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The advantages, and disadvantages of urban sprawl in Phoenix and Los Angeles

My two favorite cities, Phoenix and Los Angeles, are often referred to as having "sprawl". Sprawl is a derogatory term relating to how spread out these cities are. Nothing seems to be nearby, you have to drive on freeways for a long way in these cities. If you've ever spent much time on the traffic-jammed freeways of Los Angeles, or even Phoenix, you know how annoying "sprawl" can be. I live in Glendale, and when a friend of mine from Minneapolis visited the Phoenix area recently, he was shocked to find that he was forty miles away from me, in Chandler.

There are a lot of reasons for sprawl, but the main reason is money. Land costs money, and land that's "way out there" is cheaper than land closer in. It's always been true, and it still is. And money can be very important! It affects how much a house is sold for. And distance isn't something that most people factor into cost when they price a house. They see a sign with a dollar amount, and don't factor in the cost, both financial and personal, of having to deal with covering large distances on freeways.

When the house that I'm in right now was new, in 1985, it was built "way out in the middle of nowhere" on the edge of what had been a farm. My neighbors who remember when the neighborhood was new remember that "you couldn't get there from here" in places where the streets hadn't crossed the laterals yet. And of course there were jackrabbits, etc. And that's another disadvantage of sprawl, these neighborhoods destroy the big open spaces "out there" that for a lot of people is an important part of the city where they live. Just big empty places with jackrabbits, which are kinda nice.

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Of course the advantages are also obvious. In addition to lower cost for a house, sprawl is space. I call it "the luxury of space". I don't have a particularly big house, or a very big lot, but it feels very spacious to me. I grew up in a tiny neighborhood in Minneapolis where the houses were pretty much just jammed together. The main street in front of the house where I grew up was congested with parked cars, and buses ran on it, although it was (and is) narrower than the side streets here in Glendale. After all the years of living here, I still marvel at the space. Yesterday a neighbor of mine had backed a gigantic truck (about the size of a 747) with a trailer onto his driveway, and there was still plenty of space around it on the street. There are a sprinkling of cars parked on the street, but very few. Some of the neighborhoods around here have signs that prohibit overnight parking. There's space for the cars in the garages, and driveways.

I enjoy visiting places without sprawl, and think how cool it would be to live in a high-rise in downtown Phoenix, or Los Angeles, and just walk a few steps to a coffee shop, or a restaurant. I have a brother who has been pretty much the opposite of his "suburban" big brother, and he's enjoyed a lifestyle that has never included dealing with sprawl. But for me, I like the space. I've been lucky in that I've never had to commute very far from here (the farthest was downtown, which is about twelve miles, but mostly I've worked right nearby, and nowadays I work in cyberspace). I often feel sorry for people who have to stare at taillights every morning and every evening, working their way through the sprawl.

Phoenix and Los Angeles have redeveloped their downtown areas in the past decade. There are a lot of cool places to live downtown. And when you factor in that you don't need a car, or need to spend a huge chunk of your life in one, they can be a bargain, even if they're more expensive than a house "way out there". So now you have the choice. I like being "way out in the middle of nowhere", and having the space, caused by the sprawl.

Image at the top of this post: the freeway plans for Phoenix from the 1960s. Sprawl.

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