Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

April 17, 2014


Host: Ted Simons

Phoenix Urban Sprawl


  • A new report by Smart Growth America, a group that advocates for a reduction in urban sprawl, shows the Phoenix area does poorly when it comes to utilizing land. Grady Gammage Jr., a senior sustainability scholar at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability, will discuss the problem of urban sprawl in the Phoenix Metro area.
Guests:
  • Grady Gammage Jr. - Senior Sustainability Scholar, Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability
Category: Sustainability   |   Keywords: sustainability, urban, sprawl, phoenix, land, asu, growth,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Tonight's "Focus on Sustainability" looks at new report by Smart Growth America, a group that advocates for a reduction in urban sprawl. Studies show the Phoenix area does not do well when it comes to utilizing land. Grady Gammage Jr., is with ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability, he is a senior sustainability scholar at the institute and joins us now, good to see you again.

Grady Gammage Jr.: Good to be here, Ted.

Ted Simons: A new report ranked by city urban sprawl, we are ranked 173rd-
Grady Gammage Jr.: Phoenix is 173rd and Tucson is 171st. It's a really complicated study done by the University of Utah and Smart Growth America, probably the most complex and comprehensive way to look at urban sprawl. The way they do this, they say there are four components to urban sprawl. The first is overall density, okay? And Phoenix, the way they rank this is if you're above 100 you're doing better than the national average. If you're below 100 you're doing worse. Phoenix is significantly above the average of the 200 largest cities on that factor. We're actually fairly dense, so we get 111 on that factor. I went through their rankings. We'd be 20th on density. We're not a low density city.

Ted Simons: Interesting.

Grady Gammage Jr.: The next factor they have is land use mix, a ratio of jobs to housing. We're above the national average, just a little bit above, we do pretty well on that one. The third is called activity centering. This is about how many people are working in compact areas; the cities that do well on this are ones with very intense downtowns where most people work. Phoenix doesn't do so well, our downtown is not a high percentage of our work base. Here we rank a 96, just below the national median. The last one is street connectivity. This is about having lots of streets that intersect each other so it's easier to get around. This is a farming town originally so we have that grid that makes it work well. We get 111 on that. On all four of the statistics, we're not too bad. If you look at some of them, we're better than Tucson which ranks higher than us on every single statistic. But then they do an adjustment for population. Here's why Phoenix ranks bad. We are a really big city now. When you compare us to other big cities, most of the other big cities are older, more traditional cities. No surprise here, New York ranks the best, San Francisco ranks second, and Philadelphia is high on the list. We are the largest of the sort of purely post-war cities, only Houston is bigger than us. Los Angeles is very high on the list, it does very well, it is a very high density city. People don't understand that. Essentially in my view we suffer in this ranking by being compared to a lot of smaller communities. Santa Barbara is like fourth on the list.

Ted Simons: I saw that on there.

Grady Gammage Jr.: That's what's really weird, I know the place really well. They lump together Santa Barbara and Santa Maria. They are 60 miles apart with nothing in between them, but each is relatively compact. So, smaller cities tend to look pretty good on that measure. Bigger cities tend to suffer in this report. So I think it's not an entirely logical methodology.

Ted Simons: I know State Street in Santa Barbara, everything seems to revolve around there until you get to the beach.

Grady Gammage Jr.: It's a great place. The dilemma of Phoenix is not a high percentage of people work downtown, people work all over in Phoenix. We don't have a lot of these sorts of cool urban nodes. We have downtown Phoenix, downtown Tempe, and old town Scottsdale, Glendale maybe a few places.

Ted Simons: All right. So we've got the rankings and we're trying to figure out what's happening here. These are just numbers, it's just a ranking system. Let's talk about urban sprawl. What is urban sprawl?

Grady Gammage Jr.: And therein lies the whole problem. It's one of these I know it when I see it things, like pornography to the Supreme Court. It's depends on how you view it. Most people use sprawl as a pejorative term, something they don't like. But even a lot of people who live in what others would call sprawl, you sprawl that way. To many people particularly on the East Coast, anything that is a city based on single-family homes and automobiles as the dominant mode of transportation is presumptively urban sprawl. That's most of America frankly, and certainly all of the post-war cities. I don't like that definition, I don't agree with that. I think urban sprawl, if you want to make it a pejorative term should be viewed as the redistribution of a population of a city into a lower density form. That's what's happened to a lot of American cities since the Second World War. Philadelphia got a third larger and lost half its population. That's not what happens to Phoenix. Phoenix has always been an automobile dominated city. It's one of the American cities that get denser every year. I don't think Phoenix is the poster child for sprawl you might believe it to be if you came from somewhere else.

Ted Simons: Is sprawl necessarily bad?

Grady Gammage Jr.: It depends on how you want to use the word. Most people use the word as a term of indictment, as an approbation, a negative thing. I don't think an urban form centered on single-family homes and automobiles is necessarily bad. That's, to me, where Phoenix is. I don't want to use sprawl the way most people do.

Ted Simons: Yet the study would say that economic growth is better than in high density areas. The health of the population, better in high density areas. So there are some studies that seem to suggest sprawl or at least lower density, not so good for us.

Grady Gammage Jr.: Right. I think there is truth to that. But in Phoenix, for example, our average urban density in the metropolitan area is about 20 people per square mile, that's right in the middle of the American cities. We'd be close to the top here on their density issues. However, having said that, it is true that environments where people walk more, they are healthier. Environments where people can ride bikes, they are healthier. I think there's a lot of evidence for environments where people congregate and gather and sort of celebrate urban life, they may be healthier as well, and better.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, what can Phoenix do to tackle sprawl, as anyone wants to? Can zoning laws be changed? Can mixed use be encouraged? Do you need the county, the state, to help you?

Grady Gammage Jr.: The truth is we're doing a lot of that. Phoenix in particular is trying really hard to shift the way we think about density. It is possible to make some significant changes. But let me give you an example of one of the things we ought to do. We have a lot of parts of Phoenix where we have one house on a fairly sizeable lot, and there's significant evidence that going into the future an awful lot of people will have parents who need to move in with them or kids who come back from a failed career or a failed marriage who want to move in with them. We need to create a more multigenerational lifestyle, which means increasing the density of those neighborhoods, allowing people to build granny flats and guesthouses on the back of the properties. You need to change the zoning, and you immediately get lots and lots of opposition. Trust me, I've been there and felt the sting of that. It's difficult to make these shifts and we're trying to do it.

Ted Simons: My final question here, this is interesting stuff and certainly something to strive for, I guess, although do Arizonans and Phoenicians in particular, do Arizonans want density?

Grady Gammage Jr.: Some do. I think there is increasing evidence that people are willing to accept that. So I'm a baby boomer and I'm thinking I'm going need to make a lifestyle change, I like my / acre lot, my swimming pool and backyard. But I could see moving into a higher density environment. I think there are a lot of things creating pressure to be more urban in character. I think we're willing to change somewhat, but we change in increments. Cities change in increments. We're not going to suddenly become Greenwich village. We're going to add a little more density each year to the urban fabric.

Ted Simons: You can drive around Phoenix all day long and find empty lots.

Grady Gammage Jr.: And every city will give you a list of the great things they are doing to encourage infill, and how they are trying to get developers to do that. But as somebody who often represents real estate developers, it is still easier to go to the edge. You don't have the problem of the immediately adjacent neighbors who didn't want that property to develop. And those infill ought to be easier because it already has streets and infrastructure, it is almost invariably more difficult to do.

Ted Simons: As someone who cares about this area, you've lived your whole life here, this is your home, you say it's easier to go to the edge. Should it be easier to go to the edge?

Grady Gammage Jr.: You know, it is very difficult to set up a system that makes it more difficult to go to the edge. We have been so good at that for so long. I don't think we ought to discourage that. I think we ought to encourage infill. But in fact, we are one of the cities in the country where what we built on the edge is relatively dense. We build small lots on the west side that are frankly smaller than a lot of the traditional lots we have closer to downtown Phoenix. That's unusual. Many cities in this country, drive miles out of town and people live on five and 10-acre tracts. That's not what Phoenix is like. You drive five or miles out of town and people are living on , square foot lots.

Ted Simons: But the key is, you need to see some businesses there, you need to see shopping there, something besides a bunch of rooftops.

Grady Gammage Jr.: Yes, businesses follow rooftops. You've got to have the people first.

Ted Simons: Good to see you.

Grady Gammage Jr.: Good to be here.

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