May 01, 2013

Is Phoenix a City or Just a Big Suburb?

by: Taz Loomans


I visited Phoenix a few weeks ago and I stayed with my parents in their home in Chandler, Arizona, a suburb of the city. I wrote the following in my journal about my experience of living in Chandler. I thought you might be interested in the unvarnished thoughts of someone who has lived in suburban Phoenix, then in Central Phoenix and is now living in the central Portland.

[Excerpt from my journal entry from April 18, 2013…]

“Trying to live an urban life in Phoenix is just depressing. Living a suburban life in Phoenix is perfect though. It makes so much sense. In Chandler, I don’t expect to be able to walk anywhere. The huge streets and the huge parking lots make sense. I don’t expect to have public spaces and public transportation at my disposal. All I expect to do in Chandler is to go from my mother’s home to a shopping center or some other destination in my car. I don’t expect to have an “in between life” – that is to say an interesting experience between destinations. I don’t expect to see people when I step out the door. I don’t expect there to be musicians on the street or panhandlers or passersby like I see and experience here in Portland. I expect only to see other cars going to and fro from the vantage point of my own car.

When I was living in Central Phoenix, I expected a more urban experience. I wanted a more urban experience than what I had in the suburbs of Phoenix. I thought I might get it if I moved closer to the center of the city. But therein lies the rub. It turns out that I didn’t have a much more urban experience in Central Phoenix than I did in Chandler or when I lived in Mesa. I still didn’t see people on the street in Central Phoenix. I still only saw cars going to and fro. Granted, Central Phoenix does feel slightly more urban than Chandler. There is the Light Rail after all. And occasionally you will find an intersection that has people on all four corners waiting to cross the street. But on the whole, Central Phoenix isn’t that much more urban than Chandler. Living in Central Phoenix, I still got in my car and went from place to place in my car with no “in between” life. Because I am an urbanist, I attempted to use my car as little as possible and I biked to a lot of destinations and my “in between” experience was enhanced. I would see the odd pedestrian walking and the rare cyclist. But mostly I would just see waves and waves of cars on the large roads.

So this last time I was in Phoenix, visiting after living a couple of months in Portland, I realized Phoenix does suburbia exceedingly well. But it offers almost no urban life. And what passes for urban life in Phoenix is really a slightly less suburban version of suburbia. This makes me wonder – instead of trying to swim against the tide of decades of infrastructure and decades of suburban culture and values, why not just embrace suburbia full force? Why not just say – Central Phoenix is a less suburban version of full-out suburbia but it is still a version of it. Instead of trying to do the equivalent of forcing a square peg into a round hole and striving to create an urban life in Phoenix, why not accept the suburban nature of the city and start from there? But for those who want a real urban living experience, I’m afraid you won’t find it in Phoenix. The only place you might find it is in your dreams of how Phoenix will be in ten or twenty years. Until there is an interesting “in between life”, Phoenix, Central Phoenix and Downtown Phoenix will just be different versions of suburbia.”

Photo credit: The vibrant “in-between” life on Hawthorne in southeast Portland, where I live now. Photo by the author. 

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20 Responses

  1. Wayne Rainey says:

    Im sure you realize you will get some pushback on this and I myself suspect you may have unconsciously done this for an amount of self comfort you need having left Phx in what IS it’s renaissance. You have been, in the past, a mighty champion for Phx. and it’s disheartening that you would write this though. It serves no purpose. We are only inches from having a truly urban core, and comments like this can prove only dilatory. For myself I AM living an urban life here- I walk throughout downtown and can dine, see the arts district and music all easily. It’s what we make it – nothing more or less.

  2. I’m not sure if downtown / central Phoenix will ever become an urban environment on the scale of other midsize urban environments like Portland, Minneapolis, or Seattle. One has to remember that Phoenix came into its own when the main narrative guiding development was the automobile. So at best, “urban” Phoenix will be a retrofit of suburbia.

    Instead, I think that the narrative in Phoenix will shift away from wholesale urbanism to a twenty-minute city. I live near the Heard Museum and I find I can be to the places where I work, shop, eat, and play in 20 minutes via train, bus, bike, or foot.

  3. Jonce says:

    Whoa. Having been a solid multi-modal commuter for three years in CenPho I agree. Things are changing in the right direction but as I have said before it will take at a minimum of a decade of spot on policy and political commitment from all sectors of government which is unlikely. That isnt to say that a ton of brilliant people aren’t doing amazing things. But sometimes you just want to sit in the pew and not feel like you have to sing in the choir.

  4. Ann Warner says:

    It is May 1st. As I sit in my very comfortable air conditioned home to avoid the reality of today’s high of 101 degrees, I find no internal desire to walk or bike the streets of Phoenix. I’ve often wondered if building a city in an arid desert is the actual proverbial square peg in a round hole. We find refuge from the heat in our cars, offices, and homes. We engage in our own form of hibernation all summer. We persevere in our isolation and loneliness for the joy of simplicity and ideal weather mid-October through April. No sidewalks to shovel, no tornadoes to flee, no hurricanes to battle…just the inferno of fire called summer…enjoyed through the comfort of air conditioned isolation. I’m not sure we can ever succeed in becoming urban because on this weather phenomenon. Maybe that is the Phoenix lifestyle after all: set apart from all others. Desert dwelling survivors trapped in our houses and cars forced to practice intentionality to find true connection with one another. The amazing part is we do find a life here and we do somehow eventually find meaningful connections. Takes a lot of extra effort but at least you’ll know when I show up, I really meant to be there.

  5. Lisa says:

    I do think we have a long way to go, but we’re in a far better place than we were in 2005 when I moved here. Phoenix is getting great pockets of activity and really needs to be properly connected so that we can get out of our cars and get to these pockets by foot and by bike. Eventually, these pockets will grow and connect.

    You, Taz, inspired me to get on a bike and it’s changed my life here in Phoenix (thank you!). Now I’m working with Phoenix Spokes People to get some proper bike lanes and we’re being heard. A bike share should be in place by the end of the year which will, hopefully, bring even more infrastructure and will create a new form of transportation. I’m starting to see more people on bikes all over the city, which is a great sight to see!

    Some days I wish I was back living in NYC or another more walkable and bike-able place. But for now I’m happy to be inspired by the many people here who are making things happen. Nearly every day I see something new and good and it turns my love/hate relationship with Phoenix into more love than hate. We may not be up to speed with some of the other cities, but we have a pretty amazing community here. I have hope that we’re going to see a lot more love in the next five years.

  6. Alison King says:

    Oh Taz, can we stop with the comparisons already? It’s apples to oranges. Seriously. One of the smartest strategies in transforming Phoenix isn’t to compare it to other cities, but to examine it’s existing structure and learn to work within it. So this strategy isn’t “dooming” or “lacking”. or “seperate”-d from a superior urban form. Really?!? I realize this is a journal entry but I’m just going to have to call you out on the derogatory language. Love, Ali

  7. Sean Sweat says:

    This post indirectly speaks to the widely-accepted fallacy that the neighborhoods near downtown are urban just because they aren’t in Buckeye. The error in that, and seen in this post, is that people in Midtown and Uptown think they can live in a neighborhood of detached homes and have a walkable urban lifestyle. That simply isn’t true and you’re pointing it out, even if you don’t realize it.

    So don’t blind yourself to the potential for a true urban lifestyle in downtown just because your Phoenix perspective is largely driven by your time living in midtown.

    (I suspect that if you had replaced “Central Phoenix” and “Phoenix” with “midtown” throughout the post, I would have completely agreed with it.)

    • Lisa Parks says:

      I live in midtown, just down the street from where Taz used to live and I can get to a lot of places very easily by walking and riding my bike (restaurants, grocery stores, parks, shops, light rail, bus stops, museums). It’s also a very easy bike ride downtown. Some people may not think that it’s very urban, but it feels much more urban to me than suburban. I think of these areas just outside of downtown as having the potential to be like some of the neighborhoods that are a part of Boston (another former city of mine) such as Brookline Village, Coolidge Corner and Jamaica Plain. There’s great potential in the Melrose District, areas along Central Avenue, 15th Avenue and Thomas, 7th Avenue and McDowell, 7th Street and Osborn, Camelback and 3rd Avenue and the like.

      I don’t think we have to be defined as urban or suburban. Edward is spot on with his 20 minute city idea. I think we have a city that is starting to emerge and we have some great neighborhoods surrounding it that can be a part of that where you don’t have to have a car to get around.

      Not to sound all Sarah Palin-ish, but I can see downtown from my midtown patio and that’s pretty cool by me.

      • Sean Sweat says:

        There are significant differences in density between those Boston neighborhoods and those Phoenix neighborhoods, which is a defining characteristic. The primary things keeping Midtown from being walkable are density (too little) and block sizes (too big). That doesn’t preclude it from being bikeable, though, as you point out.

        • Lisa Parks says:

          There’s density being created in midtown. It’s evolving and there’s possibility. I had to drive or take the T to those neighborhoods in Boston, so to me it is sort of the same idea and that’s the point I’m making. I can actually walk to many places in midtown. By foot, I can get to three grocery stores, restaurants and bars, hotels, a vet, a college, elementary schools, the Melrose District (which has smaller blocks), several bus stops, doctor’s offices, churches, the light rail, shops, a pharmacy and a whole bunch of big office buildings.

          The problem, as you know, is that we need better infrastructure for pedestrians to make the walk seem comfortable. And I do agree that most of the blocks are pretty huge. I really didn’t enjoy Phoenix very much until I bought a place in midtown because before that I didn’t feel like I was part of a city. Now I do. It’s not everything I want it to be, but I like seeing what’s happening. And since I’m a condo owner, I’ll be staying put for a while so I might as well be a cheerleader for the good stuff and work to get more of it.

    • As a midtown resident and property owner, what do you say to those of us who live in midtown who can and DO enjoy the urban lifestyle that you think is restricted to those who live south of I-10? The majority of places to eat, have coffee, chat with friends, and (most importantly) the grocery stores aren’t in downtown, they’re in midtown. If we want to travel downtown for whatever reason, we can take METRO and, et voilà, we’re there in 10-20 minutes.

      Come on up to midtown sometime, Sean. You have my contact info: I’d love to give you a tour of how we slum it up here. Actually, we do quite well up here…thank you.

      • Sean Sweat says:

        Eddie, I am kinda confused by the fact that you seem to adamantly support the post’s thesis that “Central Phoenix is not urban (and may never be)” but then turn around and seemingly chide me for saying the same thing…

  8. Steve Weiss says:

    I wonder if we need to think about cities like Austin or some other hellhole in the summer types of cities for a summer comparison. The flip side to being stuck with a/c for at least 4 months is the “$300./day resort weather” we get at other times.

    Ok, now to go read the article. 🙂

  9. Steve Weiss says:

    Read it. It was short. 🙂 My question is whether Los Angeles has an urban lifestyle? It sure has a suburban one. Austin, San Francisco(ok, the burbs surrounding, where actual middle class live), even Portland all encompass suburbs.

    Phoenix’s problem is that it thinks it can create urban in the heart of the dead zone I call “commerce centers”. San Francisco has its Financial Center, LA has its “downtown”, none of them attempt a shopping mall in the center of where lawyers go to lawyer.

  10. Ken Clark says:

    We are a city transitioning from suburban mentality to having dense urban pockets.

    It will take a while. I am down for that process –more than I am just living in a city that is already done, where I would become bored because I can’t affect things positively because some power cliche already does. We will never by New York, Portland or whatever people want to compare us to.

    When you stop comparing yourself to others you become incomparable.

    We will make our own way: increasing density in some areas, but not in others; all born from a history where people thought we needed to sprawl.

  11. Alison King says:

    I wonder if the holy grail of urban bikeability is largely a banner being waved by the childless. It makes me wonder what happens to 90% of the Portlanders who grow up and have kids of their own. For the same reason that I’d not want to drag a toddler through the pouring rain of Portland or through the howling snow in Manhattan, I’d not wish a ride in August upon any Phoenician child.

    Of all my years in Mannhattan I pretty much NEVER saw any children under 14 riding their bikes in lieu of traditional transportation anywhere except in and around parks as recreation. Now that I live in Uptown Phoenix, we don’t do much family biking as transportation, and I don’t see many children and families doing it either. Contrast this with my childhood in suburban Scottsdale where, for years, I got mostly everywhere I wanted to go (including to downtown Scottsdale) by bike.

    The urban cycling experience is AWESOME. Matthew and I lived that lifestyle for ten years as young, healthy, fit and casual creatives in Manhattan and Brooklyn from our teens to our late twenties. We biked everywhere! But it became time to grow up ourselves — and start a family.

    Is it possible to live a car-free lifestyle with children in a densely urban setting? Absolutely. But I’d not want to.

    Are bikeable, walkable cities good for all of us, even those not on bikes? Sure. But to say the quality of Phoenix’s “urbanity” hinges on that is to me, still a very narrow view of what urbanism is. If what we’re talking about here are quality, bikeable cities then let’s call it that, not a term like “urban”. Even Taz’s choice of titling for this article implies that Phoenix may not even, in fact, be a CITY. Come on.

    Good conversation resulted, but at the expense of sensationalist and quite personal word choices. Do the ends justify the means?

  12. Matthew King says:

    This post has surely stirred up lots of responses. Here’s mine:

    I don’t really care about labels. You can call Phoenix Urban, Suburban or a Banana. It is just a label. Each city has a different mix of variables including density, transportation, zoning, etc. We all have our choice of where we live and we have our choice to try to affect positive change in our city. Many of people who read this blog make the choice to push things in the right direction.

    I am a little bit disappointed in your choice for the title in the post, Taz. *Just* a Suburb? Why the need to use a diminutive?

  13. “I thought you might be interested in the unvarnished thoughts of someone who has lived in suburban Phoenix, then in Central Phoenix and is now living in the central Portland.”

    No, I’m not interested. When you announced your move to Portland, I foresaw two possible outcomes for this blog: 1) a new, productive focus on your adopted home 2) derision and condescension toward the city you left behind.

    Knowing neither outcome would fit with my own reading preferences, I unsubscribed from this blog. Only a post in defense of you from Eddie caused me to take a look at Blooming Rock for the first time in months. I disagree with Eddie’s conclusions, but at least he got me to take a look.

    Now that I’ve had that look, I’ll say it’s time to move on, Taz. You made a lot of good contributions during your time in Phoenix, but now that you’re gone, Phoenix will figure out its own destiny without you. Be remembered fondly in Phoenix by knowing when to leave — not just physically, which you’ve already done, but also emotionally, which appears to be a work still in progress.

    • In reviewing my comments a few days later, I see now that my tone was unduly harsh, particularly the “No, I’m not interested” comment. I apologize for that and wish you the best in Portland.

  14. […] “[This] last time I was in Phoenix, visiting after living a couple of months in Portland, I realized Phoenix does suburbia exceedingly well. But it offers almost no urban life. And what passes for urban life in Phoenix is really a slightly less suburban version of suburbia. This makes me wonder – instead of trying to swim against the tide of decades of infrastructure and decades of suburban culture and values, why not just embrace suburbia full force?” [from “Is Phoenix a City of Just a Big Suburb” /] […]

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