Urban development: City of the future
December 4, 2008
A rare opportunity to build an urban centre from scratch
Scott Smith likes to introduce himself as mayor of “the biggest city you’ve never heard of”. Mesa is twice the size of Washington, DC, and has a population greater than Cleveland or Miami. This week the Arizona settlement annexed five square miles (13 sq km) of desert, on which a new urban centre will rise. The biggest city you have never heard of plans to become a lot bigger. Until it was temporarily halted by foreclosure and the credit crunch, Mesa was an extreme example of sunbelt growth. In 1940 it contained just 7,000 inhabitants, many of them Mormons. Then the explosion began. Driven by migration from the rest of America, Mesa’s population roughly doubled in each of the next five decades. It now contains almost half a million people and has sprawled into a metropolis centred around the similarly fast-growing city of Phoenix. It is the quintessential low-slung suburban city—what Yale University urbanist Dolores Hayden calls a “boomburb”. Mile after mile of strip malls and tract houses, whose evocative names and fanciful arches cannot disguise the fact that they are large, stucco-covered boxes, dominate the landscape. Aside from the city hall and a shiny arts centre, most of Mesa’s downtown district is only one storey high. When Mesa was growing explosively, the lack of a plausible downtown hardly mattered.
But the city has been battered by foreclosure and may now be losing residents. Although it is hardly the only casualty in the region, Mesa is in especially poor shape. Too old to seem very new, but not nearly old enough to seem quaint, its appeal has dimmed. Mesa’s solution is typical of the sunbelt: start building. Mesa’s “do-over”, as Mr Smith calls it, will take place south-east of the existing city. The land annexed this week is owned by a single developer, DMB, allowing for a unified vision. The opportunity to construct a new city centre is rare, and Mesa will become a test of modern urban design. It is looking both to the future and a long way into the past.The forward-looking part of the plan is that Mesa will be built around an airport. Rather than pushing air traffic to the fringe of the city, as most cities try to do, Mesa will build around its runways. It hopes to become what John Kasarda of the University of North Carolina calls an “aerotropolis”—a city as tied to air traffic as 19th-century cities were to railways. Mesa’s Gateway airport, a former military site with three runways, currently sees only a few commercial flights, many of them charters heading for Las Vegas. Arizona’s main hub is Phoenix-Sky Harbour airport, 28 miles (45km) to the west. But assuming that central Arizona eventually resumes its rapid growth, another airport will be needed. The city plans to build a big new passenger terminal. It also hopes to create a high-tech job cluster that will draw part of its labour force and some of its ideas from a polytechnic university that is already next to the airport.
The backward-looking part of the plan has to do with the new city’s appearance. Rather than dictating uses for neighbourhoods, as almost all American cities do—apartments here, light industry over there—Mesa’s planners will determine the appearance of buildings. They want to encourage a mixture of uses in one street, and allow for change (so a warehouse might eventually be converted into apartments). They hope that, by putting many of the essentials of life in a small area, people will walk around. Mesa’s scorching summers might be a problem here. Although DMB claims the new city will be an exemplar of “21st century desert urbanism”, it actually looks rather more like a city of circa 1900. The new Mesa will contain lots of neighbourhood parks, the better to encourage sociability. Its downtown will depart from the north-south-east-west grid that most Western cities follow. The tilt is reckoned to be better for catching solar rays, but it is also meant to be a nod to history. Some older Western cities (Denver and Los Angeles, for example) have downtown districts that depart from the compass pattern. The new city will be a major showcase for “new urbanist” theories, which have so far been applied most famously in much smaller towns like Celebration and Seaside, both in Florida. Mesa’s willingness to experiment is impressive. Yet Richard Reep, a Florida architect, is wary: “Any time architects start thinking they can influence social order, watch out.”
See also: Mesa Proving Grounds (DMB)