Land is a finite resource. Every country and community in the world will run out of it given a long enough timeline. Or, at the very least, the barriers to making the land habitable will rise to a point that is infinitely cost prohibitive. One only need look at Manhattan, San Francisco, or Singapore to see the end game. Or, look at the stretch of freeway between Los Angeles and San Diego to understand the middle view that leads to the end game.
The question is what do we do now so that when this future certain date comes, we have created the most habitable environment to work, live, and raise children? In my opinion, the solution is taking active steps to preserve open space, to create false barriers that limit sprawl, and to create economic models that make upward growth the relatively less expensive alternative.
This density model, however, is in direct conflict with the car culture that currently exists. Try driving in Los Angeles and you will immediately know what I mean. As buildings go higher, freeways must become ever wider until, finally, no freeway is wide enough. Los Angeles has 14 lane freeways that are parking lots, even on weekends. The “Big Dig” in Boston proved to be a largely cost prohibitive and logistical nightmare of putting seven miles of freeway underground.
This leaves only one option, cities with robust public transportation, dedicated bike lanes, and walkable communities of mixed use (stores on the first floor, condos and office space above) buildings. This also means the planning and subsidization of these projects, by government. All transportation is subsidized. The gas tax pays for road repairs and construction. Government uses its power of eminent domain to buy land from individuals and build freeways. The true cost of gas, through pollution, is cost shifted from the user to society as a whole.
Tempe, in large part, has embraced this model for the future. Tempe recently ranked 18th in the nation on a list of most bike friendly cities in the world. (Scottsdale was 15th, Tucson was 12th.) Most of the development planned for north of Broadway Road are mixed use buildings of some height. Tempe is a regional leader in promoting public transportation via the Orbit busses, bussing in general, and light rail. I am not arguing desire, I am arguing scale. Cleary, there is a sustained effort and understanding in Tempe among some for a bike-able, walk-able, community. But, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Being the tallest jockey in the room isn’t saying much.” We can do better.
Truthfully, I have not yet settled on the details of the best ways to help Tempe be a more livable city, both now and in the future. I have ideas…some of which may be right, some of which may be wrong, and some of which may change over time as new information is gathered. It is, frankly, too early on to discuss details, but I did want to at least set out the philosophy that informs my decisions.
And finally, while the purpose of this paper is not the interplay between urban growth and established suburban communities, I want to at least briefly address this, lest someone think I am advocating for density creep into single family home areas. I am not.
There is a critical respect that must be given to the general plan and to those that have bought and paid for a suburban lifestyle with the expectation it will remain for the rest of their lives. It is the height of disrespect to disrupt that existing choice; to breach that sacred promise of community continuity, and that is not something I would ever vote to do.
I invite you to email me your thoughts about multi-mode transportation, the balance between urban and suburban needs, and the best methods to “future proof” our community and the valley.