ASU researcher finds that as Phoenix grows so do its challenges

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Development is a cornerstone of metropolitan Phoenix, and like a teenager with growing pains, Phoenix is experiencing the aches and pains of maturing into a fully grown city. But Phoenix has a host of traits that could make that transition much more difficult, according to Pat Gober, an Arizona State University geography professor and co-director of the Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC).

Gober recently published a book examining the problems faced by our booming desert city called Metropolitan Phoenix: Place Making and Community Building in the Desert. The book is part of the Metropolitan Portraits series published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Thirty years ago, Gober moved from Wisconsin to Phoenix to teach geography at ASU. Since then, she has seen the city push out further and further into the desert and witnessed a meteoric rise in the number of Valley residents.

Two years ago, Gober was given a grant by the National Science Foundation to look at what environmental and climatic issues affect Phoenix the most. The grant led to the formation of DCDC, which is committed to improving climate and water-related decision making through scientific research in Phoenix and other cities facing similar challenges.

Gober's book is based on some of that research. In it, she explains that Phoenix residents face problems like water usage, climate change and urban decay, which are faced by any city but amplified by the Phoenix's desert location and rapid growth.

"Phoenix has an economy and a political structure that is built on growth, so once it starts rolling it keeps rolling," Gober said.

With growth comes increased use of natural resources. Gober warns that Phoenix, which passed Philadelphia to become the fifth-largest city in the United States, is especially susceptible to resource depletion because of its desert climate.

"There are two interlinking issues," Gober said. "Phoenix has grown tremendously in a very short period of time. Second, we have a very fragile natural environment. This desert region receives less than eight inches of rain per year, so we are heavily dependent on water from very far away."

Such limited access to water is a hurdle for sustained growth. Gober said the desert's natural disparity of water, while not very alarming in the short term thanks to its system of reservoirs, could become a major problem in 25 years. At that time, if growth continues to explode, the region will have to stretch its resources and change water usage habits to meet the needs of all residents.

Resource depletion is not the only problem plaguing Phoenix. Gober's book also explores several public policy challenges affecting Valley residents. Gober attributes some of these problems to the Valley's "culture of migration," where a large percentage of the population comes from other places. This contributes to disparate ideas about the future of growth and policy. A good example is Phoenix's large population of citizens living in retirement communities.

"Certainly, people who retire in Arizona promote growth and strengthen the local economy," Gober said. "But retirement communities are somewhat insulated from the rest of Phoenix, which can lead to small-scale thinking."

As examples, Gober cites three retirement communities, Sun City, Youngtown and Sun City West, that withdrew from their respective school districts so they would no longer have to pay taxes to those districts. "Residents of these communities feel connected to their retirement-community neighbors, but do not feel responsible for educating the children of surrounding communities," Gober said. "In addition, they regularly vote against metropolitan-wide initiatives for transportation, sports arenas and recreation."

Despite the challenges of rapid growth and a harsh climate, Gober believes that with responsible planning and the right mindset, the Phoenix metropolitan area will overcome its adversities and learn to live within its means.

"I think we have a governor (Janet Napolitano) who understands the importance of water and how it relates to growth," Gober said. "Additionally, light rail is a sign of progress, and even though there are new neighborhoods being built on the fringes, there are also neighborhoods thriving in the city."

Looking at the larger picture and better understanding the needs of its citizens are some of the first steps to establishing Phoenix as a grown-up community, Gober said. She believes her book will help bring science to bear on important growth decisions.

"We're still new kids on the block," Gober said. "But it's time that we started growing smarter and maturing gracefully."

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Source:
Pat Gober, (480) 965-7533

Media contacts:
Mike Price, (480) 965-9690
Skip Derra, (480) 965-4823


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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