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Gammage, Jr., Grady. Phoenix in Perspective: Reflections on Developing in the Desert. Tempe: Arizona State University, 1999 (180 pp.). The author is a Phoenix native and long-time lawyer who tends to represent developers and others who have helped to create the Valley of the Sun residents know today. In that sense, one might think he would be a booster for the sprawl and placelessness that many critics say define the region, and some readers of this book would probably find it to be just that. On the other hand, it’s clear Gammage is someone who cares about the future of the Valley, and all of his observations and recommendations therefore do not fall into the development-at-any-cost school of thought. The title of the book – Phoenix in Perspective – suggests that he is attempting to explain why the region looks as it does. While Phoenix is the poster child for mindless sprawl to some, notably the New Urbanists and critics like James Kunstler, Grady argues that Phoenix never was an example of the dense urban development that these and other planners advocate, and therefore it is not fair to hold Phoenix to the same standards. He begins with a brief history of the Valley, noting that the population boom did not come until after World War II – with air conditioning, the automobile, and mass-produced housing just getting their legs. Consequently, Phoenix came of age with all three, and together they (and other forces, such as low-cost federal loans that encouraged outward development) explain how and why the Valley grew as it did. His historical background is interesting, but it really doesn’t answer much of today’s criticism head-on. Nor is the history all that complete: he does not mention, for instance, that Phoenix once was a more dense streetcar town, like most others before the 1930s. Similarly, other urban communities, take Chicago for example, experienced the rush to the suburbs in the 1920s as cars became more popular, yet today there’s a vibrant downtown there. Other large western cities, most notably Denver and Seattle, experienced much of the same sprawling development characteristic of Phoenix in the 50s and 60s, but they have managed to refocus their efforts on the downtown. Why is it they can and Phoenix can’t? He doesn’t explain that. That Phoenix doesn’t really have a downtown worthy of its size doesn’t seem to concern him, but it should – for both economic and quality-of-life reasons. Gammage does not advocate light rail and other fixed forms of mass transit, preferring instead to continue Phoenix’s individualistic car culture because it’s more flexible and "that’s what people want" – or that old saw, "that’s the free market." First, he does not consider the fact that light rail encourages a more compact development – that people and businesses will move closer to and shop near transit stops. Sure, rail is fixed and less flexible than the auto, but that’s the point – it doesn’t promote the rambling exodus that the car culture does. Second, it’s not free market. That stock broker driving his Lexus from north Scottsdale is subsidized for his trip four or five times as much as his maid taking the bus from South Phoenix. Gammage ignores completely the discussion of class and sprawl, and Phoenix does suffer from the class distinctions that the suburbs often exacerbate. He also does not seem too concerned with the destruction that freeways have brought to communities – in terms of ripping up historic neighborhoods or destroying open space. Gammage has recommendations for saving the desert, for developing a fairer system of taxing and zoning, and for water use (although his projections seem too Pollyanna, or they fall into the school of, "We have CAP water, so let’s keep growing"). Also there is little mention in the book about the cost of all this development – not only the drain on the environment, health-related expenses, and overall quality of life, which admittedly are difficult to quantify, but the actual costs in dollars that sprawl creates for taxpayers (which has been quantified in numerous studies). There’s a sense in the book that because Phoenix developed the way it did in the 1950s, citizens should accept that pattern of growth because there is precedent. Well, many observers of the American scene would concur that the growth dynamics of that generation – spurred by accelerated freeway construction, the rise and eventual dominance of the automobile, the dismantling of downtowns, and the mass-production of homes in the suburbs – were not among the best developments in the nation’s history – economically, socially, and environmentally – so why hold onto and even celebrate them? Just because there is historic precedent to explain Phoenix doesn’t make it right. There is much to admire in Gammage’s recounting of the Phoenix story, but he does come off as somewhat of an apologist for a community that is becoming larger yet more homogenous and inhospitable. His book provides a counterpoint to those who would only thrash the city – and their numbers are significant – but a less boosterish and more critical examination of what Phoenix has been and might be has yet to be written.


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