Sackcloth was donned and teeth were gnashed on Facebook with the news that Taz Loomans was decamping from Phoenix for Portland. Loomans described herself as "an architect, a writer and an advocate for sustainable building practices and community-oriented design in Phoenix. I love living in Central Phoenix and taking part in the coming of age of this city." She was one of the people who gave hope to the Resistance. Now, however, she writes:
During this emotionally turbulent year, I have had the privilege to travel quite a bit. In fact, as I write this, I am in the Bay Area on a new years trip. I visited some world class cities this year such as Barcelona, Chicago, Portland New York and now San Francisco.
These trips have also changed me and the way I look at the world. Whereas before I was happy to help build Phoenix into a world-class city, I now want to find out what it feels like to live in a world-class city. Before, I wanted to help bring bike lanes, urban gardens, community and walkability to Phoenix. Now I want to live a life where those things are a part of the culture and are woven into the fabric of the city. In my travels, particularly this year, I’ve found that there are quite a few places in the country, and no doubt in the world, where this is true.
I’m moving not so much because I’ve lost faith in Phoenix, but rather because different things are important to me as I go through a personal evolution...But it’s still a tough place to build on previous progress and get to the next level. The city’s penchant to tear down old buildings and build new ones in their place is a perfect metaphor to how Phoenix always seems to be starting from scratch (apropos, perhaps, because of it’s name), and just can’t seem to build enough sustained momentum to become a world class city.
So continues a steady brain drain. One thinks of Nan Ellin and Yuri Artibise, among many others, who tried and moved on.
Alpha (and beta) global cities share certain characteristics. They are dominant centers of the world economy, with the ecosystem, clusters, whatever you want to call them, that go along with such stature. As Wikipedia puts it, "the most complex of these entities is the global city, whereby the linkages binding a city have a direct and tangible effect on global affairs through socio-economic means."
The metropolis is the critical player in today's global economy, more consequential in many ways than the state, county or even nation-state. Metros produce most of a nation's gross domestic product (making our urban-rural political divide all the more toxic). The alpha and beta cities are the most powerful of all. They disproportionately create wealth and draw wealth from places such as, well, Phoenix. PricewaterhouseCoopers examines the leading world powerhouses in its Cities of Opportunity report. In the United States, below New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, a strong case can be made for Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia and Seattle.
The world-class city has real corporate headquarters, renowned universities, prominent skylines, high quality of life and is very connected to the world through its economy and cultures. It is a magnet for the world's highest-skilled talent. It is where the decision-makers and innovators live and work. It often controls and is always a massive beneficiary of capital formation. It has a real downtown and is dense, served by good mass transit. It boasts eminent cultural assets. Wages are high. Other characteristics include tolerance, progressive politics and many locally owned small businesses. A world-class city is all these things and more. (And sure, they have malls, suburbs, golf courses and freeways, too).
Needless to say, Phoenix is not one. It has never aspired to be. The governing philosophy, if it could be called that, was to add population like crazy and hope the rest would follow. When it didn't, the answer became, essentially, "it's sunny and it is what it is, so shut up or leave." And people do. One of the astonishing aspects of metropolitan Phoenix is its population churn: Thousands come, but thousands leave, too.
The problem with decades of low expectations is that Phoenix is a huge metropolitan area, with all of the associated carrying costs and competitive pressures, without the attendant economy.
So even though many Phoenicians just want to be left alone in the sun, the economic, social and now climate challenges keep growing. Some of the consequences of inaction or regressive policies are low wages, a vast underclass, starving arts organizations, poor schools, etc. To this has been added the intolerance and extreme politics that drive away talent, young people, high-skilled immigrants and quality capital investment. Phoenix is like a 300-pound boxer that can barely punch at bantam level.
Seattle can claim two global-alpha prizes with its aerospace and software clusters, as well as one that's fast emerging in the field of world health thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is the headquarters of such giants as Amazon.com, Microsoft, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Paccar, Alaska Air Group and Boeing Commercial Airplanes. In addition, outfits such as Google, AT&T and Intel have large research and development centers here. Seattle and nearby Tacoma are major ports in a state that is among the most powerful trade players in America. Seattle also has one of the nation's top biotech/biosciences centers. It is blessed with wealthy stewards who reinvest in the city. No wonder that Seattle was ranked the fourth leading city in the world for startups. It is the sixth most productive metro in the nation. Looking at global "hot spots" among competitive cities, The Economist Intelligence Unit released a survey looking at 31 indicators: Seattle stood at 29th worldwide, including No. 8 in human capital. The Urban Land Institute named Seattle one of the most attractive real-estate markets for 2013. Phoenix didn't make any of these lists, including (ouch) the last one. And these are gold-standard rankings, not the click-bait one finds all over the Internet.
Portland is not in this league. It doesn't want to be (Seattle is very ambivalent, too, with many "Small Seattle" activists). Portland is very livable, an urbanist's dream, high-quality economy, great energy, civic stewardship, welcomes eccentricity (The television show Portlandia and unofficial motto "Keep Portland Weird"). It has the quality urbanism that is drawing young people (and they don't go there to retire). Like Seattle, it is highly sustainable, with nearby agriculture and even better transit. Portland offers many lessons for quality city building. And, yes, if you choose, it has suburbs, malls, freeways.
Someone on Facebook asked, "can a city be a good city without being world class?" I'm tempted to simply write: "Yes! Portland shows how it can be done." But Phoenix is too populous and spread out to be a Portland. Instead, Phoenix is a somewhat larger metro area than Seattle or Minneapolis. My sense: At that scale a place is competing in the world-class arena whether it wants to or not. It must be reaching for and sustaining world-class achievements or falling back.
Such leaders that exist, and many average Phoenicians or "Valley residents," think everything is fine. Most would recoil from the examples of Portland and Seattle (SOCIALISM!!). In place of serious discussions — and action — about intelligent responses to the critical challenges facing the metro area, there's happy talk, defensiveness and "You Hate Arizona." A place that seems to beckon "you can do anything!" on the surface, it's potential so obvious, turns out to have severe constraints if you seek to do more than go along with the status quo. As a sun-loving, golf-playing real-estate lawyer told me years ago, "Phoenix is OK if you don't take it seriously."
Everything is not fine. Things are not mostly fine, OK or good enough. The status quo is killing Phoenix's future. I've written about responses for more than a decade. Some progress has been made, but it's agonizingly slow as the world keeps moving faster. Amid the torpor, most action continues to favor destructive sprawl and Balkanization — suburbs against city — building freeways and trying to restart a "growth machine" Ponzi scheme that should be utterly discredited.
No wonder it beats down even the young optimists. I learned very young that Phoenix is a heartbreaker.