Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Decline and Possible (albeit doubtful) Rise of Phoenix

Not too long ago when entering Metro Phoenix from the east, dropping down from the old mining town of Globe with the ever-alluring Superstitions rising ragged to the north, the same questions kept nagging me.

How is this possible? How long can it last?

The sea of red-tiled roofed mini-mansions spreading inexorably across the desert? The sudden rush of traffic on eight-lane speedways where not long ago there wasn’t anything but the breath-taking expanse of the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert. The profane climb of progress and development up the Superstition foothills.

At least, part of the modern miracle of the Valley of the Sun wasn’t a mystery. It’s likely that most Phoenicians don’t know where the water for their pools and showers come from. That’s because the massive water-diversion projects that channel the drainage of mountain watersheds and allotments of the Colorado River to their home were built before the population boom of the last few decades.

But as the city kept booming, would the water keep flowing.

The more perplexing question was the source of the money for all the luxury home construction, for all the consumption at all the new malls, for all the SUVs that race down Buckeye, Camelback, Baseline, and all the major streets of the metro grid.

That was a mystery. Could it possibly be that growth did beget growth endlessly? If that were indeed true, it constituted an assault on reason, common sense, and my own belief system. Yet each time I drove through Phoenix, the sprawl kept pushing out the boundaries of the city. In the nineties and into the new century, the pace of development intensified.

How was this possible? Phoenix was a money machine that magically produced wealth without any productive base.

Could it be that the valley’s “Real Estate Industrial Complex” (coined by journalist Jon Talton) was right that growth could build upon growth as part of a virtuous new capitalist cycle – skirting the rules of traditional capitalist accumulation and sustainability?

Finally, in 2007 this speculative development burst, and all those of us who were repulsed and mystified by the Phoenix boom were vindicated.

Nearly five years into the bust, Andrew Ross has written a book, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, that’s a delight for those who abhor the model of progress and consumption that Phoenix embodies.

Ross explores why Phoenix may be the least sustainable city in the world, and why it too may fade back into the desert just as the Hohokam civilization, which occupied the same valley, did when it too became unsustainable. 

Yet Phoenix is not alone in its unsustainability. At least in part, what made its rise out of the dust of the Native American civilization so frightening was that, while exaggerated, its patterns of development were not so different from those seen throughout America – the mall civilization, the resource gluttony, and the headlong pursuit of growth.

Ross describes Phoenix as “a horizontal hymn to unsustainable development.” He went to Phoenix not just to reveal the fallacies of the Phoenix development model but also to explore the citizen activism, policy advocacy, and alternative planning that is attempting to reconfigure the development model.

“If urbanization is an open-ended process, as Jane Jacobs so firmly believed, then the greening of cities is a grand act of improvisation, maybe the last heroic effort in places where it can still make an appreciable difference,” writes Ross, adding that Bird on Fire “is beguiled by that hope, even when there is little reason for it.”

No doubt that the sustainability activism and environmental justice movements that he describes in this instructive book are inspiring. Yet, in the end, Phoenix will undoubtedly remain model of unsustainability and a portent of the future that awaits not only the Valley of the Sun but for the entire American way of life.

In his concluding chapter, Ross makes a case for a new environmentalism and new sustainable development philosophy that stresses equity. “What if the key to sustainability,” asks the author, “lies in innovating healthy pathways out of poverty for populations at risk, rather than marketing green gizmos to those who already have many options to choose from?”

Ross writes that his research in Phoenix led him to conclude that “the key to addressing biophysical damage and eco-depletion lies as much in the drive for equity as in the kinds of technical improvements that show up in the manager’s metrics.”

Hate or love Phoenix, Bird of Fire is the book for you. 

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