Phoenix as a National Role Model

Phoenix as a National Role Model
Tom Martinson

MINNEAPOLIS In my practice as a development planner throughout the United States and Pacific Rim Asia, I’ve noticed that certain cities serve as a working laboratory for other major cities. This occurs when a given metropolitan region addresses its own pressing issues and prized ambitions with fresh insights and effective solutions. It is widely recognized as a national role model.
These periods of civic prominence last for about a generation, until the emergence of new issues and ambitions which are better addressed by other cities. Between the First and Second World Wars, for example, Manhattan functioned as a laboratory of urbanism at a time when big American cities were focused on building dominant downtowns. The explosive growth of suburbia defined the subsequent postwar era. Unsurprisingly Los Angeles Southland initiatives were then closely followed by civic leaders and city planners from other rapidly expanding metropolitan areas.
American society and thus our great metropolitan cities are again moving into a fundamentally new era. Tomorrow’s regional issues, ambitions, and useful solutions will be very different from those of the previous era, which ended in 2007. Many people are waiting for the old pre-2007 norms to reassert themselves and proceed on as before. But that will not happen. Generational changes in the direction of society are as irreversible as they are inevitable.

As part of a national response to sweeping change across our dynamic regions, we need a new working laboratory to test and demonstrate promising community-development ideas. For a number of reasons cited below, Phoenix—the Valley—has the strongest potential for fulfilling a leadership role.
This is not to suggest that Phoenicians should selflessly take on responsibility simply for the benefit of other places. Or to make something as ephemeral as national prestige a civic goal. Rather, Phoenix is presently a crucible with an urgent need to solve its many pressing problems—and to further benefit from its many unique gifts. Other American regions will gain important insights into their own particular issues from the successes of Phoenix.

The Valley is potentially valuable today as a national demonstration in five respects:
First, its demographics already resemble the apparent direction of American society. So the underlying local social-economic context is widely applicable throughout the United States.
And the very high growth of the past several decades is understood by everyone living in the Valley. This has been an extreme experience even compared to other fast-growing American regions, in the way that Manhattan is an extreme demonstration of American urbanism. As New Yorkers like to assert about themselves, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Applied to the Valley’s potential as a national leader for emerging regional issues, that is a novel local self-image for Phoenicians to ponder.

Third, the Valley has developed into several distinct ethnic and economic residential markets, each of which requires localized solutions for housing and neighborhoods. Nationwide, housing conventions of the last half-century are less-and-less relevant to a contemporary American society that is breaking down into many differing social and economic niches. Again, metropolitan Phoenix in effect already occupies the future.

Fourth, the area is especially fertile ground for the retrofitting of postwar subdivisions and for devising better ways of addressing regional fringes. Both of these will be major metropolitan-development issues throughout the U.S. for the foreseeable future. From a planning perspective, the Valley is a banquet of possibilities.

Finally, project and program financing has become the critical issue for American cities, in the way that physical matters like subdivision layouts dominated the postwar era. Over the past half-century, progressive cities have depended on a myriad of federal, state, local, and foundation funding to leverage or to outright pay for signature improvements. (These enterprises differ from public works like streets and sewers and facilities like schools, whose construction bonds are typically retired through property assessments.)
This familiar system has been seriously eroding throughout the U.S., primarily for two reasons. One is that the present anti-tax climate has sharply reduced public funding and leveraging capacities. The other is that traditional local elites who nurtured and protected cities like Minneapolis and St. Louis have for the most part moved off-stage. With respect to funding sources in the upcoming era, Phoenix is already where other great American regions are moving.
Until now, the Valley has long been underappreciated by national opinion leaders despite many local accomplishments. For instance, outsiders declare Phoenix’s downtown-development odyssey to be a failure instead of recognizing that downtown has been a true working laboratory. No one looks to Phoenix for community-development direction even though the city’s public and private leadership has gained invaluable insights over decades of (as yet largely unfulfilled) civic experimentation in downtown.
But from now on the new practical realities for many if not for most American regions will look a lot more like those already well-understood in the Valley, certainly for the five reasons just cited. So Phoenix has in important ways become the most-experienced among our rapidly growing metropolitan areas. If regional public officials and civic leaders take full advantage of their hands-on expertise to offer fresh insights and devise effective local solutions, their contributions can be even more significant than providing a better quality of life in the Valley of the Sun.