Returning to my family’s home in the suburbs of Phoenix during school breaks is always a pleasant experience: warm weather, familiar faces, free from academic responsibilities. One of my favorite moments of each vacation is the thirty minute descent into whatever city I’m visiting and admiring the expansive landscapes below me. Landing in the trip-state area, I see characteristics of organic growth of a population that has been settled for centuries. In contrast, landing in Phoenix tells the story of carefully planned new development; I see enormous geometric blocks of land, defined by a nearly perfect grid system of roads, extending as far as the eye can see from thousands of feet up in the air.
I wonder though, if this design is not as carefully thought out as I had perceived it to be. One of the main critiques of the recently constructed Phoenix area is its extensive urban sprawl, unrestricted by the vast amounts of cheap, undeveloped land. The Phoenix housing market pre-economy-crash enjoyed a seemingly endless supply of new wealth to be developed. At the peak, greater Phoenix was averaging 60,000 new homes per year– after the crash, 100,000 of these stood empty. The idea of suburbia drew people to this development: large yards, cheap homes, newly implemented infrastructure. However, the speed of the development hardly allowed time to test and understand the effects that this pattern of growth would have in the long run. The Phoenix Business Journal pointed out the negative effects of suburban development on the environment and those seeking to enjoy it; the sprawl makes the “desert experience” less accessible, cutting into the natural landscape and paving over the ecosystem, decreasing prospective tourists’ desires to visit. Locals in the Phoenix area have also warned against the less desirable characteristics of suburban sprawl. Some point out that the extensive system of superhighways does not alleviate congestion, but spread it out, creating further distances to travel in rush hour traffic. Some long for the sense of community that they have experienced in other places, pointing out that collections of single-family homes isolate more than unite groups of people, especially in developments catering to the automobile.
Recently, Arizona officials have been implementing programs to reverse these effects which sprawl has created. They are providing incentive to developers to increase density within areas already built, instead of extending past the outer edge of development. They have also been giving more priority to developments around the light rail in Tempe, trying to adopt a policy of transit-oriented-development. For now, it remains to be seen how this next wave of more targeted development fares for the Phoenix economy, and whether it sticks or is overridden by the continued pattern of the sprawl.