Friday, May 22, 2009

Suburban Century

#12 What is the land use history by humans in your bioregion during the past century?

I have delayed writing about this 12th question in the "Where You At?" series (begun on April 10th in my blog) because I thought I would find the time to dredge up more real numbers on the subject. Acres, decades, populations, etc. However, for the purposes of this blog, my personal observations and a few basic statistics will suffice. As a starting point, the Phoenix metropolitan region comprises ~2500 square miles of land.

Anyone who lives in the Phoenix area could make a reasonable generalization that about 50% of the current land use is dedicated to transportation needs. Or desires, if you prefer. That is to say, parking lots, roads, highways, train tracks and airports take up a staggering amount of land. This is a primary characteristic of Phoenix, other than the fact that it is in a desert. Of all the cities I have lived in (Seattle, Chicago, Fort Collins, Boulder, Colorado Springs, San Francisco), Phoenix is by far the most vehicle intensive and pedestrian/bicycle unfriendly.

But it wasn't always that way. Phoenix's humble beginnings were as an agricultural community, with citrus and cotton being the main crops and economic base, although transportation did play an important role since the beginning because large scale agriculture also requires large scale distribution. Agriculture requires prodigious amounts of water, however, so the economy of the area has changed dramatically from growing food and fiber to developing corporate headquarters, malls and housing, which supposedly require far less water to sustain. Which begs the question: So where do we now get our food? But, I digress.

The city was established in 1868. Arizona was inducted into the union in 1912. In the last 100 years, the population of the Phoenix area has swollen like a cancer from ~11,000 people to over 4 million people. We were rated as the 2nd fastest growing metro area in the U.S., after Las Vegas, over the past decade. The growth has slowed somewhat since the economic recession. A shocking 24% of the growth has occurred in the past 10 years. I have personally contributed 3 people to that statistic.

The stunning vastness of this metro area is most easily comprehended from the air or a mountain top at night. Electric lights spread to the horizon in every direction if you climb to the top of Squaw Peak, for instance. This photo was taken one early morning from the top of our more humble neighborhood high point, Thunderbird Mountain.

But, lest I forget, Phoenix and the other two dozen or so cities that comprise the Valley of the Sun's contiguous suburban landscape, have dedicated a reasonable amount of land to open space, including one of the nation's largest city parks, the 16,500 acre South Mountain Park, which you could just about go backpacking in, except I don't think they allow overnight camping.

This is a view from the mountain preserve in my "backyard," a 5 minute hike up the road.

And we also have the standard urban delights of universities/colleges, museums, ballparks, theatres and zoos. Plus a few military bases. To support all of this, I would bet that you could put at least a single digit percentage on the land use dedicated to our energy needs, including a nuclear power plant (see my December 1, 2008 entry). And our water needs (reservoirs and canals plus treatment plants).

However, the majority of land use here now is lots and lots of malls, massive corporate offices, lots and lots of tract housing (much of which is seasonally vacant or for sale now), and huge acres of asphalt. There are also a few remaining citrus groves and cotton fields on the fringes.


ezpixels said...

Excellent summary. I moved here 15 years ago and saw the scary growth first hand! I live in neighboring Scottsdale, where I'm so happy to see that over 16,000 acres have been saved from development so far. About the same amount in acreage is on the books to be preserved and if it comes to be, a full one third of Scottsdale will be preserved! The ultimate goal is to provide a corridor for our wildlife. They deserve it since they were here first! Find out more at

Allan Stellar said...

If we could fast forward fifty years, I wonder what Phoenix would look like? Might the city look like the mythical bird? Some sustainable remnant rising from the ashes of the lunacy of building such a mega city in the middle of a desert?

I think that was the point of Ed Abbey's novel: "Good News"...

Oh well, I hope to have a winter place in Tuscon some day; adding to the lunacy and problems you describe so well.