Today’s post is by contributing writer Feliciano Vera:

As I cross the threshold into the office, Laurie Carmody immediately notices the Starbucks cup in my hand.

Shooting imaginary laser beams at me, she asks incredulously “What are you doing with that? Why didn’t you get coffee somewhere else?  Someplace local?”

“My sister gave me a Starbucks card for Christmas.  I had to use it.” I admit, sheepishly.

But my decision was also based on the location of this particular Starbucks – a five minute walk to and from Laurie’s office.  I didn’t have time to go anywhere else before our scheduled meeting.  The choice boiled down to a ruthless calculation of efficiency.

After berating me for my coffee choice and welcoming me into the office, our conversation strolls with little urgency, eventually winding its way onto the topic of bicycling in Phoenix.  It turns out Laurie can’t string together enough trips to ride more than five miles a day – yet another commentary on efficiency, albeit in a completely different fashion.

Laurie lives and plays within blocks of her office, and most of her daily shopping and favorite restaurants are within a compact radius.  In short, she is an urban anathema in a city where access to, and the ability to participate in, public life and the market are predicated on car ownership.  If Louis Sullivan’s truism that form follows function were applied to the built environment of metropolitan Phoenix, then one would have to wonder what function, if any, the region’s urban form followed as it developed during its postwar boom.

Cities, after all, were never exercises in community navel-gazing.  They developed because they offered a better alternative to subsistence farming and chasing small animals with blunt objects.  The aggregation of choices within a market were (and remain) more efficient than most alternatives.

Efficiency is necessary to the success of a market, and any city.  Often geographically well situated, the most successful cities facilitate quick and easy flow of capital and labor, becoming efficient locations for transmission of ideas and creativity.  But if the inexorable urbanization of the planet is a function of the efficiency of urban form, where does that leave places like [cough] Phoenix, which seem to have forgotten about efficiency?

The simple urgency of that question is often lost on those quick to react or dismiss the critiques of Jon Talton and Andrew Ross, perhaps because that question is not made explicit.  It is highly likely, though, that a discussion of the economic inefficiencies of our urban form requires a level of introspection deeper than the narcissism of a booster.  Asking “How do we grow?” may lead to the uncomfortable question: “Why do we grow?”

But before such conversations can occur, they require appropriate fora beyond the anonymity of a chatroom or social media.  They require the coffee shops and bars where business and creativity effortlessly intersect.  They require time not spent in a car.  They require an efficiency of urban form which we are only now creating.  As a consequence, those conversations are becoming increasingly less frightening in their abstraction, allowing us to contemplate and create any number of alternative futures.

We might even be able to contemplate a future where growth is not an end in and of itself.

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4 Responses

  1. Tyler Hurst says:

    “We might even be able to contemplate a future where growth is not an end in and of itself.”

    I’d go beyond that and say we’re quickly screwing ourselves right now by hiding behind the idea that growth, in particular home sales, are something to be looked at positively while the availability of new, GOOD jobs (not PayPal call centers) is, at best stagnant.

    And what’s better, me going three miles out of my way in a car for local coffee or stopping at the Starbucks next door? Once you ditch your car, anything more than a mile becomes a serious hindrance if you’re in a time crunch.

  2. Feliciano Vera says:

    Therein lies both the problem and opportunity Tyler.

    Your observations are precisely why I framed larger questions about growth within the context of a larger discussion of efficiency. If we are not facilitating the efficient flow of people and ideas in addition to capital in our efforts to promote economic growth, then we place ourselves at a huge competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis our competitive set.

    Our problem is our tendency to mistake economic growth for physical growth, or rather real estate development for economic development. I propose we employ Amartya Sen’s notion that “Development has to be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and freedoms we enjoy” as a more appropriate framework for discussion and evaluation of our economic development, thereby offering us a much richer palette of quantitative and qualitative metrics which we can use to determine our collective successes and failures as a region.

    • Great post Feliciano and I completely agree with your and Tyler’s comments. I think that Phoenix has a fundamental issue and fascination of viewing and talking about growth and development simply as size and expansion. In these discussions we conveniently leave out the other part of the definition, maturation. We often use phrases such as “they have really grown as a person” or “I’m encouraged by his development” that very little to nothing to do with physical size. Hopefully Phoenix can embrace maturation as growth and development.

  3. Will Novak says:

    I think those of us who are quick to dismiss Talton and Ross aren’t doing it because of what they’re saying, but rather how they’re saying it. Both men spew bile at every opportunity about Phoenix and bring little to no new insight, or solutions. Its a classic example of trying to attract bee’s with vinegar instead of honey.

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