The exit interview

About a decade ago, the Phoenix architect Taz Khatri gave the urbanist Yuri Artibise an “exit interview” of sorts. I adapt the formula here

About a decade ago, the Phoenix architect Taz Khatri gave the urbanist Yuri Artibise an “exit interview” of sorts after he left Phoenix for British Columbia. While the original post has been lost, the internet doesn’t forget, and they’re on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Continue reading “The exit interview”

Phoenix on the rise?

Navel-gazing doesn’t make a city better. If Phoenix is a city on the rise, where are we in relation to our peer cities?

Downtown Phoenix skyline at sunsetI hate to rain on the Phoenix good news parade and that “Phoenix on the rise” video…

There’s a story circulating around on all of Phoenix’s social media channels about Yahoo! News’s Katie Couric focusing on Phoenix. I even watched it, because self-denial or something like that. It’s got all of the local players you’d expect in it, because they’re the Very Serious People in town.

And all of what was said in the video may be true.

But what Phoenix’s leaders are forgetting at best (or ignoring at worst) is that this isn’t a competition about Phoenix in 2017 vs. Phoenix just after the Great Recession. Navel gazing doesn’t make our city better; it lets other cities pass us while we congratulate ourselves over smaller accomplishments. It’s Phoenix vs. our peer cities both in the United States and around the world. So it’s not just Phoenix vs. Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, or Philadelphia, it’s Phoenix vs. Melbourne, Brasilia, Johannesburg, Stuttgart, and Osaka. These are all things that I’ve said before.

Let’s deconstruct one of the points of the P.R. piece very serious journalism: that Phoenix is the “next big tech hub.” Again, it may be compared itself a few years ago. But a landmark study commissioned by the real estate conglomerate Cushman and Wakefield, Tech Cities 1.0: An Interactive Look at Metrics and Cities to Watch, Phoenix didn’t make the top 25, despite being the 5th largest city by population and the 12th largest metro area by population. In in a passing bullet point on a piece on Tech Cities 1.0, cities are assessed on the quality of their institutions of higher learning, supply of tech workers, amount of venture capital, skilled knowledge workers, and entrepreneurial growth engines. Phoenix isn’t mentioned except CityLab by Richard Florida: “Phoenix ($269 million), which is not on the chart above, attracted more venture capital investment than Baltimore ($254 million).”

Is it nice that Phoenix is getting attention? Probably. But while attention is nice, we have to remember that we have a long way to go to break even with our peer cities nationally and internationally.

The (Almost) Friday Five: Transportation Improvements

The (Almost) Friday Five: Some thoughts on public transportation improvements in Phoenix in light of City Hall’s push to collect our feedback.

[editorial note: On some Fridays here on, we publish “The Friday Five” — a quick list of some things that catch our attention either about our community or anything in general.  Today, we are talking public transportation improvements. This week’s “Friday Five” is published on Thursday because there will be a Friday Essay.]

friday five logoThe City of Phoenix announced a new online initiative called to collect Phoenix residents’ ideas about transportation improvements and the future of transportation in our fair city.  While my verdict is still out on these online forms of citizen engagement and the quality of information received, I applaud the City for doing this again.  Here are some thoughts I’ve shared to improve transportation in this city:

1. Get rid of the $2.00 bus fare tax and reintroduce transfers. At the moment, it costs $4.00 to purchase an all-day pass except if you’re on a bus, where it’s $6.00. While the reason given was that it is to encourage riders to purchase their passes and tickets at transit centers or third-party retailers, there is no practical reason to keep it. An all-day pass should be the same price no matter where it is purchased.  Conversely, the two-hour transfer should be reintroduced because our bus system is designed around Phoenix’s grid streets system.  To get from one point to another on bus or light rail, there is a great chance that you’ll need to take two (or more) bus lines or connect from bus to train.

2. Designate high-frequency routes and increase service and capacity. When METRO light rail opened after Christmas 2008, it ran one train every ten minutes between 7am and 7pm on weekdays.  Today, the headway is 12 minutes between trains on weekdays, with less frequent service outside of those times.  For buses, a quick glance at the schedule shows that the most frequent line is the Thomas Road line, Route 29, which achieves a 10-minute headway during weekday morning and afternoon commutes.  Using ridership data, Valley Metro should identify these routes with high ridership and create a high-frequency service promise for these core lines.

3. Retrofit existing light rail stations with cooled spaces and put shade at all bus stops. Train and major bus stops in many Midwestern cities have adapted quite well to the extreme cold that comes their way by installing heated areas on platforms and stations.  Having traveled to some of these places during the winter, it is very welcome for this native desert dweller whose idea of cold is anything beneath 50º F!  While I know that physics and electromechanical engineering state that it’s easier to heat than to cool, the number 1 hallmark of a great city is adapting to climate.  We’ve created two light rail platforms in downtown Phoenix that have cooled spaces.  Let’s make them all have cooled spaces.  In addition, let’s put shade at all bus stops.  Too many bus stops are just a sign with no shelter from the heat.  We live in a desert; it gets hot here.  Let’s adapt to our warm climate.

4. Have the bus system achieve schedule parity with light rail. Right now, the last city buses leave downtown Phoenix around 10:15pm on weekdays and 9:00pm on the weekends. Meanwhile, the last light rail trains leave at 11:30pm Sunday through Thursday and 2:30am late night on Friday and Saturdays. Bus service needs to be enhanced to match light rail or light rail service needs to be cut back to match bus services because the two methods complement each other.

5. Introduce stored-value transit fare cards for all riders. Washington’s WMATA has SmarTrip. New York City’s MTA has the Metrocard. Boston’s MBTA has the Charlie Card. In Minneapolis, they have the GoTo Card. All of these cards are reusable cards that have combinations of stored value and day / week / month unlimited-ride passes for bus, subway, or commuter rail. These cards can be purchased by anyone from a vending machine or a station agent. Phoenix doesn’t have that system and it’s long past time we have something like that. Our closest thing is the Platinum Pass but that’s only for companies through trip-reduction programs. Paper tickets for various passes are available. If we want to make public transportation a truly viable and equal option for urban dwellers as we want it to be, a stored-value card program available to the masses has to be introduced.

iPhone Emergency Alerts

Many of us with iPhones in Phoenix received a mobile emergency alert yesterday. Learn about your options to disable them if you want.

In amid the sad and tragic news of the passing of nineteen Arizona firefighters yesterday near Yarnell, there was one other big piece of news: iPhone users in the Phoenix metro area were all startled by the activation of the mobile Emergency Alert System to alert us of a dust storm. We heard the usual EAS alarm tone (which is intentionally jarring!) and we received a notice on our phone screens: “Emergency Alert: Dust Storm Warning in this area til [sic] 12:00 AM MST. Avoid travel. Check local media. -NWS.”

You can turn off these alerts on your iPhones if you want to do that. (I am neither saying you should or shouldn’t!). To do that, go to Settings and tap Notifications. At the bottom of the screen is a section titled “Government Alerts.” At the moment, you can select to enable or disable AMBER alerts and Emergency Alerts.

With the Monsoon season having started in earnest in Phoenix, warnings for dust storms are very prevalent. You’ll be getting a lot of these notices if you keep them on — just be prepared for them.

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” /]

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.

thoughts on Civic Ego

Civic ego (n.): “A city’s (or a city’s inhabitants’) sense of self-esteem or self-importance.”

[editor’s note: It’s great to be writing again.]

The notion of civic ego is something that seems like it hasn’t been explored a lot.  Great cities – and even nascent great cities – have it.  The great cities are very clear when they say that they are the great cities.  Consider this sentence: “Oh, well of course New York City is the cultural capital of the US.”  There are thousands of arts organizations in NYC, including the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, the Julliard School of Music, and far too many others to mention.

So I thought of a phrase that takes this all into account: civic ego.  The definition isn’t any more than the sum of its constituent words: civic meaning of cities and ego meaning a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.  Combined, I posit that the definition of civic ego is this: “A city’s (or a city’s inhabitants’) sense of self-esteem or self-importance.”  (Of course, this implies that cities are living, breathing entities.  I think that we would all agree with that.)

This is something that we don’t have a lot of here in Phoenix.  We’re a nascent city and a city that’s generally on the correct track.  Something that we lack here in Phoenix is civic ego.  We’re definitely deferential to the cultural and physical amenities that we have here.  Instead of saying, “We’re a great city and we deserve these great amenities,” we say, “How lucky we are to have this in Phoenix.”

While it’s sometimes good to adopt the more deferential tone, if Phoenix is to be a great city, then we need to adopt the mindset that we are a great city.  This isn’t blind boosterism: this is changing our thinking from “being lucky” to “of course this should be in Phoenix.”  We can have nice things, too.  So let’s be unabashedly proud of what’s here.

More thoughts on this later. For now, your thoughts are always appreciated! How can we improve Phoenix’s civic ego?

Local experts and national author to discuss state of sustainability in metro Phoenix, Jan. 17

Downtown Voices Coalition hosts a sustainability forum featuring local experts and Andrew Ross, author of “Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City” on 17 January 2012

PHOENIX, Arizona – A panel of local experts and Andrew Ross, author of “Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City,” will discuss the current state of sustainability in metropolitan Phoenix at a public forum on Tuesday, January 17, 2012.  The event, free to the public, will be held at the George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center at 415 E. Grant Street. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., panel discussion 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., audience Q&A 7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., and reception with complimentary refreshments 8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Panel moderator will be Charles Redman, Arizona State University (ASU) Virginia M. Ullmann professor of Natural History and the Environment and founding director of the ASU School of Sustainability. The current slate of panelists (with two to be added soon) includes:

  • Maria Baier, state land commissioner, Arizona;
  • Steve Betts, former president/CEO of SunCor Development and current Arizona District Council Chair of the Urban Land Institute;
  • Terry Goddard, former Phoenix mayor and former Arizona attorney general who now teaches a course at the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus: “Phoenix and the Art of Public Decision Making;”
  • Taz Loomans, architect and writer/blogger on sustainability issues;
  • Kris Mayes, former commissioner of the Arizona Corporation Commission and current director of the ASU Law and Sustainability Program and professor at the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law;
  • Andrew Ross, professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University.
  • Silvia Urrutia, director of Housing and Healthcare Finance, Raza Development Fund

According to Susan Copeland, steering committee chair of Downtown Voices Coalition, “Issues of sustainability are paramount to the future of Phoenix. Ross’ book is a great springboard from which to begin, or continue, discussion.”

The Downtown Voices Coalition is sponsoring the event with in-kind support from the Lexington Hotel in downtown Phoenix, Four Peaks Brewery of Tempe and the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center.

Bird on Fire” is available at Made Art Boutique, 922 North 5th Street in downtown Phoenix and at Changing Hands Bookstore at 6428 South McClintock Drive in Tempe. It is also available at Burton Barr, Cesar Chavez and Mesquite Branch libraries in Phoenix.

Downtown Voices Coalition is a coalition of stakeholder organizations that embrace growth in downtown Phoenix, but is mindful that healthy growth should be based upon existing downtown resources — the vibrancy of neighborhoods, the strength of the arts community, the uniqueness of historic properties, and the wonderful small businesses that dot downtown. For more information, visit


Why I’m voting for Greg Stanton

…in which I endorse Greg Stanton to be the next Mayor of Phoenix.

As I am sure you have noticed by the endless campaign signs on Phoenix’s streets, there’s a major election on Tuesday, November 8. All Phoenicians will be voting for mayor, and the final two candidates are Greg Stanton, a former city councilman and assistant attorney general, and Wes Gullett, an erstwhile corporate lobbyist.

If you’ve been following my tweets on Twitter or my occasional update on Facebook, you’ll note that I have been emphasizing the importance of getting involved in local issues. Much has been made about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that have spawned regional events around the globe, including in our own city. I’m an ardent believer in the belief that true, honest, and sustainable change begins at home.

We want change to happen. We crave change. Other than a very few people, nobody is content with how things are going. And rather than look at things from the big picture and agonize over how we’ll change things (ultimately settling with the status quo), let’s look here. Let’s look at our own Phoenix.

It’s probably redundant to say that Phoenix has fallen behind in many things over the last decade. We have let side conversations drive our political conversations instead of looking at the major issues. If you read The Arizona Republic‘s endorsement of whom they want to be Phoenix’s next mayor, they identified changing the city’s pension system and revising its employees’ benefits package as the two big issues that will face Phoenix in this decade. And while these are important issues, as you and I know, there are far more important issues that need to be not only addressed but tackled by Phoenix’s next mayor.

In its next decade, Phoenix has to address many issues that are far more important than how the city compensates its employees. Our local leaders have to look at how we can move forward far more sustainably. And I mean absolutely more than just installing solar panels on parking shades: I mean looking at supporting things that can and ought to be sustained. We need to look at expanding and enhancing the region’s public transportation, we need to look at making historic preservation a top priority because “the greenest building is the one already standing,” we need to encourage people-friendly pedestrian development, and we need to develop networks for alternative modes of transportation. My list could go on and on.

These issues aren’t conservative issues nor are they liberal issues. Nor is this race about garbage collection, water rates, or permitting processes. The race is about advancing LOCAL issues like thoughtful investments in our local economy, including education, quality jobs, and smart economic development. We want a leader who will advocate for Phoenix first and use the bully pulpit afforded to the Mayor to challenge and to change this state’s regrettable education policies, missed action on advancing clean energy, and reputation in the nation and around the world.

By the City of Phoenix’s own laws, this election is a nonpartisan race. One can argue how the election has turned extremely partisan. One sees signs about whom “taxpayers support” and what sides the public safety employees support. Or one sees which candidates are being supported by political parties and by political action committees.

For me, although endorsements are nice, it’s not about that. At the end of the day, it is about two things: it’s about the candidate who dreams outside of our community’s collective comfort zone and it’s about the candidate who works with all sides and builds consensus.

If our civic leaders didn’t dream outside of our own collective comfort zone, we would never have seen a strong bioscience presence in downtown or not one but three vibrant colleges and universities in the heart of our city (four of the constituent colleges of Arizona State University, the University of Arizona College of Medicine, and the Phoenix School of Law). If we just looked at numbers, Phoenix would never have blossomed into the city that it is. If we just looked at numbers, there would be no reason to save this city’s history or to build a strong downtown and midtown core. And certainly, if we just looked at numbers, we would never have seen METRO light rail, whose ridership numbers continue setting records.

Also, it is about supporting the candidate who will build consensus and support in the community. It’s about the candidate who will bring all sides to the table in issues like the city budget or how to deal with unions, not just attack them and disenfranchise them because it’s politically expedient to do so.

The candidate that will build consensus in Phoenix, bring all sides to the discussion, and lead Phoenix forward by dreaming outside of our collective comfort zone is Greg Stanton. I encourage you to join me for voting for Mr. Stanton and making Phoenix’s next decade its best decade. Mail-in ballots have been mailed out and voting ends on November 8. For more information, check the City of Phoenix’s Elections website.