As promised, today I will share some thoughts and pictures from my recent trip to the desert – Phoenix. I would talk a little more about hurricane Sandy, but Rob already did a great job in yesterday’s blog entry and it is dominating all media coverage already on TV, cable, radio, Internet, newspapers, so maybe this will be a little reprieve. The most interesting aspect of Sandy on our weather is that it will prevent many changes here in Wisconsin. The big storm along the east coast is clogging up the flow of weather across the U.S. and that means what we have now will linger for a few more days. High will be in the 40s, low will be in the 20s, and we will have partly or mostly sunny skies.
What about Phoenix? I have been there three times and unfortunately I am less impressed every time, because it gets bigger, hotter, more polluted, and less distinct every time. It is a classic “sprawling environmental disaster” – a term I use more frequently nowadays to describe cities in the U.S. It seems in the past there was some consideration as to the aesthetic of the cities we live in. People wanted buildings to look unique. Citizens were more involved in the planning process to make sure the city had a heart. Downtowns were dynamic, alive, and vibrant and the neighborhoods were cleaner and quieter. During the last couple of decades and especially during the housing boom after 2001, planning took a back seat to laying as much pavement, building as many subdivisions, and erecting as many stripmalls as possible. In the sense that people end up with what they really want, then sprawling environmental disasters must have some purpose.
Maybe I am just an old stick in the mud, proposing that denser, smarter, more aesthetic cities (and conversely, a less developed countryside with more open natural space or room for farming) would be a better way to go.
Before anyone jumps in to defend Phoenix, realize that I have used the term “sprawling environmental disaster” for most of the cities I have visited. Cities in flyover country (including here in Wisconsin) have spread far out into the farmland and forestland. L.A. is probably worse than Phoenix, and they would probably admit to it, having the traffic and pollution numbers to back it up. The Chicago metropolis is bigger than Phoenix but it does have a more unique and traditional downtown area. The knock on Phoenix is that there isn’t much of a downtown. There isn’t much structure to the city.
An endless repetition of small office centers, stripmalls, gas stations, freeways, and subdivisions stretch out into the horizon, no matter what direction you are traveling. In some ways, the layout does make sense. Phoenix is a big retirement area. People move there and want to live in a quiet clean neighborhood, not a bustling downtown.
Because of the nature of the community (a lot of retirees), there are some great golf courses, some wealthy enclaves with beautiful houses, and some upscale shopping. You will find some pockets of art as well. Another positive of the city is that they do grow a lot of urban trees. There are not a lot of parks but the city and region does maintain a good number of trees, which does take some effort in the desert. I might talk negative about Phoenix from an environmental perspective, but I would definitely consider it an option for “snow-bird” type retirement.
Of course it is hot down there. Residents around Phoenix say the Summer in the valley of the sun is similar to Winter in Wisconsin – everyone just stays indoors for about 4 months. If you do not have access to air conditioning, you could die – literally. And here is where the sprawl comes into play. A smarter city with less pavement, traffic, and sprawl, would reduce the heat island effect. Instead of baking in 110 to 120 during the peak of Summer, Phoenix residents would more routinely have 105 to 110 degree high temps during the hottest time of year. It would make a big difference.
What would also make a big difference is more alternative energy and this is another positive aspect about the Phoenix area. They do have more solar installation than the rest of the nation, but it is still a very small portion of their energy picture.
I saw about one or two buildings with solar panels about every large city block. I asked a resident of Phoenix why more people don’t have solar panels, since it is such a sunny place. He gave the same answer as most people – it is too expensive. I told him that the payback on solar powered exhaust fans and solar heated water are much quicker than for solar panel installations designed to power the house. He said he would look into it because the third floor of his house was always uncomfortably hot even with the AC running full blast.
Many thanks to all the people who left comments in the blog a while back about some of the most value-oriented options for solar power! I am looking into some of these options. Spreading the word is good!
Like many other cities, Phoenix is in an infrastructure trap. The infrastructure cost of maintaining the sprawl is getting to be a large burden. The tax base has shrunk because housing prices have gone down dramatically. I am sure they would love to redesign some things, maybe put in some more passenger rail or have more efficient dense living space downtown, but that costs a lot of money as well. Contraction or re-design might only come after bankruptcy or default. That is what is happening in Spain. Like the U.S., Spain had a housing and infrastructure boom/bust. They built some of the best highways in Europe. They intended to help pay for the highways through tolls, which is usually a very smart (and fair) move. Unfortunately, the economy in Spain has crashed so far that the “highways” are now bankrupt. No one is driving the new roads and paying tolls. Spain did build some high speed train lines during the boom, and I think they should keep those open and try to save them. The trains are new and more efficient. They should just tear up the highways when they fall into disrepair.
Many demographic and social trends are pointing away from “the car” anyway. It would be a waste of money to continue building up more expensive highways. I even wonder about the wisdom of expanding the roads here in Wausau. If the history of other cities in the U.S. is any guide, building more highways only increases traffic, congestion, and pollution. Interesting to note, our news department has an feature story coming up about how younger generations are not as enthused about getting a car as older generations were. I have written about this in the blog before (rentership society). The reasons have to do with cost and connections. Cars (and their operating expenses) get more expensive every year. Younger generations are also more connected because of the Internet. They can see each other, talk, work, earn a living, and play games, all without leaving the house.
Have a nice Monday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.