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Synthesis/Regeneration 40   (Summer 2006)

A Race Against the Car

by Doctress Neutopia

Our government is conducting a war against drugs, is it? Let them go after petroleum. Talk about a destructive high! You put some of this stuff in your car and you can go a hundred miles an hour, run over the neighbor’s dog, and tear the atmosphere to smithereens.       —Kurt Vonnegut

From the documentary film, “Making Sense of Place—Phoenix: The Urban Desert,” there is much to learn about what the future could hold for this region of the world if developers continue to bulldoze the precious Sonoran Desert. The film’s narrator stated that within the next 10 years, Phoenix will draw 1 million new people.

At the time the 2003 film was made, one acre per hour of desert land was being bulldozed to accommodate this massive growth. There were 3,300 new homes per month being built and 150 lane-miles of road being constructed each year. Phoenix is a car-dependent city which, of course, means it is a city dependent on foreign oil.

Phoenix now has a total of 3.3 million people, making it the 6th largest city in the United States. To cover all the water requirements of this megalopolis, a canal system was engineered to divert 1/8 of the Colorado River for its needs. Even though urban growth seems limitless, the resource of water is not. But the limited future of that resource doesn’t seem to faze developers, and the politicians who support them, as colossal growth continues.

What attracts people to Phoenix is partly its sunny climate and the advertisements of developers like Del Webb who have manufactured a lifestyle of “resort style desert living” as part of their marketing propaganda. Using marketing research, they found that most people everywhere want the same things: good schools, quality parks and fun things to do. They don’t just build houses; they build communities. Their newest development, Anthem, has 50,000 homes built on virgin desert, and is 35 miles from downtown Phoenix.

Phoenix is a car-dependent city which, of course, means it is a city dependent on foreign oil.

This is called leapfrog development. Developers go where the land is cheap. They get subsidies from the government for the cost of building the infrastructure needed to construct communities in new areas of desert. Since the federal and state governments also subsidize water costs, water bills are still misleadingly low for this arid environment. And since migrant labor is inexpensive in Arizona because of the illegal Mexican labor force, developers can continue to build and make huge profits. In developments like Anthem, golf courses are designated as open spaces. People move from parking garage to parking garage, commuting an average of two hours a day, never having time on a daily basis to get in touch with the desert.

Even though the Sonoran desert is the second most diverse ecosystem in the world after the rainforest, housing patterns continue to ruin the land. People want direct access to the Sonoran desert and this pushes developers to seek land on the city’s edges to give homeowners the open space vistas that they want. But what happens, of course, is that since everyone wants this connection with the desert, the fringe eventually becomes new suburbs with traffic jams. Thus, everyone loses the natural treasure. Architectural critic James Howard Kunstler writes in The Geography of Nowhere, “Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been build in the last 50 years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy and spiritually degrading.”

At some point in the film, I was half-expecting filmmakers to bring in the work and ideas of architect Paolo Soleri, who is known for his vision of arcology. His urban laboratory is located perhaps 30 minutes north of Anthem. He has been developing his concept of a car-free urban structure, arcology, for 30 years. Arcology is a high-density structure designed to allow people the best of both the natural world and the built human environment through its pedestrian-centered blueprint. People would live and work in the same place, eliminating the need for commuting.

Paolo Soleri…has been developing his concept of a car-free urban structure, arcology, for 30 years.

Using alternative energy and clean, cradle-to-cradle industries, an idea conceived by architect William McDonough and his partner, chemist Michael Braungart, Arcology Phoenix would be a model that could eliminate sprawl and industrial pollution, saving the Sonoran Desert from further destruction. In their book Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart write, “If there are three times as many cars in 20 years as there are today on the planet, of course, it won’t matter very much if they are highly efficient ultralight cars made from advanced carbon fibers and get a hundred miles to a gallon, or are even nutrivehicles. The planet will be crawling with cars, and we need other options.

Building on the cradle-to-cradle industrial principle that “food equals waste,” that in nature nothing is wasted, shifts industry away from producing products that end up in landfills to industries designed to recycle products. Such a shift requires us to understand that Planet Earth is a closed system. McDonough and Braungart write,

If our systems contaminate Earth’s biological mass and continue to throw away technical materials (such as metals) or render them useless, we will indeed live in a world of limits, where production and consumption are restrained, and the Earth will literally become a grave. If humans are truly going to prosper, we will have to learn to imitate nature’s highly effective cradle-to-cradle nutrient flow and metabolism, in which the very concept of waste does not exist.

In order to create a healthy, striving system for generations into the future, we have to understand that products are composed of either biological materials that biodegrade, or technological nutrients that need to stay in closed-loop technological cycles. These valuable technological nutrients can be reused in industry.

"If humans are truly going to prosper, we will have to learn to imitate nature’s highly effective cradle-to-cradle nutrient flow and metabolism, in which the very concept of waste does not exist."

For this to occur, McDonough and Braungart have introduced the idea of evolving into a product-of-service economy. This means that products of service such as a computers, TV sets, carpets, refrigerators, would be purchased for a defined user period. The user would be paying for the service of the product, not the product itself. When the user is finished with the product or wants an upgraded product, the manufacturer takes it back or replaces it. Breaking down the old model, the industry would be able to reuse the valuable materials.

How deeply disappointing it was when the film failed to mention the idea of arcology! Searching for answers for this grave oversight, I went to the film’s web site. Underneath the link to “Making Sense of Place: Planning and Making Communities,” there is a commentary by John Meunier, Dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at Arizona State University from 1987–2002. In his commentary he writes about Soleri’s idea:

Arcology retains its fascination and tugs on our environmental consciences, but it remains a distant and unrealized vision. We have to recognize that our existing economic and political systems could not generate it, and there is an even more substantial reservation; does it map on American cultural values?

Humankind is at a turning point and only education with action is going to save us. No one in the film suggested an answer to the long-term problem about what to do about sprawl and its consequences such as social isolation, alienation, crime, lack of meaningful civic life, water and air pollution, habitat loss for indigenous species, hyper-consumerism, car dependency and all the array of health problems associated with it, from childhood asthma to obesity to traffic fatalities.

Arcology is the ultimate architectural foundation necessary to teach us how to live at peace with the desert. The Arcology Phoenix infrastructure would be based on the principle of water conservation, which would greatly reduce Phoenix’s water needs in the future, and on using solar energy, since in Arizona the sun is almost always shining.

. . . now is the time to think outside the pattern of big box developments, beyond the endless, senseless, and meaningless miles of asphalt that tangle them together.

Other solutions to the problem of sprawl such as the New Urbanism or Smart Growth are mere variations of the same underlying dysfunctional urban pattern that created sprawl in the first place. Smart growth is a step back in time to when main streets had apartments over shops and were in walking distance to home, school, and entertainment areas, a time when families had access to parks and outdoor recreation. Smart growth and the New Urbanism reject the suburban, car-dependent lifestyle, but do not eliminate them from the plan; they only reduce the need for cars by building suburbs closer together so that light rail and bicycle paths can allow people to have alternative transportation choices. Soleri calls such planning “a better kind of wrongness.” The suburban house no longer works for the majority of Americans, especially considering that when the baby boomer generation becomes elderly and unable to drive, millions of old people will become isolated in suburbia unless this dysfunctional transportation pattern is stopped.

Projected population figures indicate that by 2030 the American population will have 94 million more people than it did in 2000. Such figures make Smart Growth seem like an inadequate vision to successfully fulfill our needs. With such a rise in population in the next 25 years, half of our future buildings need to be constructed. Presently, construction patterns in the United States are developed on prime farmland, which brings into question our future food needs. The American Farmland Trust found that 1 million acres of productive farmland are being turned into unfertile sprawl each year. That is 50 acres an hour. At this rate of losing farmland and with our population rising, America would soon become an importer of food.

The average American household spends $6,000 a year on each vehicle it owns and operates. This includes gas, insurance, repairs, parking fees and highway tolls. Since each household owns an average of 1.77 motor vehicles, they spend more on transportation than on housing. Transportation has become even more expensive than food. David Bollier in How Smart Growth Can Stop Sprawl writes that housing costs even go up because of the automobile. A single garage adds about $7,000 to a house and a double car garage adds $9,000. Garages, shelters for cars, are superior structures to what most of the poverty-stricken people of the world live in.

There are secondary costs to owning a car such as parking lots, highways, law enforcement and traffic control, accidents and more. In the 1990s these costs paid by federal taxes, states, municipalities and others were estimated at $300 billion a year. More than $16 billion a year is spent by the Federal Highway Trust Fund to maintain and improve existing highways. Routine maintenance of roads costs state and local taxpayers $20 billion a year. Americans are paying $200 million a day on streets and roads. And there is no such thing as a free parking lot. Each parking space costs around $1000. There are 200 million motor vehicles in the US, each having an estimated seven parking spaces. Worst of all, the Federal Highway Administration estimated car accidents each year cost $358 billion. Bollier writes, “The much-touted American love affair with the automobile is sustained, then, by economic subterfuges that disguise the actual costs of our car dependency.”

Transportation has become even more expensive than food …there is no such thing as a free parking lot. Each parking space costs around $1000.

But perhaps the greatest deception of the American people has been about the “cheap” cost of energy. American taxpayers are spending billions of dollars “defending” American access to foreign oil. Not only have billions gone into fighting the war in Iraq, but thousands of lives, both American and Iraqi, have been lost in order to keep the American lifestyle intact.

As we drive around to grocery stores, schools, churches, and soccer games, the toxic fumes from our cars are causing more greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere. Since these gases know no boundaries, we are threatening the entire biosphere with global climate change because of our lack of collective wisdom. Defending the American lifestyle has not made the world any safer from weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, or ecological holocaust because it is the American lifestyle that is causing our critical problems.

There is broad scientific consensus that greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by humans from fossil fuel-burning industries and cars in the last century has caused a 1° Fahrenheit increase in the global temperature that has disrupted the global climate. To combat global climate change by the US, Bush pointed to the $3 billion a year it spends on research and development of energy-saving technologies. Bollier writes, “Sprawl is a major reason why motor vehicles emit one-third of the nation’s carbon dioxide, one-quarter of all chlorofluorocarbons, 40% of nitrogen oxides, and most of the carbon monoxide.” It makes sense that not only do we need to develop energy-saving technologies, but we need to put them within the context of a new eco-city design.

With the destruction of New Orleans, due in part to global climate change and unsound construction practices, now is the time to think outside the pattern of big box developments, beyond the endless, senseless, and meaningless miles of asphalt that tangle them together.

We are victims of land wars going on in our cities that have resulted in the ignoble war going on overseas.

Today on the radio, the broadcaster announced that the air in Phoenix was so polluted it was unsafe for those with lung ailments or heart conditions to leave their houses. He requested people carpool or ride the buses if they needed to travel. Another report was about the state having a surplus of tax funds this year and that a discussion at the Capitol in Phoenix was taking place about what to do with the funds. Governor Janet Napolitano wants to put the surplus into highway construction.

Soleri has shown that arcology is evolutionary architecture. But perhaps it is not only evolutionary but revolutionary in that it changes American values that have been driven for far too long by fossil fuels, the war machine, and the car industry, to values that assure our own sustainability.

We are victims of land wars going on in our cities that have resulted in the ignoble war going on overseas. As German sociologist Deter Duhm says,

Peace is no longer the renunciation of violence; true peace is the revolution of our entire way of existence. Those who do not like the word “revolution” can replace it with the word “‘transformation.” With this we do not mean escapism from reality, we mean the real transformation of our life conditions.

For the filmmakers to have focused on Anthem and not to mention the urban laboratory down the highway, Soleri’s Arcosanti, seems socially irresponsible. It is not giving the American public a chance to know about viable alternative visions to sprawl.

At the end of “Sense of Place—Phoenix: The Urban Desert,” the narrator asks us to imagine Phoenix becoming an urban complex of 10–15 million people. He asks, “Will it evolve into an endless grid of asphalt, office parks, shopping centers, and housing developments?” But he failed to ask us to imagine Phoenix evolving into an arcology that lives in balance with the wondrous desert.

Doctress Neutopia, also known as Libby Hubbard, Ed.D., is on a campaign to build a network of arcologies (ecological cities) on Earth and in outer space. She has a doctorate in Future Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

[27 apr 06]

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