Phoenix Urbanites Cry Sprawl Foul, but Remain Most Guilty

A few times recently I have seen/heard Phoenix Urbanites disparage outside cities in derogatory terms using “sprawl” as their verbal assault of choice.  Oddly the facts, don’t line up with their dogma.

Let’s look at total population, population density (people per sq mile), incorporation date and average household income.

City Population Density Incorporation Household Income
Portland 582k 4,288/sq mi 1845 $70,000
Chandler 274k 4,202/sq mi 1912 $69,278
Tempe 175k 4,067/sq mi 1894 $42,361
Mesa 463k 3,536/sq mi 1878 $42,817
Phoenix 1,567k 2,937/sq mi 1881 $50,140

It’s amazing that Chandler, AZ looks more like Portland, OR than Phoenix, AZ does by the numbers.

I suspect that Phoenix people harping on density and urban infill while casting stones at other communities would know that in fact the City of Phoenix has been the biggest culprit of unabated sprawl over the last 50 years.  Having by far the lowest population density track record.  It likes to claim superiority by being the capital and being here “first” and that these other cities popped up over night and ruined the world with “sprawl”, but in reality it is younger than Mesa and relatively close in age to the others.

I do believe that all these cities have a sprawl problem (which I am against).  I am just setting the record straight that Phoenix is the biggest violator.

I  lived in Phoenix (the city) for 24 years and have lived in the East Valley for the past 10 years.  I worked in downtown Phoenix for 8 years and downtown Tempe for 4 years.  Two of my children were born in downtown Phoenix and one in Chandler.  I love both the city and the metro, but it’s time that we start having real discussion and stop just regurgitating the rhetoric the uninformed feed us or we will be doomed to be in crisis for another decade or more.

Disclaimer: My goal is to position Chandler is the linchpin of the Sun Corridor by 2020.  Rising tides raise all ships and by definition this does not make me “against” Phoenix.


  1. Sprawl has far more to do with neighborhood characteristics than with municipal boundaries. Downtown Chandler is not sprawl; Desert Ridge is well within Phoenix city limits but epitomizes sprawl. I can’t think of many people, regardless of which municipality they live in, who are unwilling to acknowledge those nuances.

    Regardless, keep in mind that Phoenix has several large desert preserves within its municipal boundaries, including South Mountain, the world’s largest municipal park. For the most part, this is not true of Phoenix’s suburbs, which may have county parks near them, but outside their boundaries. A more meaningful comparison of densities might therefore count only that portion of the city not within preserve boundaries.

    Also, it’s important to note that density by itself does not demonstrate the absence of sprawl. Many recently built subdivisions, both in Phoenix and its suburbs, feature houses very close to one another on relatively small lots. The density is high, but the absence of any mixed used development and heavy reliance on the car still make these places part of the sprawl phenomenon.

  2. I just echo David’s last paragraph – apartment complexes are even denser than close-quartered single family homes, but they’re just as if not less truly urban. Density for density’s sake is not the right goal, and the wrong metric.

    Use mobility as an example. How easy is it to get around Portland by bike? If I have a stroke later in life and lose the license to operate my car, how do I get around Chandler?

  3. I also think that density statistics are only a small indicator of sprawl. Yes, having a certain critical mass is a Good Thing. However, if you achieve that critical mass in the absence of a self-sufficient local economy, 20+ miles away from the center of the local economy in a locale 40 miles across, I argue that you are just as guilty of sprawl as anyone else in that locale.

    This is because I define sprawl by symptoms like: reliance on cars and highways for reliable, on-time transit; inability to practically walk/bike between work, home, and groceries; average commute distance greater than half of the town’s width; lack of desired amenities/recreation within half the town’s width, and other indicators that people are living quite far away from the things they need/want on a daily basis.

    My assumption, then, is that getting rid of sprawl, and by extension the above indicators, is also a Good Thing. So, I wag my finger at anyone living outside (Valley radius / 2) of their (work, entertainment spots, friends’ homes) especially if they need a car in order to practically access necessities like a decent steak, bread/milk, the post office, a movie, etc.

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