Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cities where no city should be

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, activism, city planning

About seven years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I wrote to the governor of Louisiana, suggesting that the funds being earmarked for rebuilding New Orleans would be better spent relocating the population to higher ground, possibly north of Lake Pontchartrain. I never heard back, directly, but I did hear her in a press conference two days later, very angrily dismissing suggestions that the current site of New Orleans ought to be abandoned. Thus the power of tradition over common sense.

I have similar concerns for Phoenix, Arizona, which has nearly five times the population of New Orleans, and the greater Phoenix area has about 12 times the population, or more than four million people. I have visited Phoenix a few times (rather unwillingly after the first visit). I don't understand why it is there.

I am not the only one. The title of the book yields a clue: Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World's Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross. Folks may quibble whether Phoenix is really the least sustainable. But the idea of locating 4+ millions in an area in which nature provides for no more than 40,000 is insane. However, that is not the central thesis of the book.

Prior to 1860, between 10,000 and 20,000 Pima (or Akimel O'odham) people lived a genuinely sustainable, agricultural life along the Gila and Salt rivers. Their life was probably similar to that of the Hohokam culture that once flourished in the area, and may be a continuation of it. Then in 1861 Anglos set up a city where Phoenix is today, atop the ruins of abandoned Hohokam canals. A generation or two later, once the Anglo population began to grow rapidly, they dammed up and siphoned off the waters upstream of the Pima, and essentially drove them into dependency by artificial drought.

Now Phoenix is one of the nation's largest cities. What has been behind the huge increase in population? First, huge chunks of the "military-industrial complex" about which Eisenhower warned us, taking advantage of cheap land and a measure of insulation from the more populated (and thus more watched) areas in the Northeast. Secondly, rampant and short-sighted boosterism coupled with an extreme frontier "don't tell me what to do with my land" mentality. And, most telling, Colorado and California and Nevada let them get away with appropriating out-of-state water supplies such as about one-third of the Colorado River's flow, as "defined" during an exceptionally wet period.

In Arizona, more than any other state, regional politics is dominated by real estate speculation. A significant dent has been made in this picture during the past five years, but the mentality remains (See yesterday's post: former half-million-dollar homes are now hard to sell for $200,000). Plans are still being discussed to develop 275 square miles in the foothills of the Supersition Mountains; there is some chance a more reasonable plan than the "sprawl" that surrounds the area will prevail, primarily because there is a recession going on! Arizona has the highest proportion of people with "underwater" mortgages in the nation.

The author interviewed hundreds of people for this book, and the nearly uniform symptom was that any troubles were somebody else's fault. Those in charge of water policy cannot imagine why anyone should object to central Arizona's demanding increasing allocations of water from elsewhere. Those supposedly watching over the environment just throw up their hands about the fact that most of the groundwater under the county is too polluted to use (courtesy of those military-industrial plants, now mostly closed down). Hardly anyone in authority is willing to listen to any plan that doesn't include nearly doubling the population in the next 50-80 years. They just bemoan the "white flight" elsewhere that has led to a rapidly increasing proportion of Latinos, even though many Latinos are leaving also.

Is it really true that capitalism requires a growing economy to work? I certainly hope not, because sooner or later every economy is certain to contract, no matter what the population is. There is only so much water, only so much coal or oil, only so much land to farm or to live on. The Phoenix area is a look into a future we all face as the various amounts of resources we depend on become more and more scarce. One subchapter is titled, "Building homes for the home builders." The "plan" of eternal growth is actually a Ponzi scheme. It is just most evident in Arizona.

I have a friend in New Jersey who tried to make a living as a farmer with a 25-acre farm. He has since said he really needed 100 acres to make a proper go of it. The yearly rainfall in the area is about 40 inches (one meter). Prior to moving East, we lived nearly a decade in Oklahoma. The smallest viable farms and ranches there are in the 500-1,000 acre range. Yearly rainfall is a bit over 25 inches (0.65 m). Prior to that, we lived in South Dakota. My next-door neighbor was one of the few successful ranchers. Another friend had a mixed farm and ranch a couple hours' drive away. Both had spreads larger than 10,000 acres. I remember getting a detailed dissertation from my neighbor about why it required 50+ acres of prairie grass to support each cow, and how he had to grow a certain amount of alfalfa for hay to be stored against the occasional drought. A 10-15 year accumulation of hay could be devoured in one bad season. The rainfall on Table Mesa in South Dakota is 12 inches yearly (0.3 m).

Central Arizona gets 8 inches (0.2 m) of rain yearly, as averaged since the 1980s. Recent years have seen less rain, and climate warming is likely to keep the rainfall in the six-inch (0.15 m) range in coming years. Even in a good year, Arizona is below the threshold of widespread agriculture. A cow can't walk far enough to find the food it needs, and will starve, except along the few rivers. The relatively small numbers of the Hohokam and later the Pima were all the land could support, and then only within a few miles of those rivers.

In the Mojave Desert, as a Geology student I learned that a swimming pool will evaporate five feet (1.5 m) of water yearly. In central Arizona and the rest of the Sonora Desert to the south, evaporation exceeds 6.5 feet (2 m). Damming up a river to make a reservoir just reduces the total usable water from that river.

Mr. Ross hopes some of the efforts now under way in Arizona will show the way for improving the sustainability of other cities. One hopeful sign is the recent culmination of an 80-year legal battle that gave restored water rights to the Pima people. Some of them still know how to make good use of that water for something besides a Kentucky bluegrass lawn or a swimming pool (There are a lot of swimming pools in northern Phoenix). But I say there's not much wrong with Phoenix that an out-migration of several million people would not cure.

1 comment:

Tom Noir said...

Unsustainable cities aren't a new phenomenon, not by a long shot. It took an entire empire to feed Rome's population of millions. They certainly couldn't feed themselves, thus the importance of the food dole in Roman politics. It sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, and eventually it was, but this colossally overextended city lasted for several centuries.

I guess the moral of the story, if there is one, is that people are willing to expend a lot of resources to live where they want to live, and at least in the short term they can often get away with it.