Monday, January 30, 2006

Witness to an overnight city

This is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series on a city that was constructed almost overnight. I hope it you find it interesting and informative.

My grandparents moved to Phoenix in the 1940s, shortly before the birth of my mother. It was a city of about 25,000 and growing, thanks to University of Arizona professors Martin and Paul Thornburg

Borrowing from 2,000-year-old Egyptian technology where a wet rug is placed over a window to create cool air in arid climates, The Thornburgs mapped designs on a fan that used a common garden hose to create a do-it-yourself air conditioning for the dry Phoenix climate. The evaporative cooler -- swamp cooler to those in other areas -- became the rage as the Thornburgs' designs were passed around the state.

All of a sudden this vast desert valley, where dirt was cheaper than the travel it took to get here, became tolerable to future millions of people. With the close of WWII, Phoenix became less of a dusty road stop and more of a final destination to anyone looking for easy home ownership and a place to start over.

When my parents moved me to Phoenix in 1975, it was the biggest city I'd ever lived in. Not that it was a thriving metropolis, but after living in north Jefferson County, Ala., and Flagstaff, Ariz., anything that had more than three McDonalds was foreign to us.

Maricopa County, the area that engulfs Phoenix and its 24 neighboring incorporated cities and towns, had only recently broken 1 million in population. It was considered a middle-management, medium-sized, overgrown cow town ... not unlike, say, Omaha, Neb., or San Antonio, Tex.

To say that growth has exploded in this area doesn't quite capture the intensity and rate of consumption of open land.

Like many families in the area, my parents picked up and moved to the suburbs of Mesa in 1980. Mesa had a population of about 80,000. When it was founded in the early part of the 20th century, it was a day's horse ride to Phoenix. When we moved there, it was a 20 minute freeway drive along newly constructed Superstition Freeway.

Today, Mesa houses nearly 300,000 people. The Town of Gilbert, the sleepy "Hay Capitol of the World" in 1980, has grown from 2,000 to pushing 200,000 in that time. Nearby Chandler, once home to dozens of dairy farms, has moved from 4,000 to a robust 210,000.

Gilbert and Chandler can usually be found among the top 5 fastest growing cities in the country over 100,000. Thousands acres still available, but both are on pace for build out in five to seven years.

A fourth "East Valley" city, college town Tempe, found its own southward growth to reach about 150,000.

The rapid growth has made anyone who's lived here more than three years real estate experts. While people in the midwest anxiously await that one development to open at the edge of town, locals have learned any available land will have improvements before you can get your boxes unpacked. Master-planned subdivisions go up seemingly overnight. It's rare anyone lives in one house for a generation. Once your neighborhood matures, you sell your house and move 20 miles east or west -- where the "edge" of civilization has migrated.

Not long ago, Lloyd's of London predicted at the current rate of growth, Phoenix Metro would surpass Los Angeles Metro by 2050. Things like cost of living and quality of life were considered continued advantages to living in Phoenix compared to other cities of its size in the region.

The cheaper cost of dirt, relatively speaking, will continue to fuel Phoenix's growth for the next 100 years. As impossible as it is think of right now, it's becoming more probable Phoenix Metro could touch Tucson Metro 100 miles to the south by the next turn of the century.

For a desert that was barely inhabited by humans just 100 years ago, it's one bright flash of history for a city now with more people than 20 states and the District of Columbia.

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