Phantom Developments of the Southwest

© / Gobeirne

During the housing boom in and the surrounding , enormous swaths of land were graded and prepared for endless subdivisions as far as the eye could see. Following the burst of the housing market and prolonged recession, these unfinished construction sites have sat vacant – remnants of unbridled optimism in the Valley of the Sun. A recent article on discusses some of the alternative visions for re-appropriating these phantom lots that propagate the greater Phoenix area. Various methods of breathing new life into these chasms left behind include rezoning the numerous residential lots for mixed-use, or tearing up the infrastructure and letting nature take back control. For those unfamiliar with the rapid pace of development that was taking place prior to the recession, Maricopa, a small town just south of Phoenix was approving over 600 residential home permits per month. With an inventory of over 16,000 dedicated to residential homes, the measures that are required to remediate the impact of such an ambitious plan need to be ingenious.

While the Southwest has suffered from the housing bust significantly more than many other states, it will undoubtedly always remain a destination for its unequaled sunny days, warm weather and amazing desert landscape.

See this article on similar circumstances in the Rust Belt region.

Photographs: User: Gobeirne

Cite: Winstanley, Tim. "Phantom Developments of the Southwest" 21 Jan 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 24 May 2015. <>
  • Chavo

    Flying into phoenix is one of the most depressing things one can encounter; endless suburbs that extend to the horizon. It feels like a repetitive stamp of large streets with the same strip malls in every corner and a flood of cookie-cutter housing all around.

    • connor covey

      Where do you live?

  • Evan Ward
  • Guest

    wow, that image is frightening! How could anyone want to raise a family in that… Concentration camp.

  • E55

    @ Chavo & @Guest – I understand that it is not ideal and that it doesn’t have the density that we @ Chavo & @Guest – I understand that it is not ideal and that it doesn’t have the density that we think is more attractive and more efficient and even healthier, but when 1) land is in abundance, 2) personal transportation (I.e., cars) are relatively inexpensive to operate, 3) this development paradigm is already in place, then the situation that one sees on Phoenix is how any market responds.  Moreover, practically speaking, it’s awfully difficult to impose a new paradigm – especially one which likely results in higher housing costs and which runs counter to the conventional notion of the American dream of a single family detached house with a yard and a garage, which, I might add, has been in place since Levittown, NY was conceived and developed 55 years ago. 

    Lastly, I understand what you mean by using the phrase, “Concentration Camp”, but I wish you were able to find another phrase. In my mind, “Concentration Camp” is not appropriate to describe anything other than forced work internment camps of the sort run during WWII by the  US for Japanese Americans  or by Germany for Jews; in my mind, any other usage of a that phrase disrespects the memories of those whose lives were taken during those horrific times.

    • Chavo

      E55, as a resident of Phoenix, I understand completely the elements that led to the development of the city. Yet we must also understand that it was not only the open market that led to this great growth boom. Before the 1950′s, Phoenix wasn’t even among the top 50 largest cities in the US. Today it sits as the 6th largest, having briefly held the 5th position last decade. The issue is not the size of the city, but what has led to this growth.

      Phoenix is in a desert. The only natural source of water in the city (The Salt River), currently only flows during the summer monsoon season. So how can such a large footprint exist? By bringing in water from hundred of miles away. The Colorado River is being pumped into Phoenix and many other Southwestern cities at rates greater than its ability to replenish itself. The region’s growth isn’t slowing down either, so what is to happen when the Colorado is no longer a viable water-source. Phoenix has greatly ignored the fact that it is a desert city.

      Another issue to bring up is that of cars and, how you have stated, the cheapness of driving here. The use of cars is not necessarily cheap; but rather, the major costs are hidden. All of the freeways in the Phoenix metro area are free, there isn’t a single toll road. This is great for drivers, but the cost of construction and maintenance falls entirely on city and state governments. A good percentage (sorry I don’t have precise figures), of tax-payer’s money goes into building these highways (this in a state that often ranks in the bottom 5 in education). Robert Yabes, the transportation planner for the city of Tempe, once stated that fixing traffic by building highways is like trying to fix obesity by adding a new hole to your belt. It is only a temporary fix. This can be seen with the traffic of the city, which has been getting a lot worse even-though we keep getting more and more freeways. These costs are already staggering, without even even including the environmental costs of this “cheap” system. Any Phoenix resident can tell you about the dark cloud that hoovers over the city. Phoenix has horrible air quality, which leads to many respiratory issues (which increases healthcare costs). So is this really a cheap system?

      These are only a couple of the problems Phoenix faces. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate Phoenix. There is a lot of great things here. But we must understand that it is an extremely unsustainable and unhealthy system. It is not an issue about density being more attractive or ideal, but of truly analyzing what allowed for its sprawl, and what the costs of that sprawl are.

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