Looking around Phoenix, one must admire much of our urban planning; but that doesn’t change the fact that severe segregation of housing and purveyors of goods and services doesn’t always serve the citizens well. For openers, it condemns us to use cars for transport to pick up everyday household consumer items. The idea, I suppose, is that grocers, pharmacies and small restaurants are untidy and noisy, so keep them well away from single family housing subdivisions. (Apartment dwellers, well, for them noisy and untidy is less consequential, it would seem from land planning policy.) Let’s be clear; some retail uses are untidy and noisy. So what? Is a little additional ambient noise that devastating to the human psyche? If it is, then single family residents should all be completely insane, if I take as the norm the magnitude of home remodeling with power tools occurring in my neighborhood in just the last 3 years. And a trash-compactor compressing sound is shorter in duration than noise made by the 5 guys using leaf-blowers in the residential yards on our street every week, usually before the hour of 8 a.m.
Our retail world has created, together with strip centers and every-corner pharmacies, lifestyle centers of 100,000 square feet of space so that one-stop shopping is possible when we cruise over to it, or to the mall, in our horseless carriages. Walking to the store is eliminated; so our personal energy is being saved for what?-personal consumption? Now of course we can’t walk, due to the too-bloody high temperatures of our 7-month summers. So we assume. Would our assumptions change if the grocer or other retailer was only ¼ mile away, accessible by a shade-tree lined walk or bicycle path? Certainly we can’t spend money on a bicycle lane because we need to pave more lanes to accelerate vehicular traffic. Naturally we can’t invest in street trees – they’ll just die on their sidewalk homes, right? Isn’t it a wee bit mysterious that we cannot irrigate streetside trees when our city water lines are beneath the very same streets? – nah, there’s some justification of cost-prohibition I’m not seeing.
Like all insurmountable planning problems, the genuine issue is that we’ve not yet committed the time and other resources to devise the appropriate solutions, even in our sort-of hostile climatic environment. Here’s a thought. What would be the impact of allowing at every light rail Phoenix station, within 250 linear feet of the platforms, a grocery store of no more than 20,000 square feet that is focused on handling the needs of the surrounding dwellers within a quarter mile radius – including the need not to be awakened by deliveries or trash pickup before 8 a.m.? What would happen if we allowed, as a matter of right (no NIMBY input, thanks), a restaurant or coffee shop or bar, with reasonable closing hours and restrictions on amplified sound, in such locations? In other words, what is the effect of allowing neighbors to shop, eat or drink right in convenient neighborhood places that do not require an automobile to reach? No doubt at first, among the none-too-pleased, would number the supermarket and pharmacy chains – but what would be the public’s reaction? Is “buying local” a pipe dream for anywhere but the “Old World” villages of Europe, South America and Asia? The New Urbanists don’t believe so, but they are building their towns as they roll out their ideas. It’s easier, admittedly, when you get to start Utopia from scratch.
Seriously, though, what about retrofitting cities like Phoenix with local establishments where you can get to know your grocer and your pharmacist and hairdresser? Phoenix has a marvelous PUD ordinance that can flex to allow notions of mixed use in denser-populated vicinities already afflicted by greater ambient noise from sources like traffic or light rail whistles. I say, let mixed uses rip! Don’t such decisions boil down, eventually, to the issue of political will?