Sunday, April 16, 2006

Saving Cactus in Arizona, or, How Urban Sprawl Is So Insanely Out of Control in the American West

I found this story on local Arizona groups working to save cacti from development. You may be asking yourself, why? Isn't the Arizona desert huge? Isn't there tons of cactus sitting around out there totally unimpacted by urban development? The answer is yes and no. Arizona needs these kind of cactus-saviors because land is developed there at such a shockingly rapid pace. And this is not just unique to Arizona. Unfortuantely, the entirety of the American West, especially in the intermountain region, has almost no restrictions on development. There is no legal apparatus forcing actual urban planning in these places. Arizona and Nevada may be the worst, but it's a problem across the region. In Arizona, vast areas of the Sonoran Desert, arguably the world's most beautiful desert, are being paved over or turned into golf courses every day.

The best quote in the story comes from Ed Taczanowsky, president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, who supports the movement. He says, "There's going to be growth. It's a way to co-exist."

Well, sort of.

Clearly there is going to be growth. I don't oppose the growth of urban centers. What does anger me beyond measure is the type of growth so prevalent in the West--sprawling subdivisions without long term water plans, without concern for the state of the land, and populated by people with very little interest in the things that can make a city great. Rather, like suburban pioneers since World War II, many of these people, particularly in a place like southern Arizona, are looking to escape the urban core and the racial mix that comes with it to a place where they have all the upper-middle class amenities that they expect without actually having to engage the people, places, or processes that make those amenities possible.

While I'm glad that there are people working to save these cacti, it's not really co-existing either. Co-existing would be limiting development to a level representative of the real amount of water that the place is likely to have in the future. Co-existing would be admitting that golf courses in the desert are not a good idea, no matter how much rich Republicans moving from San Diego want to have them. Co-existing would be concentrating urban development in a tight urban core, leaving massive amounts of open space that would allow wildlife populations to prosper, Sonoran Desert plants to exist without threat, and could create a prosperous inner city with the amenities people want while not forcing fire crews or ambulances to drive 25 miles over windy roads to get to people. Ultimately, for some sort of co-existence between people and the environment to happen in the West, something other than the market must drive housing. There must be other values than profit involved in planning housing. Consumption can be a good thing but it must have its limits as well. I'd say golf courses in the Sonoran Desert is the limit.

Again, I definitely support what these people are doing. It's very important. But the fact that they have to step up to the plate like this in a vast area of desert that had few of these problems even 20 years ago is a sad sign of how out of control suburban development is in the American West.