One area where I diverge from many of my community minded peers in Phoenix is over what community really is. A lot of people in Phoenix think that we can overcome our sprawling urban form, by creating virtual communities and organizing events where people can meet up on regular basis. While this is a start, it s not enough.
To me, community builds on the shared traditions, attitudes and interactions of social groups; in other words, ‘culture.’ To have an urban community requires an urban culture, and this requires a key type of public social interaction that Phoenix continues to lack.
Namely, we lack good cafe and sidewalk culture. I’m not simply taking about great places to hang out and get a decent coffee—we are doing well in that area. Rather Phoenix continues to lack vibrant public spaces (e.g., plazas, patios, parks) full of life—aka people. Sure we are trying, but other than a small group of people in small areas of downtown and uptown Phoenix we lack the impromptu interactions with both friends as well as consequential strangers.
Our city’s lack of sidewalk culture is almost exclusively due to our auto-oriented built environments. A telling example of this came in response to a post I wrote on the lack of vibrancy at Civic Space Park. Many people cited that lack of proximate parking as the reason. In other words people are continuing to put their cars over their community.
This is not necessarily their fault. Quite simple our urban form discourages true urban culture. Our shops are surrounded by vast parking lots, separating them from the streets and sidewalks. Store fronts are too far apart, and there are too many vacant lots in between areas of activity. Moreover, the streets are too wide and focused on moving cars at the cost of moving people by other, more community oriented, methods.
Until a change occurs both in our attitudes AND our infrastructure, a true urban culture will struggle to find a foothold in Phoenix. This isn’t to say it’s impossible; rather that it needs more than the opening of a new pharmacy, the planting of a few shade trees or creating a bike boulevard. It will require a large and long-term commitment on the part of all of us who care about a vibrant urban core.