation's sixth-largest city added less than 24,000 people, keeping it 67,000 behind No. 5 Philadelphia. Houston, No. 4, added nearly 46,000 residents. Yes, Phoenix was 7th in the top ten in adding raw population, but the numbers were nothing like those seen every year in the 1990s and 2000s, and by percent are below anything seen since the early 1950s and the advent of widespread air conditioning.
Gilbert is technically a "town," allowing it a runaround from many of the responsibilities of cities in the eyes of the state government. And for those who live there, I suppose it's very pleasant: New housing built around large garages in "master planned communities," more than 81 percent white, affluent, heavily Mormon, a fakey little "Old Town," well-financed schools, endless motoring, right-wing politics, chain restaurants, a sham "downtown" (all private property) at the SanTan Village shopping center and relatively low crime. The endless walls facing even modest thoroughfares are telling.
I pointed out on Twitter that Gilbert has little that is city-like to show for its ascendancy to the ranks of cities. The Republic Business Writer Eugene Scott replied, "I've been told by many that those things that fans of cities like us consider assets are not loved by all, hence Gilbert's growth."
Yes, no doubt Gilbert is appreciated as a place, if not in the same way and for the same reasons as central Phoenix, Denver or Seattle. So it's all a matter of taste. Maybe. I have a hard time believing the automobile suburbs of America are landscapes worth caring about — so many are easily abandoned for the next new subdivision. Or that was the mentality before the crash. Except for the large LDS population, Gilbert is Maryvale circa 1966.
Unfortunately, there are deeper problems with most of the "migropolis" suburbs of Phoenix (and most U.S. cities), and some specific to Gilbert. For example, building those massive subdivisions destroyed agriculture that cooled the region and someday might be needed to feed it. Although a huge windfall for the playerz, it was heavily subsidized by freeways that made the land valuable for residential and commercial development. This heavily distorted incentives and land-use patterns. Sprawl is costly, inefficient and damaging to the environment. It prevents more efficient and livable reinvestment in the older urban core. It often, and Gilbert takes the prize, represents white-right apartheid and a breeding ground for extremist politics. If there's a "we" society beyond the garage door or the local stake, it certainly doesn't include different people across metro Phoenix. Indeed, places such as Gilbert are consistently in the veto elite, helping ensure, for example, that no commuter rail happens. That might bring, you know, "those people." And in a metro area with such a limited economy, prosperity for places such as Gilbert comes heavily at Phoenix's expense, even though they would be at sea without the big city's remaining infrastructure and borrowed expertise from Phoenix City Hall staff.
The future will not be kind to most of these places. Economic growth, especially of the trend-setting Creative Class that Richard Florida chronicles, is moving back to cities, especially walkable, diverse, tolerant cities with plenty of energy, quality density and the assets to attract young talented workers. Poverty has become a suburban phenomenon. The moment in history that gave rise to the migropolis suburb is passing, especially when it's not attached to a city with a real and powerful economy.
Sixty-five million. That's the amount the world's urban population grows every year. In China alone, more than 160 cities have populations of more than 1 million. For a few decades, adding people on the cheap seemed a wonderful business proposition for metro Phoenix, especially for its elites that make up the Real Estate Industrial Complex. Yeah, we lost the Japanese Flower Gardens and the citrus groves and much of the city is blighted vacant lots and linear slums (to house the despised but needed workers that prop up the Ponzi scheme). But, hey, collateral damage. I got mine!
That thinking persists at the highest and most humble levels. The more important aspects of creating a competitive, sustainable, livable city for the 21st century are ignored by those with the power to get things done. And they are reviled (SOCIALISM!) by the right-wing which sets the debate in Arizona. Yet the huge costs associated with fast population growth, most of which had been pushed ever forward in time for "somebody else" to fix, are ever more coming due. Mesa's strategy to lure college satellites to its downtown is a beginning. But far, far more must be done, especially realizing that large population increases are more curse than charm. If the hunter-gatherer culture doesn't leave Gilbert as another slum in 20 years, so what? Outside those walls will be forces that even the most "pleasant" place can't keep out.