"Sprawl" is a dirty word in Phoenix these days. According to one Arizona Republic columnist, "Limiting sprawl and turning development back into our cities would go far to addressing a host of ills, including balkanization and destructive competition."
But the endemic character of Phoenix growth may be just the very same kind of development that has characterized cities throughout Western civilization, even dating back to ancient Rome.
Sprawl, it turns out according to a new book, is not the scourge of 20th century Sunbelt economies, or even of the United States. Indeed, even Europe's shining examples of compact development have exhibited consistent outgrowth towards the periphery for some time now, even well before the advent of the automobile and public transit.
Local commentators blame Phoenix's failure to nurture a compact, downtown-centric development pattern for myriad ills plaguing the local economy and culture (both real and falsely perceived). And yet, having missed out on a supposed national "urban renaissance," Phoenix continues to lead on any number of economic indicators, while simultaneously assimilating one of the largest number of in-migrants from both other states and abroad.
As the author notes, among the great cosmopolitan centers of the Western world, the population density of London peaked in the early 19th century, in Paris in the 1850s, and in New York City in the early 1900s. Before them and since then, expanding economies with increasing incomes have exhibited what I will call the inexorable centrifugal force of growth.
And here comes the kicker. Despite all the belly-aching about Phoenix's rampant sprawl into the desert, the metro area's density has been increasing for at least 20 years.
The bottom line is, as one reviewer of the new book puts it: "Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals-Adam Smith's 'invisible hand.'"
In other words, sometimes the laws of economics are as sound as the laws of physics.
Satya Thallam is a former fiscal policy analyst with the Goldwater Institute and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in economics at Emory University.
-Bruegmann: "Sprawl: A Compact History"
-Slate Book Review: "Suburban Despair: Is urban sprawl really an American menace?"
-Kotkin: "The New Suburbanism: A Realist's Guide to the American Dream"
-Goldwater Institute: "Phoenix Rising: A City of Aspiration"
-Postrel: "Why the Fixation on Downtown is Wrong"
- Arizona Republic: Stakes high; will cities duke it out?