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Thread: NPR Piece on Phoenix

  1. #1

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    NPR Piece on Phoenix

    Phoenix Grows and Grows by Ted Robbins

    Morning Edition, March 13, 2006 Everybody seems to be heading to Phoenix. But why? The heat is intolerable in summer, it has no defining cultural tradition or obvious reason for existence. But people keep coming. People are bringing with them some of the same problems -- rising costs and traffic jams -- that they came to Phoenix to escape. This is the first of a three-part series.
    [URL="http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5259268"]

    FYI - listened to the 1st segment this morning; two interviews in the piece reflected the debates played out on these pages - one was from a planning prof @ ASU who made the case for infill and Phoenix's need for a city core - the other was Krotkin who dismissed it all saying "people like things to be spread out."

    Personally, I thought the most revealing quote was from Arizona historian Marshall Trimble, who predicted that because of Phoenix's "heat island effect" there'll will be a day soon that the temperature doesn't drop below 100.

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    Cyburbian dobopoq's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Miles Ignatius
    ....Personally, I thought the most revealing quote was from Arizona historian Marshall Trimble, who predicted that because of Phoenix's "heat island effect" there'll will be a day soon that the temperature doesn't drop below 100.
    I heard the piece too. That guy also said the average nighttime low temperature had risen like 17 degrees or something since when he was young.

    I also heard that over 90% of the city was built after 1950, and it recently passed Philadelphia as the nations fourth most populous city.

    I plan on catching part's 2 and 3.
    "The current American way of life is founded not just on motor transportation but on the religion of the motorcar, and the sacrifices that people are prepared to make for this religion stand outside the realm of rational criticism." -Lewis Mumford

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    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Doesn't Phoenix have a fast-growing economy? Doesn't it have a relatively low cost of living and low taxes? Quality of life is just one consideration among many, and the most important consideration is probably finding a decent job and being able to support a family for most people. I'll admit I don't know much about the Phoenix area but perhaps this NPR piece is overlooking these issues. I especially don't like the inference that people have total choice over where they live, especially given the current business culture but this is just NPR elites being out of touch wioth the mainstream I assume

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    Cyburbian Plus dandy_warhol's avatar
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    i lived in/around Phoenix for awhile in 1998. while i enjoyed Phoenix as a whole (i even survived a summer there!!) i support the case for infill development. while i was in Phoenix i worked at the America West Arena and i was amazed that on a saturday afternoon you could walk around downtown Phoenix and the only thing that was open was a Subway restaurant! i couldn't believe it. i disliked how spread out everything was because you had to use your car for everything. and because everything is so spread out you had to drive for an good bit of time to get any place. an hour commute seemed commonplace.

    i would've liked to hear the NPR piece on Phoenix.
    In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. -Martin Luther King Jr.

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    Quote Originally posted by dandy_warhol
    i would've liked to hear the NPR piece
    DW - You should be able to get it at the URL I posted for NPR's site at the beginning of the thread...

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    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Yup...

    Being new to the Arizona scene, I can tell you that this planner is worried not only about Phoenix, but also Las Vegas These two cities have got to stop the sprawl! The only thing standing in their way is BLM land and limitations on sewer/water pipe construction The most dangerous event taking place now is the massive appreciation of housing cost in the Phoenix and Las Vegas areas It just isn't healthy to have double digit appreciation (year after year) in a major metropolitan area, ala South Florida and California and Denver Colorado in the 90's. But I agree that if the quality/quantity of jobs can remain high for long enough, it will be able to continue into the near future. I just hope BLM doesn't continue to buckle under the big developer and cookie cutter bull dozers
    Skilled Adoxographer

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    Member crisp444's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller
    Doesn't Phoenix have a fast-growing economy? Doesn't it have a relatively low cost of living and low taxes? Quality of life is just one consideration among many, and the most important consideration is probably finding a decent job and being able to support a family for most people. I'll admit I don't know much about the Phoenix area but perhaps this NPR piece is overlooking these issues. I especially don't like the inference that people have total choice over where they live, especially given the current business culture but this is just NPR elites being out of touch wioth the mainstream I assume
    Hilldweller, I enjoyed this post as well as many of your past posts. Many persons within the intellectual elite simply do not want to believe things the way they are in reality. There are so many uber-educated people that are convinced that the only reason people live in the suburbs is because they can't afford the central city and that all suburbanites feel trapped in their gated communities and hate it there. To them, it is unimaginable that some people WANT to live in spread out communities with yards and attached garages. To them, it is unimaginable that the average person DOES NOT mind driving 10 minutes in the car to a supermarket. A suburban, auto-centric lifestyle just does not fit into the dense/pedestrian/urban ideal - which is just an ideal for certain people and not everyone! If you were to show everyone in the world a picture of a 2 bedroom Manhattan apartment (worth 1 million USD) and then a picture of a 4 bedroom McMansion ($500,000 USD) in the suburbs with two SUV's in the driveway, I would most definitely guess that the overwhelming majority would prefer to have the suburban McMansion. The truth is that not everyone wants to live in the central city. That is only what the intellectual elite wants us all to think.

    I constantly put myself in arguments with my "intellectual elite" friends who think I'm crazy for liking places (you will know these) like Weston and Boca Raton, Florida. Although I live in central Madrid now and live a pedestrian/publictransportation-centered lifestyle, once I have kids I would most definitely consider living in an upscale gated community suburb like many in South Florida. I have met very few intellectual-elite types who can comprehend the fact that I appreciate both central city Madrid and Boca Raton at the same time!

    I agree that Phoenix needs to make more of an effort to control sprawl and improve its network of public transportation. However, as long as the job market is growing and the cost of living is low, more and more people will move to Phoenix and more and more suburbs will be constructed. People don't move to suburban Phoenix to be in the city, they move their to buy an affordable home and take advantage of the strong job market. Like many issues, the NPR elite is out of touch with what people want and what motivates them to take actions such as moving to Phoenix. Honestly, I think the "Phoenix is facing a disaster because of all of its sprawl" problem is not a problem in the minds of most people who actually live in Phoenix - it is a problem in the minds of liberal elite who see their urban ideal failing in that city. I lived in South Florida for 95% of my life and for years compared what the liberal elite said to what I observed in my home metropolitan area - as sprawly and immense as South Florida is, most people seem to really like it there and do not see sprawl as a problem. Nowdays, for Las Vegas and Phoenix, the problem once again seems to be in the minds of an elite minority and not a tangible issue for the overwhelming majority.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    Very interesting thread so far. And I really hate to take this somewhat off-topic.. but why is Phoenix considered such a "sprawling" city? For that matter, why do people say that about Southern California? If the definition of sprawl is that people live in houses instead of high-rise condos, then it makes sense. But as Crisp said, when it comes down to it, most of us will take the four-bedroom home in the suburbs for the same price as a one-bedroom condo downtown. It doesn't mean we don't like urban areas, but it does mean some of us do feel claustrophobic in too tight of quarters.

    To me, the true sprawling cities are places like Minneapolis-St. Paul, where suburban lots routinely are an acre, and there's massive amounts of undeveloped space between suburbs -- in many cases, you can drive through several miles of forest or corn fields and still be in the urbanized metro area. Another example would be Atlanta with their huge lots. And I'm not saying it's good or bad -- personally, I don't like some of the problems that come with this kind of sprawl, such as being 20 minutes or more away from a grocery store by car, or the increased issues of allergies with that much undeveloped space (ragweed, trees, etc.). But I know there are many who do, and I respect that.

    But Phoenix, like SoCal, tends to have very dense housing by the standards of single-family homes. Look at Google Earth -- look at a new suburban area of Phoenix, then look at Atlanta. In Phoenix, most developments adjoin current development, housing is fairly closely packed, yards are not that big. A 1,000-home development in Phoenix probably takes up a quarter of the space of the same development in Atlanta. Considering most of the people moving there are families, they want room for their kids. Yes, there's advantages to urban areas for kids -- but a lot of families want somewhere where their kids can play outside and feel safe about doing so. And they can still drive their kids to urban amenities when they desire.

    So to summarize... what makes Phoenix so "sprawling"??

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    blue raises an interesting point about perceptions of sprawl. Here in Vermont, new developments with conventional suburban homes on 20,000 SF lots (huge, I know, but relatively dense here) are perceived as evil sprawl, and denser PRDs are even more evil. But the "traditional" pattern of homes scattered on 1 to 10+ acre lots is not sprawl. The distinction iis about appearance and not pattern in most peoples' perception. Here if it is old (or looks old), its ok. If it looks new, it isn't.

    There was a period of several months in my life when I was spending time in Phoenix on a regular basis and IMO, it sucks. Traffic, air pollution, vanishing farms, a massively dysfunctional airport, a dead downtown, an oppressive climate, etc., etc. There are, like everywhere, "islands" of semi-sanity, but overall it is about as bad as a city can get. And yet, at that time, the population was growing by roughly 80,000 a year.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Blue
    So to summarize... what makes Phoenix so "sprawling"??
    The lack of a transect: high density urban, medium density urban, low density urban, high density suburban, medium density suburban, low density suburban, rural, undeveloped, etc.

    In Phoenix, there is only high density suburban and undeveloped. In Atlanta, there is only high density urban, high density suburban, low density suburban and rural.

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    Member crisp444's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jmello
    The lack of a transect: high density urban, medium density urban, low density urban, high density suburban, medium density suburban, low density suburban, rural, undeveloped, etc.

    In Phoenix, there is only high density suburban and undeveloped. In Atlanta, there is only high density urban, high density suburban, low density suburban and rural.
    Thanks for putting a definition to sprawl - I actually did not know how to formally define sprawl until I read this post. However, would you modify this definition depending on certain circumstances that impede the growth of a metropolitan area, such as being on an island or being surrounded by mountains or unbuildable swamp? In Miami-Dade/Broward/Palm Beach, the ocean forms a border to the east and the unbuildable Everglades form a barrier to the west. Many areas are reaching build-out, and nearly all new development that is not near the beach is high-density suburban. That area does not have unlimited room to grow like Phoenix, Atlanta, and Houston, cities where your "transect" could be expected. In South Florida, there really is no room for lower density suburban and rural areas. Because all development is urban or high density suburban, South Florida would fail to be a true transect and according to your definition, would be sprawl. However, facing its physical inability to accomodate lower density development, isn't sprawl bound to happen? My question to you is this: although some metropolitan areas qualify as having lots of sprawl, are there certain cases where sprawl is inevitable?

    Another question for anyone on this board: if the majority of you (including me) are supporters of more density, isn't it preferable to have high density suburban developments of attached 2-3 story of townhomes and houses on small lots than spread out neighborhoods of houses on very large lots? Why does everyone target the high-density Phoenix metro area when we have places like Minneapolis and Atlanta, where like someone said, suburbs seem to be "spread out" with houses on very large lots, taking up lots of space. Even some areas of suburban Boston are characterised by this! Although the Boston metro has jmello's "transect" and is not known to have sprawl, the metro area extends for many miles in all directions (well, except to the east due to the ocean) and is not dense once you pass the immediate inner ring suburbs. No one targets Boston because it is not a poster child for sprawl. However, if density is preferable, can sprawl facilitate density sometimes? It seems quite contradictory to me that many of you prefer density, yet condemn metro areas where new developments are dense.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by crisp444
    My question to you is this: although some metropolitan areas qualify as having lots of sprawl, are there certain cases where sprawl is inevitable?
    I think what you see happening in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties is the densification of the central cities. While these areas may not be able to support low-density suburban and rural areas (due to the Everglades at the west), you will see an increased densification across the counties. Now, whether or not this creates a transect will depend on whether or not the counties focus growth in particular "urban" centers.

    Quote Originally posted by crisp444
    Another question for anyone on this board: if the majority of you (including me) are supporters of more density, isn't it preferable to have high density suburban developments of attached 2-3 story of townhomes and houses on small lots than spread out neighborhoods of houses on very large lots?...Even some areas of suburban Boston are characterised by this! Although the Boston metro has jmello's "transect" and is not known to have sprawl, the metro area extends for many miles in all directions (well, except to the east due to the ocean) and is not dense once you pass the immediate inner ring suburbs. No one targets Boston because it is not a poster child for sprawl.
    The Boston metro area has indeed suffered from "sprawling" development in the last 20 years, mainly due to arcane zoning laws. The difference between Boston and Atlanta is that almost all of the towns in New England have a dense town center and most have rail service to Boston. While the development in the last 20 years has not grown/supported these centers, most are strong enough to offset some of the sprawl. In Atlanta, large counties surround the central city and these counties often have few defined town centers. Suburban rail service is non-existent. Looking at the Boston metro on a micro scale you will see far more people living in walkable neighborhoods in close proximity to schools and local services (and walking to these destinations) than you would in either Atlanta or Phoenix.

    And, the problem I see with Atlanta and Phoenix is not so much the density of fringe development, but the lack of density at the core and ring immediately surrounding the core.

  13. #13

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    You're assuming that jmello's definition of sprawl is shared by everyone. It isn't.

    I have said before, and will say again, that I don't find sprawl to be a useful term and I never use it in practice. I even try to eradicate it from how my citizen boards talk about the world. But the popular definition of sprawl here in VT is, to infer from all I hear and read in the paper, "new development that puts lots of houses or commercial buildings into previously agricultural or forest landscapes, and thus the more dense it is the more sprawling it is." And VT is not the only place I have worked where that is the popular perception.

    So while planners and pundits are promoting more density, we are communicating very poorly with the general public, to whom the type of development that occurs around Phoenix is the epitomy of sprawl. We may analyze the scattered suburban development that occurs around the Twin Cities and Atlanta (although in my brief work in the outer 'burbs there I ran into development that would definitely meet the popular definition of sprawl) and conclude that it has costs - environmental, fiscal, and otherwise - but we have a lot of work to do to convince most folks that the traditional suburban pattern is problematic.

    Part of this has to do with the crappy design of most of the relatively higher density suburban development that occurs around Phoenix and elsewhere. It is tough to sell the idea that endless rows of snout houses are superior to more traditional faux farmhouses surrounded by trees. Part of it has to do with people's reaction to anything new. There are many other factors, but the bottom line is that relatively dense suburban development tends to have neither the charm and functionality of traditional town centers, nor the advantages of the conventional larger lot subdivision. I think this is changing, but only incrementally.

    You can educate people about the advantages of higher densities, but it is not easy, especially in areas where there are few good examples.

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    Whether people like "sprawl" or not, what will be the fate of places featuring extreme car-dependence when the cheap oil era concludes? I know I sound like Kunstler, but, that's intended... He raises good points.

    Whether we like this type of living or not, these low density unwalkable places really aren't sustainable. Hanging by a thread.

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    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    I would just like to echo a lot of what Lee said. I definitely agree that the "Smart Growth"/New Urbanist crowd has done a terrible job of convincing people that there's something problematic about suburbia. Let's face it, economic opportunity is fading in some parts of this country. The oppressive tax climate and high cost of housing in the northeast, for example, has led to its decline IMO.

    How can we blame people for essentially "voting with their feet" and moving to places such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, Texas, Florida and other sunbelt destinations when these places have posted huge job growth numbers? Where it is still possible to achieve the American Dream of single family ownership on a middle class income?

    That said, there are no doubt significant environmental challenges posed by the frenetic subbelt growth we've witnessed it recent years. Sustainability needs to be on the public policy agenda and sadly it isn't in most places. As long as these "sprawling" places continue to thrive economically it will be very difficult for us as planners to make the case that there is something wrong with this type of development.

  16. #16
    Phoenix is probably the most ignorant city of outside criticisms. Or maybe city leaders there just doesn't care. Recently 200 more sq miles were opened for suburban development in the Phoenix area, though the city is one of the most detested in the country for its sprawl and destruction of a natural environment. Rather than heeding warnings of environmentalists, urbanists, and all anti-sprawlers, Phoenix just keeps on sprawling.

  17. #17

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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller
    I would just like to echo a lot of what Lee said. I definitely agree that the "Smart Growth"/New Urbanist crowd has done a terrible job of convincing people that there's something problematic about suburbia. Let's face it, economic opportunity is fading in some parts of this country. The oppressive tax climate and high cost of housing in the northeast, for example, has led to its decline IMO.

    How can we blame people for essentially "voting with their feet" and moving to places such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, Texas, Florida and other sunbelt destinations when these places have posted huge job growth numbers? Where it is still possible to achieve the American Dream of single family ownership on a middle class income?

    That said, there are no doubt significant environmental challenges posed by the frenetic subbelt growth we've witnessed it recent years. Sustainability needs to be on the public policy agenda and sadly it isn't in most places. As long as these "sprawling" places continue to thrive economically it will be very difficult for us as planners to make the case that there is something wrong with this type of development.
    I guess my only question would be: Does Phoenix have an economy beyond growth in and of itself? I know there are a few high tech firms there, and the university in Tempe, but isn't a big part of the "economic growth" suburbia and of itself? Is that sustainable?

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    Quote Originally posted by BKM
    I guess my only question would be: Does Phoenix have an economy beyond growth in and of itself? I know there are a few high tech firms there, and the university in Tempe, but isn't a big part of the "economic growth" suburbia and of itself? Is that sustainable?
    Now someone else is sounding like Kunstler As some in this thread have hinted, one feature of sprawl (and I am not one to abandon use of the term, even if some in Vermont are prone to misuse it) is surely segregation of use, which effectively makes the personal automobile the only viable means of tranportation (except for those too poor to afford a car). Sprawl tends to be lower density than an urban environment, but is not necessarily so (as jmello indicates in his formulation). I have never been to Phoenix, but since most development in this country since 1950 has been sprawl-based, one could expect it to be mostly sprawl. Some parts of the country have seen more New Urbanist style development, and some have managed to become, at least in some respects, more urban (here I am thinking locally, of DC/Arlington), and some have a significant pre-1950 base (Boston, NYC, Chicago) that is largely intact. Otherwise, the predominant land use/residential pattern in the U.S. is sprawl.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by BKM
    I guess my only question would be: Does Phoenix have an economy beyond growth in and of itself? I know there are a few high tech firms there, and the university in Tempe, but isn't a big part of the "economic growth" suburbia and of itself? Is that sustainable?
    I totally agree with you. My point was that it is hard to question why Jack the Construction Manager and Jill the Insurance Saleswoman are moving there, as NPR did. Should we expect these people to have an environmental conscience?

  20. #20
    Cyburbian ludes98's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by okc453
    Phoenix is probably the most ignorant city of outside criticisms. Or maybe city leaders there just doesn't care. Recently 200 more sq miles were opened for suburban development in the Phoenix area, though the city is one of the most detested in the country for its sprawl and destruction of a natural environment. Rather than heeding warnings of environmentalists, urbanists, and all anti-sprawlers, Phoenix just keeps on sprawling.
    I have spent much of my life in different cities that comprise the Phoenix metro area and I would actually tend to agree with you in some respects. Many electeds here are often second or third generation natives. In some cities you have to have an "old" name for office. IOddly...many city projects up for bid/SOQ go to out of town consultants.

    The use of "Phoenix" is usually applied very broadly to describe the whole metro area, but some distinct differences do exist between cities like Tempe, Scottsdale, and Phoenix. Tempe is one of the few cities that is landlocked (since 1974!) It is also now the densist. Surprise surprise. What is really scary about recent planned mid-rise (highrise for AZ) development is that traffic considerations seem to be ignored or at least accepted as poor/failing. The transit system is not drastically improved in the core areas and Scottsdale has seen alot of projects in the 16-25unit/Ac (again dense for AZ) range and they so far have been against any light rail connections to the system currently being built. People here love thier cars.

  21. #21
    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    I spent the majority of my life in Arizona, growing up in Tucson and going o ASU and staying there for 5 more years before moving to Battle Creek, MI.

    The biggest concern for the area that the NPR story hardly address was the amount of water being used. Phoenix gets 10 inches of rain a year and the area has been in a prolonged drought.

    A growth plan was defeated by voters in 2000. The reason a high density pedestrian friendly development will not work in Phoenix is would you want to walk a quarter mile in 110 degree heat. I have done it and its not fun.

    The Phoenix area offers a wide variety of employers but what is unfortunate is all of these companies are headquatered somewhere else. The other plank of the PHoenix area economy is construction. So when a downturn does come Phoenix will be hit doubly hard because of the slowdown in construction and companies tend to cut employment in non HQ cities first.

    What will stop sprawl in Phoenix will not be the sucess of new urbanism but because of water. Las Vegas has water restrictions in place but AZ seems to ignore the inpending problem. People from all over the country move to AZ and bring there love for green grass and trees.

    The other threat to Phoenix's growth is the cost of electricity. If is very expensive to run an AC for 6 months a year and the heat island effect will only make it worse. Since few power plants are being built the demand will soon outstrip the supply and then people will think twice about moving.

  22. #22
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    A few weeks ago, I was in Phoenix meeting with some real estate developers who focus on western Phoenix. The water question arose, of course, and the answer was the water situation will improve as western Phoenix is developed.

    The explanation was the water demands of the existing agricultural uses are a lot higher than the water demands of alternative uses, like housing and retail. In other words, redeveloping the agricultural lands in western Phoenix into suburban sprawl will save water.

    Is this true?

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    There is a core of truth in the argument. If you do not think it is prudent to be able to raise at least some food locally, you can eliminate the remaining irrigated agriculture in the Phoenix area and support a fair amount of growth by doing so. Like all pro-growth strategies, this one has a limit. Overall, it reduces the long-run sustainability of the Phoenix area. Also, as has already been mentioned, the heat island effect and the cost of electricity - which go hand in hand - are mitigated only by the remaining irrigated lands. When they are gone air conditioning will be even more necessary than it is now.

  24. #24
    Cyburbian dobopoq's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Brocktoon
    .... The reason a high density pedestrian friendly development will not work in Phoenix is would you want to walk a quarter mile in 110 degree heat. I have done it and its not fun....[snip]....
    I don't believe I'm hearing this. A QUARTER OF A MILE? A comfortable walking speed is about 3 mph. That's 1 mile every 20 minutes. So you're saying you can't walk for 5 minutes? Are you trying to wear a wool suit in that too? Anyplace where it's too hot to walk for 5 minutes outside in the midday sun is not worth inhabiting IMO. If the typical Phoenician can't stand 5 minutes outside - well shoot, why go to the moon again? - We've already got people living on the daylight side of the moon in Arizona!
    "The current American way of life is founded not just on motor transportation but on the religion of the motorcar, and the sacrifices that people are prepared to make for this religion stand outside the realm of rational criticism." -Lewis Mumford

  25. #25
    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by dobopoq
    I don't believe I'm hearing this. A QUARTER OF A MILE? A comfortable walking speed is about 3 mph. That's 1 mile every 20 minutes. So you're saying you can't walk for 5 minutes? Are you trying to wear a wool suit in that too? Anyplace where it's too hot to walk for 5 minutes outside in the midday sun is not worth inhabiting IMO. If the typical Phoenician can't stand 5 minutes outside - well shoot, why go to the moon again? - We've already got people living on the daylight side of the moon in Arizona!
    I see hyperbole is lost on you. In Phoenix the car is king, people drive to places where they can walk was the point I was trying to make.

    Quote Originally posted by jtmnkri
    A few weeks ago, I was in Phoenix meeting with some real estate developers who focus on western Phoenix. The water question arose, of course, and the answer was the water situation will improve as western Phoenix is developed.

    The explanation was the water demands of the existing agricultural uses are a lot higher than the water demands of alternative uses, like housing and retail. In other words, redeveloping the agricultural lands in western Phoenix into suburban sprawl will save water.

    Is this true?
    More than just West Phoenix is being developed and the developer is correct that is where most of the farm land is located and the core of the water argument is that farming takes less water than people. But when you have been using more water than the environment can sustain even replacing the high water use with farms with the less water using people will still result in not enough water unless the current drought ends and above average rainfall for the region begins.

    Have you even known a developer to give anything but the most rosy of outcomes for an possible problem?
    Last edited by nerudite; 18 Apr 2006 at 11:08 AM.

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