End the urbanization of Arizona

In 2021, Phoenix became the fifth largest city by population in the United States, trailing behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. Another title that came alongside the city’s growing urbanization was “the least sustainable city in the world,” a name branded by Andrew Ross, a sociologist at New York University. The growing urbanization of the state will only create an unhealthy and unsustainable environment.

Urbanization is the process of people moving from rural settings to urban centers. It is almost always the result of growing populations, migrations or industrialization. This phenomenon is rapidly occurring in Arizona.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from April 2010 to April 2020, the population in Phoenix grew by more than 160,000 people. Arizona’s overall population is growing at a rate of 1.28% per year. It is projected by the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity that if this rate is sustained, the state’s population will surpass eight million people by 2026.

New cities will need to be built to accommodate the growing population, and more people will move to Arizona because of its growing economy, creating a never-ending cycle, meeting the same fate as a state like California, the most urbanized city in the country.

One of the biggest problems that arises from the rapid urbanization of suburban areas is the lack of resources, specifically water. In terms of precipitation, Arizona receives 13 inches of rain water per year, and Phoenix receives less than 8 inches in an average year.

 Due to the scarcity of this resource, central and southern Arizona receive most of its water supply from the Colorado River — a river that, according to The Washington Post, is drying up due to a combination of chronic overuse of water resources and a historic drought. Climate researchers have been analyzing the long-term effects that result from this reckless water usage, one of whom is Jonathan Overpeck, the Samuel A. Graham dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

“There are plans for substantial further growth and there just isn’t the water to support that … the Phoenix metro area is on the cusp of being dangerously overextended,” Overpeck told The Guardian. “It’s the urban bullseye for global warming in North America.” 

The growth of urbanization creates issues because it causes a lack of access to safe water and sanitation, and increases water-related disasters, such as droughts and floods. Phoenix still refuses to place stricter water restrictions or develop a drought contingency plan. 

Arizona is experiencing a declining water supply, but rich capitalists are still in the process of expanding their construction sites. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has invested $80 million into his “smart city,” a plan to build 80,000 new homes on undeveloped land west of Phoenix and a new freeway connecting to Las Vegas. Gates isn’t the only person or company with plans to further urbanize Arizona.

“Another firm wants to build a ‘master-planned community,’ like Anthem, south of Tucson and modeled after the hilltop towns of Tuscany,” according to an article from The Guardian.  “It envisages five golf courses, a vineyard, parks, lakes and 28,000 homes.” 

As Arizona becomes filled with urban areas rather than suburban areas, water is not the only resource affected. In its 2022 State of the Air report, the American Lung Association ranked Maricopa County the seventh most polluted county in the country. 

Environment America, a research and policy group that uses data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, found the Phoenix metro area experienced 149 days of elevated air pollution in 2020. Arizona’s air quality is steadily declining, and the further expansion of the metropolitan area is only worsening it. 

Residents of sprawling cities, a term given to describe growing cities that cover a large area, usually generate more carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and one of the major contributors to climate change and air pollution. Carbon dioxide is often found in developing and growing cities because of the increased need to drive. 

It’s the theory of induced demand — building more roads and adding more lanes gives the appearance of speeding up traffic, but by encouraging sprawl, stores, houses and jobs are spread out and provide more reasons to drive to more places and expand many people’s commutes. With the construction of new freeways, the ‘urban heat island effect’ is produced, meaning cities become hotter than the countryside due to human-made structures and activities. In 2017, 50 flights were grounded at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport because the heat — which hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit — made the air too thin to take off safely. This “heat island” effect also keeps temperatures in Phoenix above 98 degrees Fahrenheit at night during the summer, primarily July.

Another factor that isn’t often considered by the companies and firms that support urban sprawl is how it affects low-income families. When a city or area becomes metropolitan, rent prices soar. Phoenix led the U.S. in the highest rent increases in 2022 with a 30% jump, and rent prices could climb another 20% this year. Phoenix is in a housing crisis and needs 270,000 additional homes in order to combat it, according to the state Housing Department

Even with the construction of these new homes underway, low-income families are at a disadvantage because of the number of affordable housing options bought up by large corporate investors who raise rent prices and refuse to take housing vouchers. 

For every 100 families in Arizona with incomes below the poverty line, there are only 26 affordable and available rentals. While no state has been able to fully combat this crisis, Arizona’s statistics are concerning when compared to the national rate of 37 homes available for every 100 low-income renters.

The rapid urbanization of Arizona is primarily beneficial to big corporations who only care about increasing their revenue, often at the expense of the environment or low-income communities. As the Phoenix metropolitan area expands, so does every negative effect that comes with urbanization. As more freeways are constructed, there will be an increase in the state’s air pollution. As more homes are built, there will be more corporate investors to raise rent prices. It becomes a never-ending cycle where residents of the Phoenix area have to deal with a decrease in the quality of the air they breathe while also figuring out how they’re going to afford this month’s rent. The urbanization of Arizona needs to slow down before it inevitably run out of resources.

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