The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix

The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix

by Grady Gammage Jr.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610916226
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Grady Gammage, Jr. is a Senior Sustainability Scholar at Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and Senior Fellow at ASU’s Morrison Institute of Public Policy. He also teaches at the Sandra Day  O’Connor College of Law and at the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU. Gammage is also a practicing lawyer, a real estate developer, and a former elected official.

Read an Excerpt

The Future of the Suburban City

Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix

By Grady Gammage Jr.


Copyright © 2016 Grady Gammage Jr.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-623-3


Suburbs, Sprawl, and Sustainability

Cities are living organisms. They grow, flourish, wither, and sometimes die. Throughout history, once-robust cities have reached points of economic obsolescence and have declined. Some vanish altogether, like Babylon and Ur. Others, like Venice, become essentially museums of themselves. Some survive, but shrink dramatically — like Detroit or St. Louis.

St. Louis, "the Gateway to the West," was once the greatest boomtown in America. Situated on the Mississippi, St. Louis saw the river as the forever-paramount avenue of commerce in the United States. But it turned out that railroads were more important than the river, and Chicago placed its bet on railroads. In the 1890s, St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in America. In 2014, it was the sixtieth-largest city in America, with about 318,000 people. Today, Mesa, Arizona, has nearly 150,000 more people than St. Louis.

As the world becomes ever more urban, the long-term prospects for the survival of individual cities is often critiqued, ranked, and debated. The term sustainability is the most frequent rubric of conversation. The new cities of postwar America generally fare poorly in these discussions. Built around the automobile and the single-family home, these cities are casually indicted for profligate resource consumption, low-density sprawl, and a mindless addiction to real estate development.

Even before Andrew Ross labeled Phoenix "the world's least sustainable place" in his 2011 book Bird on Fire, the city often served as an exemplar of such a place: isolated, dry, hot, and surely one of the most improbable and therefore least sustainable big cities on earth. Bill deBuys wrote about the city's impending doom from climate change: "If cities were stocks, you'd short Phoenix."

Despite the criticism of the "suburban cities" that arose in the last half of twentieth century America, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Tucson, San Bernardino, and San Diego continue to be among the fastest growing places in the United States. In December 2014, the Economist looked at world cities. In a discussion of the planet's future, the "great urbanisation" (as they spell it) is frequently invoked: a world in which most people live in cities. The point of their analysis is that these global cities are looking increasingly suburban. Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian cities are all experiencing declines in density. Since 1970, Beijing's density has dropped by 75 percent. (Even at that, it is still about five times more dense than places like Phoenix.) Worldwide, the few cities that are becoming more dense are places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, which started out with very low density to begin with.

More than sixty years ago, the late Jane Jacobs examined the plight of American cities in one of the most insightful pieces of urban analysis ever written, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The book is remembered as a screed against the perils of city planning, which she saw as an interference with the natural evolution of cities and the complex and intricate relationships among individual land uses. Today, her book tends to be remembered as a paean to places like Greenwich Village: pedestrian environments with a rich mix of uses; a layered texture of building types, sizes, and ages; and an ongoing generational drama played out in a largely unplanned "ballet of the street." Jacobs would not have liked places like Phoenix. Cities that grew in the latter half of the twentieth century were based not on intricate pedestrian interactions but on the convenience of automobiles. But perhaps Jacobs's greatest gift to thinking about the nature of cities was her application of observational logic to thinking about the way cities evolve, grow, and possibly die. She taught us that cities are the products of millions of individual decisions about how people want to live, to work, to recreate, and to interact. Those individual, incremental decisions are made in a particular context: an economic context as the city grows and matures; a technological context that exists for horizontal or vertical movement at different speeds and varying distances. Cities also evolve in a political context — a determination of how to negotiate the social contract between the needs of society and the rights of the individual.

Jacobs's observational insights were applied to the great industrial cities of America. Such cities were the products of the Industrial Revolution, the invention of the elevator, the streetcar, and the subway, and the employment of millions of workers in high-density production industries. She saw the problems created when those kinds of cities were subject suddenly to countervailing forces like the automobile, the airplane, and a political desire for more centralized planning.

It is possible to apply Jacobs's analytical tools to the cities that grew up later than did her favorite places. The same forces that operated to cause decline in the great cities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also operating to shape the cities of the latter half of the twentieth century. These changing forces dispersed populations that had previously been concentrated. The first, most obvious, and most examined of these urban change agents was the automobile, which made it possible for any given piece of property to be easily accessible with just a dirt road. The automobile served as an agent of destruction to the older industrial cities that had been built around streetcar commuting or pedestrian activity. Cars dispersed cities, causing a decline in the overall population density of older places. The automobile also begat the parking lot, an urban dead zone — hostile to pedestrians, hot, and uninviting.

City populations were also being dispersed by the growing dominance of the single-family detached home as a preferred lifestyle. The individual detached home had long been an aspirational goal of Americans, of course, but as the twentieth century rolled on it became attainable for ever-larger numbers. Together, the automobile and the single-family home would rewrite the nature of American urbanization.

While these forces were operating to disperse the American population, there were simultaneously countervailing forces in operation. The first of these was the rise of air travel as a dominant mode of interurban transportation. When the railroad became the means to getting from one place to another, small- and medium-sized cities were well served by tracks running through town with stops for goods and passengers. Air travel, on the other hand, is a force of concentration. Airports take a lot of room and cannot be too close together. The benefit of travel by air is speed, and landing too often results in slowing down that advantage.

As the American West began to urbanize, the region faced particular challenges that also played out in forces of concentration. The greatest of these challenges was the need to capture, store, and deliver water to particular locations. "Beyond the hundredth meridian," in Wallace Stegner's memorable phrase, where there is less than ten inches of rain per year, water provides an organizing principle, a dominating urban force, a power of concentrating population where water delivery makes a city possible.

These forces of concentration and dispersal, coupled with the advent of zoning and planning played out in the context of postwar American growth, resulted in a different urban fabric. These forces created the suburban city. The Economist's review noted that suburbanization has been blamed on racism, on traditional zoning techniques, on production homebuilding, on television, on air-conditioning, on federal mortgage policies, and above all, on cars. But in examining the global phenomenon, the Economist found that a simpler cause transcended all of these factors: "The real cause was mass affluence. As people grew richer, they demanded more privacy and space. Only a few could afford that in city centres; the rest moved out." An international version of the old real estate maxim, "Drive till you qualify."

Few words in modern America are as emotionally freighted as suburb. The origin of the term may go back to Cicero, who used it to refer positively to areas outside of Rome in which rich patricians built villas. In medieval times, to live outside the walls of a city was to live in an inferior location — the environs of tanning, industry, and prostitution. From their earliest incarnations, suburbs have been seen as both bad and good.

In America, suburbs became the dominant pattern of settlement after World War II. The portion of people living in suburbs in the United States has grown from 31 percent in 1960 to 51 percent in 2010. And despite a genuine trend toward moving back into the city — chronicled by Leigh Gallagher in The End of the Suburbs (2013) — the continued pattern of urbanization in America is increasingly one of suburban form.

From its origin as a simple descriptor of a particular development pattern, suburb and its even more loaded derivative, suburbia, have become words that prompt strong emotional reactions. Sometimes these reactions are positive: the suburbs continue to signify a lifestyle of choice for people seeking a quiet, comfortable residential enclave, a swimming pool and a backyard, and good schools for the kids. But at least as common is a negative emotional reaction — the suburbs as a land of bland, ticky-tacky sameness; of soulless, mind-numbing conformity.

A rich body of American literature forms a kind of "suburban bashing" genre. Authors like James Howard Kunstler describe the suburbs as soul-sucking, formless, anti-intellectual environments that represent the American dream gone off the rails. Movies like American Beauty and The Truman Show satirize and critique the plastic nature of life in the suburbs. Popular musicians from Judy Collins to Arcade Fire portray the suburbs as a place for young people to flee in the hope of having a richer and more rewarding life elsewhere.

On the other hand, authors like Joel Kotkin and Robert Bruegmann have articulated a defense of the suburbs as a continuing demographic trend. While the shift of more Americans back toward a higher-density lifestyle is undoubtedly real, it is still relatively small. Both the United States and the rest of the world continue to "suburbanize."

If the term suburb has both positive and negative connotations, its companion, sprawl, is wholly pejorative. At least since William Whyte's 1958 critique The Exploding Metropolis, "urban sprawl" has been a preeminent iconographic image of the negative consequences of postwar American growth. The term sprawl serves as an indictment of commercial strip development, of the leapfrog nature of automobile-oriented growth, and of the franchising and nationalizing of retail. Bruegmann's 2003 book Sprawl: A Compact History does an excellent job of debunking the notion that sprawl only arrived after World War II. But today the term sprawl is inextricably intertwined with auto-dominated city form.

Today there exists a category of American cities in which the line between suburban and urban is almost impossible to locate. These are cities that boomed after World War II based on single-family homes, shopping centers, and the automobile. While such cities have a nominal "downtown," their "sprawling" development pattern long ago outstripped the capacity of that downtown to be the commercial focus for the city's life. These are the new suburban cities of the United States. Though Los Angeles is actually older and became a big city before World War II, it nevertheless serves as a sort of capital of the postwar suburban cities. Others represent a fairly familiar litany of names: Houston, Dallas, Orlando, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Phoenix.

Any city is, by definition, a concentration of people supported by drawing on a larger geographic resource base. Cities have always been places where farm goods are brought to market. To build any city requires quarrying, mining, and harvesting natural resources from a larger area and transporting them to where people live. Historically, as cities grew larger, the region supporting them expanded. The construction technologies of the late twentieth century raised the relationship of cities and their supporting "resource shed" to a new level. Particularly in the American Southwest, the ability to transport water thousands of miles through canals and pipes and to store it behind huge dams meant that a city could be based on snowfall hundreds of miles away.

The twin hallmarks of the suburban city are the urban fabric built around single-family homes and the automobile, and the need to capture resources from farther and farther away to support an urban population — these two things made such places possible. Yet today, it is these same two factors that lead to the relentless criticism of the suburban city as a kind of giant demographic misstep.

Many commentators dismiss the postwar American city as an unfortunate detour away from higher-density, more traditional urbanism. In this view, the solution to the problems of climate change and more expensive energy is a return to the nineteenth-century city form. This is not an altogether wrong instinct: the postwar American city was built upon cheap petroleum. But we cannot simply abandon the suburban fabric of the last fifty years and wish that things had developed differently.

What happens to these suburban cities in the future? What happens to an urban fabric built not around walking but around driving? What happens to neighborhoods full of large single-family homes as family sizes decline and income levels stagnate? What happens to places that are built upon population growth when growth slows down? What becomes of cities built in places that are hot and dry as the world turns hotter and drier?

When Jane Jacobs wrote about the death and life of great American cities, she never used the word sustainability. Her book was twenty-five years too early for sustainability to be the particular lens through which to examine and critique cities. Today, though, sustainability is the filter through which we view the future. To label a place or practice "unsustainable" is to offer a secular damnation of great moment.

* * *

In a 2006 radio interview on NPR, author Simon Winchester was discussing his book about the San Francisco earthquake, A Crack at the Edge of the World. At the end of his talk, he proposed that there were at least three American cities that "should never have been built": San Francisco because of earthquake faults, New Orleans because of its vulnerability to events like Hurricane Katrina, and Phoenix because "there's no water there." Winchester's off-the-cuff remarks represented one small effort to analyze the sustainability of American cities. For three completely different reasons, he suggested that three particular cities were so unsustainable they should have never been built in the first place.

The term sustainability is generally thought to have originated in the 1987 UN Report Our Common Future. Usually referred to as the "Brundtland Report," it defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of present generations while not compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Hosts of other similar formulations are used in order to lend a kind of "I know it when I see it" familiarity to the idea of sustainability. These include: "Don't eat your seed corn"; "Treat the earth as though we intend to stay"; and Gifford Pinchot's description of conservation as "the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time." Sustainability is sometimes described as three overlapping circles of a Venn diagram where economic performance, social equity, and environmental quality come together and create a sweet spot.


Excerpted from The Future of the Suburban City by Grady Gammage Jr.. Copyright © 2016 Grady Gammage Jr.. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Prologue. Getting Through the Haboob

Chapter 1. Suburbs, Sprawl, and Sustainability
Chapter 2. Just Add Water
Chapter 3. Coping with Heat
Chapter 4. Transportation and the Suburban City
Chapter 5. Houses, Shopping Centers, and the Fabric of Suburbia
Chapter 6. Jobs and the Economy of Cities in the Sand
Chapter 7. Politics, Resilience, and Survival

Afterword. Planning to Stay

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