The AIA recently published a reprint from the National Associates Committee journal Forward by author Wellington Reiter, FAIA. The hot topic essay goes into great detail discussing how three U.S. cities – Detroit, Phoenix, and New Orleans – are serving as examples of the impacts of adverse planning and general continuation of unsustainable behavior. While in times past these cities have flourished, and grew on the assumption that the trend would continue inevitably, they are sharp reminders of the consequences of naivety in regards to long term sustainability. More after the break.
The vast urban sprawl of Phoenix, Arizona – one of the largest cities in the country – across the Sonoran Desert with single family detached homes presents an undeniable question of how long the growth can continue. With an area twice the size of Detroit, and a metropolitan area that dwarfs it, this automobile dependent city has thrived with the introduction of federal highway systems. This coupled with extremely low land prices, cheap labor, and a developer friendly environment has encouraged this horizontal city to continue its reach far into the desert. Of course, the housing market crash has reined in to some extent this behavior, one can only question if things will change as the market rebounds. Another serious issue facing this metropolis is our basic necessity of water. One only needs to look at the bathtub rings at Lake Mead to realize that a continual increase of population and sprawl within this region is completely unsustainable. As our peak oil era closes in, how long will individuals be able to commute from distant suburbs into the core of the city? These are just some of the main issues facing the booming city of Phoenix.
Detroit, once the thriving city of the automobile has suffered a long and drawn out reversal of its boom times. As the headquarters for vehicle manufacturing, its population was heavily dependent upon this industry to provide subsistence. The resultant crash of the auto manufacturing industry hard severe repercussions on the populace. With significant amount of individuals out of work, poverty skyrocketed, and once bustling neighborhoods have been abandoned while squalor runs rampant. Over the past century the population of Detroit has shrunk 50% – with 25% of occurring in the last decade. In turn, the tax base of the city has shrunk accordingly – leaving less money for the maintenance of infrastructure and social programs. The effect continues to snowball, and without proactive and diligent mitigation the situation will only continue to work. Detroit remains an example of the devastating effects that can decimate a city that depended almost entirely on one industry.
New Orleans suffers from geographic location at the mouth Mississippi River. A substantial portion of the city lies below sea level, with only levees to protect it from the onslaught of Gulf storms. Hurricane Katrina illustrated the necessity much more developed means for disaster relief, as well as need to work with the obvious danger of a city under threat of continuous flooding. Post-hurricane plans have acutely called for the contraction of the city onto land that is less prone to flooding. While many of the wards that were hit the hardest remain empty, those that have returned have engaged in proactive construction that will resist another disaster level storm surge much more efficiently.
With an ever expanding population and dwindling resources, these issues will become more evident in the day to day life of Americans. The three cities discussed in the essay illuminate the need to become proactive and critically apply the wisdom attained through the trials and tribulations each city has and continues to face.