By Taz Loomans
I have been a Phoenix booster for three years now. But last week I moved to Portland, and this has left a lot of people scratching their heads and some even upset that I bailed on them.
Here’s what happened.
Last year, I went from being married to being single. For anyone who has gone through this, you know that it isn’t just a surface alteration to your life. It is a fundamental transition that changes who you are and how you view the world. One interesting outcome of being single is that you have more options because you are more flexible.
I visited Portland in October with no intentions of moving here or anywhere else. I just came here because I had heard great things about the city and was in need of a vacation. Three days into my trip, it became clear to me that I belong in Portland like a fish belongs in the sea. I have traveled the world, but I’ve never quite found a city this fitted to what I want at this point in my life.
And what is it that I want at this point in my life? For starters, I want to be able to get around and have places to go without the use of a personal car. Second, I want to be able to walk out of my house and see people on the streets. Third, I want to be in an environment that is fertile and receptive to innovation in urban sustainability. Fourth, I want to be around more people like me who are in a non-traditional, creative field. Fifth, I want to be in a place where it’s not deemed crazy to care about the environment. Sixth, I want to be in a place that has a proven record of achieving and sustaining meaningful change towards sustainability. And seventh, I want to be in a place that holds itself to a high standard and can compete on the world stage. I found these things in Portland and that’s why I moved here.
Does this mean I think everyone should move out of Phoenix? Well, if you want a lot of the same things I want and you want them sooner rather than later, then it may not be a bad idea.
But if you want to get the satisfaction of building something with your own hands and are willing to do the work without any guarantees of success, then perhaps you should stay in Phoenix. Of course, if you are in Phoenix for a myriad of circumstantial reasons, then this conversation won’t really matter. But if you are at a choice point in your life, like I was last year, then these are some good things to think about.
There are two pieces of advice I’d like to give people who choose to stay and fight for Phoenix. The first is, don’t be a booster. There is a lot of pressure in Phoenix to be a booster and to say only positive things about it if you are fighting to make it better. But to be an effective fighter, you have to be able to see the problems you are fighting and speak out against them. For example, don’t say a business is great just because it’s local and it’s trying. Keep your integrity and hold things to a high standard. That is the only way Phoenix is going to be able to compete with the rest of the world.
My second piece of advice is a specific extension of the first. After having been immersed in my extremely walkable neighborhood in Portland for even just a few days, I see clearly that Phoenix is not built to be walkable. This is simply because the scale is all wrong. Phoenix was built for the car and it’s just too hard to make the leap from being a solely auto-oriented city to being a walkable city. But in seeing and accepting this hard truth lies a great opportunity.
Phoenix doesn’t have to be stuck in its auto-oriented past. The scale in Phoenix may be all wrong for walking, but it is very suitable for bicycling. A very doable change for Phoenix is to become a bike-able city. This, in conjunction to a growing Light Rail network, could offer people like me the car-free or car-lite they are looking for, and perhaps give Phoenix a fighting chance of attracting and retaining young talent. But becoming a bike-able city won’t happen unless there is a cultural shift in City Hall and the general public. It won’t happen without a cultural shift away from being auto-oriented to being multi-modal.
The rub lies in that this all-important cultural shift is still a big gamble and one that I just haven’t seen any significant evidence of yet. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and not just around the corner.
Taz Loomans is an architect turned journalist. She writes about sustainability, urbanism and architecture on her blog, bloomingrock.com, and for other publications including the Atlantic Cities and Inhabitat.