[Source: Alec Appelbaum, The Faster Times blog] — The stubborn fact of urban investment in this century involves density. We can forget about economic growth outstripping environmental cost if we don’t invest in ways to reward people for living, working and playing close together. That can mean big opportunities for suburban office parks, rural town centers and old-style cities, but it also means some awkward transitions for cities whose layout relies on excessive driving. Consider downtown Phoenix.
I just went there for the annual expo of the US Green Building Council, which I suspect chose the locale as a Lenin-shipyard proclamation of their message’s reach. And downtown Phoenix is a warren of womblike hotels and a massive conference center, with artificial efforts at urbane charm. This includes a greeter simpering scoldingly at me when I run across the street, homeless men on aluminum benches, and a prerecorded voice telling me to “enjoy the greening of downtown Phoenix.” The simperer reveals how underpopulated downtown remains, and the homeless hint at how underfunded the social network remains. But the salient thing is that powerful somebodies want downtown Phoenix to not be horrible.
Yes, there are posted instructions on how to cross a street and security guards at the convention hall say I won’t find a bathing suit at the downtown mall. But I do find one, and there are sidewalks, and the womblike hotels have balconies overlooking actual blocks and streets. On day two of my visit, I started to get the trendline. I saw the new light rail glide past the four old buildings, the “clean cab” company rolls around. But standing on the Sheraton balcony, I saw again that there’s no waterline or mountains to define the horizon. Without barriers to physical growth on all sides, it will take natural disaster or political will to make places like Phoenix develop strong centers. Nature will provide the disasters. Then what?
We’ll have to see whether trends in urbanizing lead to scalable industries. It dawned on me late on my 24-hr sojourn that the Compass restaurant on 21 (”turning the direction of SW cuisine,” say elevator ads) is a rotating rooftop. Forty years ago, these were as thorough an urban inevitable as a downtown ballpark is now. And as I passed Phoenix’s massive and retroish Chase Field, I wondered naifishly: when people need affordable housing and good jobs, why is there enough room downtown for a fat square brick ballpark? The riddle’s solution involves homes, business incentives for clean manufacturing, and policies that monetize the pleasures of close proximity. Each city in America will need to work up its own formula. As I flew home to New York in a November hurricane, I couldn’t quite rouse that old Northeastern smugness. And that’s a hopeful sign.