Arcology Phoenix:

A Race Against the Car

[for a PFD booklet copy click here]


by Doctress Neutopia aka Libby Hubbard EdD

 December 2005



We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet—the only one in the whole Milky Way—with a century of transportation whoopee. 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 Sonora Desert. The film's narrator stated that within the next ten years, Phoenix will draw one million new people.

At the time the 2003 film was made, one acre per hour of desert land was being bulldozed to build houses, roads, and shopping malls to accommodate this massive growth. There were 3,300 new homes per month being built and 150 lanemiles of road being constructed each year. As soon as highway lanes are added, more lanes are needed to deal with increasing traffic. 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 6 th largest city in the United States . Within the last ten years it has had a 45% increase in population. 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 phase developers, and the politicians who support them, as colossal growth continues.

What attracts people to Phoenix is partly its sunny climate and the advertisement 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. Their strategy is to draw people to their development by selling an “enhanced piece of shelter.” 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.

Such development on the fringe of the city 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 bases to get in touch with the desert.

Like every megalopolis in the United States , greater Phoenix is composed of a number of cities that have grown into one another. Phoenix is actually a patchwork of 25 municipalities. Even though there is need for regional consensus on how to deal with the problem of titanic growth, there are territorial conflicts and self-interest that arise from the 25 different cities. Terry Goddard who was mayor of the City of Phoenix from 1984-1990, said "There are more and more elected officials saying . . . not 'no to growth,' but no to the way we are growing, and yes to a look at what our other options are. And that means, I believe, more cooperation between the cities - and we're seeing some - and ultimately some kind of an over-arching planning process. We can't do that as 24 [25] warring communities." But what exactly are the “other options” that could give us an over-arching planning process?

When Arizona became a state in 1912, it set up State Trust Lands with the purpose of selling land to fund public education as a secure source of income in the future. Then, land was viewed as a commodity, dirt to be used for development. Now many believe the State Trust Lands should not be sold to developers, but should be bought for open space and valued for its desert beauty. Environmentalists and Native Americans argue that the human spirit needs such connection with the wilderness as much as the animals and plants need the land protected for their survival. Such sentiment was reflected when a referendum was put before citizens and 80% voted to increase sale taxes for funds to buy land for open space.

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 home owners 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 Howard Kunstler writes in The Geography of Nowhere, “Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been build in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy and spiritually degrading.”

Selling off the State Trust Lands creates a battlefield, pitting educators against environmentalists, and environmentalists against developers, creating a situation where no one is happy. Land use attorney, Grady Gammage said, “so instead of taking this land that is this incredible asset that ought to be a laboratory for the best development practices on how to balance growth and the environment to produce the best kind of place to live, it's just a football that we fight over all the time.”

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. Terry Goddard, Attorney general of Arizona , who was quoted in the film, has been on the Board of Trustees at Soleri's Consanti Foundation for 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.

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 twenty 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. A more far-ranging assignment? Design transportation, Sound fanciful? Of course, But remember, the car itself was a fanciful notion in the world of horse and carriage.”

Building on the cradle-to-cradle industrial principle that “food equals wastes,” 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 meaning that the basic elements found on Earth are all we have. They will not go away. What we make is here to stay. Consequently, our resources have limits. 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. (105)

McDonough and Braungart have worked out a new concept for industry using natural systems as a guide. In order to create a healthy, striving system for generations into the future, we have to understand that products are composed of either biological material that biodegrade, or technological nutrients that need to stay in closed-loop technological cycles. These valuable technological nutrients can be reused in industry.

Products that are designed from biological nutrients are called products of consumption. Products of technological cycles are called products of service. Organic metabolism within the biological cycles should not be contaminated with carcinogens, persistent toxins, mutagens, or other elements that damage them, if they are to stay healthy and successfully function.

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 finish with the product or wants an upgraded product, the manufacturers takes it back or replaces it. Breaking down the old model, the industry would be able to reuse the valuable materials.

In a world where technology is continuously perfecting products, using rather than owning products only makes good sense. Manufacturers will be in a position to recycle materials assuring that materials are reused or go back to the earth in a healthy way. Such a user system would provide us with the way for our material resources to be accountable and no useful material contaminated.

I have elaborated on the topic of cradle-to-cradle industry as one of the important building blocks of arcology because the purpose of arcology is to ecological architecture. It is a whole-systems approach to design. It can only be successful by using a recycling model of development that creates no harm to the biosphere with which we are profoundly connected.

How deeply disappointing it was when the film failed to mention the idea of arcology as an option for building an urban laboratory on the State Trust Lands. I wondered why Terry Goddard didn't talk about arcology when he was interviewed by the filmmakers since as a member of the Board of Trustees it is part of his job to promote the arcology concept. Or, if he had in fact brought up arcology in the interview, why would the filmmakers cut it out of the film?

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 who was quoted in the film but didn't mention Soleri's concept during the taped interview. He was the Dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at Arizona State University from 1987-2002. In his written 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. Kunstler writes, “the living arrangements Americans now think of as normal are bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically, and spiritually.”

Building an arcology for the million people who are estimated to come to Phoenix within the near future on the State Trust Land , is the only plan that makes perfect sense to me. It is perfect in that arcology is the ultimate architectural foundation necessary to teach us how to live at peace with the desert. Thus, the State Trust Lands' goal of supporting education would be fulfilled. Environmentalists would be happy because the project would build a new relationship between people and nature in which the health of nature would be the bottom line principle over short-term profits. And architects and developers would be liberated to think outside the box and develop an ecocity that matches the beauty of the desert by constructing an arcology founded upon humankind's most noble dreams.

Arcology Phoenix would be advertised to those with a pioneering spirit who want to be part of an urban laboratory. Its purpose would be to manifest an ecological and creative lifestyle. It would attract not only green architects, environmental scientists, solar-power engineers and construction workers who want to use their skills on building a beautiful city, but also professionals in the healing arts who understand the role holistic thinking has in maintaining healthy bodies and minds, who are part of the emerging new industries of health and sustainability.

Arcology Phoenix would also attract anthropologists, sociologists, and economists who would work closely with other artists and scientists to devise a social architecture that would eradicate the ancient social ills of 20 th century urban environments such as classism, racism and sexism, creating America 's first socially conscious intentional ecocity. It would set in motion a way for a cross-discipline dialogue to begin which is necessary for collective action to grow. The Arcology Phoenix infrastructure would be based on the principles 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.

Wired with 21 st century technology, Arcology Phoenix would be designed to allow robots to do much of the manual labor so that we can experiment with redefining work. Theologian Matthew Fox writes in The Reinvention of Work, “Our work is meant to be beautiful, to increase the beauty of the world, of one another, of the worker.” He says that the environmental crisis gives us the opportunity to ask deeper questions into the how, why and to whom do we do our work. He writes, “It also clearly opens the door for inventing new kinds of work—work that will develop sustainable energy, sustainable agriculture, sustainable minds (that is, education) and spirits (that is, worship). Ours is a time for the emergence of totally new forms of work. The decline of the “defense” industry understood as war making can make way for the emergence of a defense industry whose task is to protect the Earth (a “green army,”) one might call it.” Moving the defense industry away from violent pursuits towards a green army can only help us move towards the direction of world peace.

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 they 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 rejects the suburban, car-dependent lifestyle, but it does not eliminate them from the plan; it only reduces 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.” Smart Growth exemplifies “why being less bad is no good,” a phrase used by McDonough and Braungart.

I see the Smart Growth vision as only a partial solution since it only reduces automobile usage. When the suburban house was first developed people where living in two parent families. But now, only 25 % of Americans live in traditional households. 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 did a study of the problem in 1997. They 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 loosing farmland and with our population rising, American would soon become an importer of food rather than an exporter. This could be disastrous for the American economy. Farmers are forced to farm on less fertile land requiring more chemicals. Chances are the runoff of the chemicals makes their way into our water supply which is disastrous for the health of the ecology.

It is time for a fresh design that envisions a futuristic 21 st century city rather the traditional American main street. Arcology is such a fresh idea. Meunier stated that arcology is a distant and unrealized vision because our existing economic and political systems could not generate it. But let's take a closer look that the economic costs of car-dependent sprawl to understand how it is “bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically, and spiritually.”

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. In David Bollier case against sprawl in How Smart Growth can Stop Sprawl he 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. A government report found that in Los Angeles County there are 88,345 homeless people.

There are secondary costs to owning a car such as parking lots, highways, law enforcement and traffic control, traffic accidents and more. In the 1990's these costs paid by the federal taxes, states and 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 cost state and local tax payers $20 billion a year. All total, 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 cost around $1000. There are 200 million motor vehicles in the US , each having an estimated seven parking spaces. Worse 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.”

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 Americans and Iraqis have been lost in order to keep the American lifestyle intack.

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 greenhouses gases released into the atmosphere by humans from fossil fuel-burning industries and cars in the last century has caused a 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in the global temperature that has disrupted the global climate. Since the Kyoto Protocol on global warming doesn't require developing countries like China and India, two of the world's biggest producers of greenhouse gases, to cut down emissions, President Bush did not sign the treaty, saying it was fatally flawed. Instead, he has agreed to work on climate issues on a bilateral or on a regional basis using voluntary approaches. To combat global climate change by the U.S. , 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 percent 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 ecocity design.

With the destruction of New Orleans, due in part to global climate change and unsound eco-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 need to move light-years from the tyranny of automobiles and their clouds of toxic fumes, and plan for a network of arcologies. Then we can breathe fresh air again and see, at night, the constellations of stars in the cosmos.

Today while listening to the Arizona news on the radio, the broadcaster announced that the air quality in Phoenix was so polluted it was unsafe for those with lung ailments or heart conditions to leave their houses. He requested people car pool 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 Capital in Phoenix was taking place about what to do with the funds. Governor Janet Napolitano wants to put the surplus into highway construction.

At the beginning of the Making Sense of Place-Phoenix: The Urban Desert , Terry Goddard said if someone a hundred years ago had said that Phoenix would become a great city, they would have been called crazy and sent into an institution. As it tears down the ecology, the way Phoenix has grown is insane. To build the great city that Goddard talks about can only be done by acting in the present to plan for Arcology Phoenix, a magnet for the best minds in the world to be drawn to so that our most innovative thinking for the good of humanity can have a place to materialize.

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 truly take care of the ecology that would allow us to achieve an equilibrium with it that assures our own sustainability.

We are victims of land wars going on in our cities that have resulted in the ignoble war going on overseas. Do we want to put and end to war, the domestic one going on over the last remaining wilderness areas on this continent as well as the war we are fighting over oil? If we want to end this war, then we need to think in terms of evolving civilization towards arcology. 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. It gives the public no chance to use their imaginations to conceptualize a healthy lifestyle change living in a 21 st century arcology could create. Futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard says there is a need to envision the ideal state and then to create design spaces to work toward that state. She writes, “We “image in” our potential future that attracts us based on imaging what it will be like when everything we know we can do works in harmony with nature and our highest aspirations.” The film left arcology out of the discussion needed to achieve a democratic ecocity. This is a tragic mistake and could be corrected by making a sequel that focuses on the arcology concept.

At the end Sense of Place— Phoenix : The Urban Desert, the narrator asks us to imagine Phoenix becoming an urban complex of 10 to 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.

One frequently asked question on the Making Sense of Place web site was if there will be a sequel to the Phoenix story. The answer was no. I'm asking the film makers to imagine making a film that shows the American public real alternative visions from our most brilliant creative minds such as Paolo Soleri, William McDonough, Richard Register, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Matthew Fox, Hazel Henderson and others who have all written expensively about building a new ecological paradigm.

Isn't it obvious why a sequel is necessary? Do we continue to tell the story of the disaster of the car or is it time to depict a new era of arcology?

Doctress Neutopia 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.





Human Extinction or Lovolution?