Urbanism in the middle of suburban sprawl (Phoenix style)

I’m always amazed at how much Phoenix changes every time I go back.  I lived in Phoenix for seven years in the ’90’s, when essentially there were three highways dissecting the Valley of the Sun.  I’ve gone back maybe about once every two years or so, and each of those trips back revealed another thirty miles of highways and another fifty square miles of development.  I became numb to the endless suburban sprawl and how it consumed the beautiful desert landscape.

Last week I was visiting family in Phoenix when I noticed a glimpse of urbanity – a light rail.  When I attended Arizona State I remembered a guest speaker in my urban design class that profusely denied that Phoenix had the ability to support a mass transit system based on a light rail train.  He argued that the city was too sparsely populated and that there was an inefficient number of destinations that would warrant people taking the train.

He was definitely right about the population.  If you think of the population like peanut butter, most established metropolitan areas are like crunchy peanut butter – the nuts represent high density nodes where a large population either live or congregate, and the rest of the peanut butter is the sparse population consisting strip malls and single-family homes.  The peanut butter that is Phoenix would be nearly as smooth as smooth can be.  Actually there might be a couple of smaller nuts representing downtown, Sky Harbor Airport, and Arizona State University.  Outside of that there are no peanuts.

But the point that guest speaker missed entirely was that a funny thing happens when you build a light rail station – people (i.e. developers) build more dense properties.  Most people want to live somewhere with some kind of amenities, and living a few hundred feet from a light rail station allows those residents access to many more of the things they want access to in life.

Of course what good is a light rail unless it goes somewhere, and Phoenix has for the most part succeeded with connecting the dots with most of their peanuts.  The one line of the Valley Metro connects to downtown (a new and improved pedestrianized downtown) and the stadiums and museums, Sky Harbor (something I really wished Denver had done in providing a light rail to DIA), and Arizona State University (with the main campus having around 50k+ students).

What the light rail does provide is the potential of creating more urbanized communities within the metropolitan, and with it comes a more humane pedestrian environment that essentially becomes less dependent on the necessities of an automobile oriented society – such as the costs associated with owning a car and the necessary parking needed; the pollution created by a car in a stop-and-go urban environment; the thinning of civic services such as police and fire protection, and water and sanitation utilities, and the construction and maintenance of roads; and the wasted time and road rage involved with driving with morons (people who drive slower than you) and maniacs (people who drive faster than you).

It was a pleasant surprise to see a sense of urbanism taking hold within the Valley of the Sun.  Something as simple as a light rail station has the ability to spawn an urban environment from an otherwise typical shopping center parking lot.

Of course building a light rail within your community is not the end all fix to everything that’s wrong with the American suburban environment , but I have witnessed that an urban environment is possible in your community, no matter how many peanuts your city has.


3 thoughts on “Urbanism in the middle of suburban sprawl (Phoenix style)

  1. Mile High Pixie

    You make a good point. Even if people have never lived with public transit, some of them will pay extra to live near it because of the good press that a train system gets. I’ve also noticed that the nodes build up around the new train station because people forget one thing about sprawled communities: sprawl=driving and driving=lots of traffic. And people hate traffic. They love the idea of taking a train to work and being able to read instead of sitting in traffic and they love the idea of taking the train to a bar, getting fit-shaced, and then taking the train back home, DUI-free.

    By the way, is it true that the microclimate over Phoenix has changed drastically because of all the humidity from the new golf courses’ sprinkler systems?

  2. Eric Post author

    That’s an interesting question about the micro-climate of Phoenix. I guess there’s a few things to note before trying to answer that question.

    First of all, I believe that the Valley (the Phoenix metro area) has over 250 golf courses, but it’s not like there’s a golf course everywhere you turn. (In fact I noticed that one of the golf courses in Scottsdale had been converted into a city park.) But besides golf courses there are many grass areas including residential lawns, parks, and that grass no-man’s land surrounding corporate office complexes. But on the flip side a lot more people are converting their lawns to natural desert landscape, so that eliminates some of the sprinkler humidity.

    So, to make a long point short, I would have to say that unofficially there might be some validity to a rise in humidity because of golf courses, but I highly doubt it. The facet of Phoenix’s micro-climate that you would notice is the amount of hard surfaces that absorb all of the heat and prevents the city from cooling off a lot during the night.

    Phoenix may be the exact wrong way to build a city in the desert – low buildings and wide avenues that prevent large areas to be shaded, and lots of very hard surfaces (including concrete, asphalt, and flat roofs) that soak in heat, and very few areas of natural terrain within the metro area (other than the occasional mountain and Native American reservation) to allow the city to essentially breathe. So it’s probably the exact opposite of right, but like I said, there are improvements.

  3. Rail Life

    Our light rail system is being embraced ( in my opinion ) more than had been expected. The recreational use is extermely high and I believe that is, in part, due to pent up demand for a more urban lifestyle. We are seeing new restaurants succeed near the light rail, we are seeing vibrancy, enthusiasm and we are seeing large ridership numbers.
    The route has proven to be well planned with many “nuts” along the line. Our arts community, sporting facilities and the connection of 2 ASU campuses.
    Weekday ridership for Jan – August has been approximately 25% over projections but, an interesting statistic is the fact that weekend ridership (higher recreational riders) has shown heavy use. Saturday ridership is approx. 32% over projections while Sunday / Holiday ridership is more than 70% higher than anticipated.
    Nice article! I’m glad I found your blog. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s