December 18, 2012

Is Boosterism Good for Phoenix?

by: Taz Loomans


Boosterism: The enthusiastic promotion of a person, organization, or cause (in this case of a city)

If you don’t have only good things to say about Phoenix and you purport to be an activist, you might be considered cynical or worse, a hypocrite, lazy or ineffective. But I think boosterism is dangerous to the progress of Phoenix because it leads to delusion, which may feel good now but isn’t conducive to moving forward. Knowing where you are now is the first step to making constructive change. The same goes for Phoenix. We have to know where we are now, what we have to offer and what we don’t if we are to make positive changes that register on the national scale.

Phoenicians like to say that you can’t compare this place to cities like Portland or New York. But the problem is that people do compare because they can, and Phoenix falls short in many respects. Having traveled to Portland and New York recently, it is my estimation that Phoenix is 20 years behind when it comes to transit-oriented development, density, walkability and bike-infrastructure. Nationwide, these characteristics are what millennials and boomers are looking for in a city. Devin Benson says in her article The Economics of Walkability,

“In his The New York Times piece “The Death of the Fringe Suburb,” Lienberger notes that the 1990s market increased development in expensive, car-oriented suburbs. That trend is fading as Boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) and Millennials (born between 1979 and 1996) look for different amenities in their communities. For example, aging residents might have trouble driving and walkable areas free them from the car. Millennials, on the other hand, might find it impractical to buy or maintain a car in the current economy, or might want to live closer to the jobs and entertainment that walkable areas contain. Taken together these two groups are roughly 50 percent of the total population. When they come to agree on consumer preferences, the market is impacted.”

Cities like Portland and New York are offering this kind of urban experience right now. Portland is the 12th most walkable large city in the U.S. with a Walk Score of 66. New York is number 1 with a Walk Score of 85. Phoenix came in at 33 with a walk score of 45. Our attempt at creating the urban experience that millennials and boomers want is at its infancy and has a long way to go. This to me should warrant some kind of urgency on Phoenix’s part if it wants to compete with the rest of the nation in becoming a city that attracts and retains young talent and recently retired boomers.

The small incremental steps we are seeing take place right now, though encouraging, are not enough. For example, the Northwest Light Rail extension, which is scheduled to be completed in 2016, does not have any bike lanes planned with it because traffic engineers were too afraid to give up vehicle lanes. We seem to be operating under the old paradigm that the car is still king and we must do everything in our power to accommodate it just as we have been over the past 60 years. But the national trends indicate otherwise, that transit, walkability and bike-ability are becoming just as valuable, if not more, as the ability to drive. We need a cultural shift in Phoenix to embrace this change in tide. Either this or we should wholeheartedly embrace and dig our heels into our car-culture, as an offering to all those in the world who are seeking this kind of lifestyle. We could indeed stop trying to compete with Portland and New York and say this is a city for the car and if that’s not what you want then you shouldn’t come to Phoenix. But this in-between attitude, all these diluted attempts at change, these hankerings to move forward while clutching on to the way we’re used to doing things, just won’t get us anywhere.

If we don’t look at Phoenix with the cold, hard objectivity of someone who has a choice to live in any city she chooses, we will always be 20 years too late. Sure, I think there’s plenty of room for optimism. But I’m tired of boosterism, of saying Phoenix is making great strides in the right direction. The truth is Phoenix is taking some small, tentative steps in the right direction, but it is still very far behind compared to what other cities are doing already. This difficult truth shouldn’t dog us into paralyzed depression, but rather increase the urgency for a major shift in our priorities. And hopefully it keeps our eye on the prize instead of being satisfied with small victories.

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10 Responses

  1. Barry Graham says:

    For there to be any hope for Phoenix’s future, we need clear-headed examinations of the reality like this one.

  2. Preach on, sister.
    My least favorite excuse people use for Phoenix:

    “But you should have seen it 10 or 15 years ago — we’ve come so far since the 90’s!”

    Well ladeefuckingda. Even with all that’s happened, we’re still two decades behind every major and mid-tier American city. Staying two decades behind everyone will guarantee that Phoenix is an economic dustbowl in 15 years. We have to focus on where we ARE and where we need to BE, regardless of how far anyone thinks we’ve come since [fill-in-the-blank].

  3. Boosterism is a straw man invented by bashers of Phoenix to justify their exaggerated pessimism. If anything, Phoenix suffers from the opposite: a lack of civic pride, often expressed in terms of excessive negativity about the city but sometimes manifested as a willingness to settle for less. Neither outcome is desirable, but the solution is not to propagate the myth of widespread boosterism. Instead, Phoenix should cultivate a mature form of civic pride in which its residents are proud of the region’s genuine accomplishments, avoid apples-and-orange between the entire metro area here and a few cool in-town neighborhoods elsewhere, and demand best practices from their city government in the future. None of this needs to involve the overused word “boosterism.”

  4. Artie Vigil says:

    I agree with your observation and I can identify with your observation that Phoenix is decades behind similar cities. I’d suggest you compare Phoenix to other western cities of similar size such as Salt Lake, Denver or San Diego. I’d have to say that these places, in many cases are smaller than Phoenix in terms of population, but provide a substantially greater quality of urban life than Phoenix.

    I’d be interested to hear more about the notion of “place attachment” and how a place resonates with a resident of the city. There are a few environmental psychologists who have observed that when a resident finds a place as being important, valuable, love-able, will attach to the place emotionally and physically resulting in “place attachment”. Places that do not have place attachment can be observed as having residents who desire to live somewhere else. For me this is a continual challenge for to understand why its been so difficult to connect or attach to this place and why there is such a strong desire to leave and live in Denver, San Diego, NYC, or SF.

    Taz, keep up the good work and highlighting these challenges that face our community here in Phoenix. On your next trip, I’d suggest heading to Denver. There is a book store in LODO called the Tattered Cover that I think you would absolutely love. Here you’ll find so many great examples of what a great western American city can become.

  5. Steve Weiss says:

    Glad to hear Phoenix compared NOT to Portland or New York. Just because we’re the 6th largest city doesn’t mean we have to be compared to the others.

    Phoenix never had an Industrial Revolution.

    It was barely tolerable to live in Phoenix until the advent of A/C.

    Most of Phoenix’s issues began with the flight from the Midwest of citizens expecting sports culture and not arts and culture to be champs.

    There are no Pulliams or Goldwaters or Rosenzweigs or Bimsons left to assist in the cultural direction. Colangelo aided the descent into sports culture uber alles.

    Lastly, as I recently mentioned to Taz, the effect of the “one-car” family will be 1/2 the sales tax spent on one of the two things that drive our national economy and very much our local economy; homes and cars. The next most expensive items we purchase are appliances and electronics, but nothing holds a candle to the monies derived from a car culture.

    I’m not saying it’s an answer, and the health expenses are plentiful, but how do you pay for the things you want in a society with a reduction in sales tax from the big ticket items?

    • Interesting remark about the one-car family. My family recently became one of those. It would be interesting to see an analysis of the economic effects of such a trend if it becomes widespread. Would the money freed up by households to spend, save, and invest in other ways offset the diminished vehicle sales and tax revenues attributed to the one-car-per-adult model that many families have followed for the past few decades? I don’t know the answer, but it’s a worthwhile question to ask.

    • Car culture doesn’t drive our economy, it guts it.
      Buying a car? very little of that money stays in our economy. Buying insurance? very little of that money stays in our economy. Buying gas? very little of that money stays in our economy.

      Right now we get lots of tax revenue from cars b/c that’s what people have to buy. If they didn’t spend it on cars, they wouldn’t just save it up — they’d spend it on something else and we’d get just as much (and actually more) tax revenue.

  6. pal L says:

    Sales tax on a car is, say $2,000, spent once in five years. More importantly is where folks choose to live. Thankfully, more people are living downtown close to employment or school, where money stays downtown in Phoenix. And yes, Phoenix is underrated. Not to advocate mindless boosterism, but why not be proud of your town, and hope to make it better?

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