What Downtown Phoenix Needs

There’s one thing downtown Phoenix needs. Where are our elected leaders on it?

Quick bite for a Wednesday morning: There’s a piece that’s been making the rounds in the downtown Phoenix thought circles about how to get involved in the downtown Phoenix community to make it “suck less.”

First things first: I’m not a fan of solutions journalism, that idea that journalism must always have some sort of solution to it. It just seems like it’s a new approach on feel-good reporting. I guess I’m old-school in the fact that good journalism must cast light to what’s going on. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” said the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. So it’s up to us – the public citizenry – to decide what to do with that information.

The article in question is Want Downtown Phoenix To Suck Less? Here’s How To Get Involved by Antonia Noori Farzan. The premise of the article is that there are several downtown Phoenix advocacy groups that downtown-inclined individuals should join and then go to every single downtown meeting and talk to every single downtown elected or appointed official about design-related things.

There’s one fatal problem with that: The premise of Ms Farzan’s article seems to go on the failed notion that downtown Phoenix’s issues are design-related and that a bike lane here or tree there would suddenly cure our urban ills and make our downtown on par with those of Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, or Philadelphia.

As this blog has noted with great regularity, that’s not the case. There are way too many macro issues that are ignored because, well, I’m not sure why. But they all stem back to one thing, something I tweeted about earlier today:

That’s the thing that’s missing. And this isn’t a new chorus or refrain of mine.

  • In 2014, after Sprouts Farmers Market announced their corporate office moving from near Paradise Valley Mall to CityNorth, I wrote in Another Day, Another Strikeout, “What is the economic development strategy for downtown and midtown Phoenix? I fear to ask the next question, but I will: Is there one? I think it’s admirable that we are trying to have lots of incubator spaces and attract individual entrepreneurs but we need to ask: What is their economic impact compared to, say, the Sprouts Farmers Market headquarters?”
  • In a 2014 edition of The Friday Five suggesting alternate urban talking points (which was in reaction to a feel-good design-focused thing going on that weekend), I wrote, “As we learn of other suburban cities or, in fact, suburban parts of Phoenix, taking jobs and economic development away from central-city Phoenix, we still think about how to make a better design for our streets, sidewalks, and bicycle lanes.  That’s nice, to be sure, but I still maintain that if we don’t have the economic activity to support those physical amenities, then what’s the point?”
  • There was a metric I created as well called The Eddie Number. The premise of that is to get a sense of economic headquarters in a downtown area compared to the rest of the metropolitan area. Also in 2014 (yeah, I wrote more back then), downtown Phoenix’s Eddie Number was -11.

So this is nothing new. This has been my common refrain but it’s gone on deaf ears.

Want downtown Phoenix to “suck less”? Get money and civic leaders back downtown.

In defense of Phoenix criticism and @BloomingRock

Some of the best analyses of Phoenix comes from former Phoenicians. Let’s embrace what they have to add to the conversation and not summarily ignore it.

471868_305411662828648_281885915181223_382286_706098635_o1-225x300.jpgMy friend Taz Loomans, the writer and former Phoenician, wrote a piece yesterday in which she compared the most urban elements of Phoenix to just less than a suburb. In Taz’s words:

“[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” / bloomingrock.com]

Part of me says that she’s right. Compared to other urban environments the size of Phoenix — Seattle, Minneapolis, and Portland are examples that quickly come to mind — we are far from urban. One wonders if we’ll ever become a truly urban city on the size and scale of these cities. Phoenix came of age during the era of the automobile being the main driver for design and development. It’s not an indictment of Phoenix per se; however, it’s a design reality that contemporary urbanists seem to ignore.

I commented on the piece and on Facebook that I don’t believe that Phoenix will become an urban environment on the scale of Seattle, Minneapolis, and Portland. But instead, I think we’ll move to embrace the twenty-minute city. (The twenty-minute city is defined as places to work, shop, play, and eat that are a twenty-minute public transportation trip, bicycle ride, or walk from one’s residence.) As one of those weird Phoenicians without a car, I have my own twenty-minute city. By migrating my belief system to this instead of wanting wholesale urbanism across central Phoenix, I’ve come to appreciate this city more. Of course, we have much to improve in the areas of sustainability, density, diversity, and promoting a desert urbanism.

But my thoughts and feelings on urban Phoenix aren’t the point of this piece. As was to be expected, the usual blind boosters of Phoenix were quick to denounce Taz’s comments as a disaffected former Phoenician who has quit trying to make Phoenix better by moving to Portland. (Their thoughts and words, not mine.) Some of the most cogent analyses of Phoenix and the issues facing Phoenix have come from former Phoenicians. In addition to Taz, the writings of Jon Talton quickly come to mind. His writing may be harsh at times; however, his writing is permeated with the reality that we in Phoenix need to heed. One also thinks of the book Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City by Dr Andrew Ross, the NYU professor of social analysis.

We Phoenicians are terrible at taking criticism. Terrible at it. Instead of debating and discussing ideas to make our part of the world better, we summarily dismiss ideas based on the people who have offered those ideas. As a native Phoenician, it was harsh to read through Bird on Fire. But it was the best-researched tome on Phoenix history that I have read ever…hands down. The scope of Dr Ross’s research as well as the people and organizations he interviewed were spot-on. And as for my friend Taz: because she no longer lives in Phoenix does not mean that her thoughts and ideas on urban living in Phoenix are now less valid.

Phoenix will never become Portland (to which I say thank goodness!) but there are elements of Portland’s urbanism that we can adapt for Phoenix use. We’ll never be Seattle or Minneapolis, which is okay, but we can take the elements of their citizens’ strong civic engagement in their cities’ design and policy processes. We can take some of the advocacy that has made these urban areas the best and apply them to our city, county, and state policymakers and elected officials. Just because someone has left Phoenix (or is not from Phoenix) does not make their viewpoints less valid.

Let’s debate ideas, not people.