I Have a Beautiful Dream


Benjamin Espen

Ben is a medical devices engineer who has lived in Arizona almost his whole life. He has a website and can be found on Twitter.

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42 Responses

  1. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    I lived in Flagstaff for a couple of years in the early 1990s. I loved it. It is the only place in Arizona I would live in not merely willingly, but eagerly.

    My impression at the time was that growth potential was limited by geography. Partly this was being surrounded by national forest, but mostly it was limited water. Not for nothing did the Spanish call the area the Sinagua. Has that been resolved? I recall the year you could walk across Lower Lake Mary with little danger of getting your feet wet.Report

    • @burtlikko was asking last night on twitter about places in the US to live and the only reason I left off the Flagstaff/Sedona area off my list was his airport requirement. So that would be in line with the geographical argument. We visited it several times while living in Vegas as a weekend get away and found it to be amazing, and part of that is because of the location, so it’s a two-edged sword.Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

        Flagstaff has, or at least had in the early 1990s, a small commercial airport. The passenger service was of the sort where you fly at great expense a puddle jumper to Phoenix, where you transfer to a larger plane. I think there were also flights to Gallup, or perhaps Farmington. Most people drove the two hours to Phoenix, but if your employer was paying, flying out of Flagstaff was fine.

        Yes, Flagstaff was amazing. My take at the time was that it combined a desirable physical and cultural environment, limited growth potential due to the aforementioned physical environment, and easy access because it actually isn’t all that far from larger, less desirable locations. Even in the early 90s this inevitably translated to high real estate prices. The only factor holding it back was the limited local economy. It was a great place to live, but you had to luck into a profession that let you live there.Report

        • Avatar jason says:

          I have a marine corps buddy who lives there. He frequently travels and usually goes to the Phoenix airport.
          I’ve driven through there and visited once. It’s a cool town.Report

    • The geographic restrictions are mostly theoretical at this point. There is enough undeveloped land within the current city limits to have two or three times as many people at current densities.

      The water problem is real, but not yet acute. We have Lake Mary, the Lake Mary and Woody Mountain wellfields, and the perched aquifer in the San Francisco Peaks at present. Most options on the table for getting more water involve drilling more fossil water. I suspect usage in the city could be cut considerably if we really wanted to.Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

        I think they must have developed some of those resources since I left. There was a lot of discussion at the time, and the situation was quite dire.Report

  2. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    After we get settled in Scottsdale, Flagstaff is on our list of things to see & do. Thanks for the primer.Report

  3. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

    Yes, this is all entirely doable. Small scale, mixed use, walkable developments are the preferred model for urban planners and architects. Groups like the Urban Land Institute have spent a lot of time studying how the balance of density and use and transportation can help cities grow beautifully.

    One of the takeaways from this essay should be the realization of how much physical space automobiles consume, and how much of our resources in terms of land and capital are devoted just to housing cars.

    Another takeaway is just how interdependent development is to all the external factors. The development of land both is influenced and influences everything around it, from traffic to utilities to crime to employment.Report

  4. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    The zoning and parking requirements are exactly why we don’t get this kind of development in my city, for all that city council keeps trying to let it happen.

    From a developer’s perspective, the zoning variances can be hugely expensive – they have to buy the lot, and then sit on it for many months, paying mortgage, insurance, tax, etc., while every punter living in the neighbourhood complains about how terrible it would be to have high density walkable development – complaints the city is obligated to consider. The city may or may not grant the variance, and any representation from one planning department employee that this variance will be granted as long as that change to the proposal is made may or may not be honoured by the next employee to touch the file. It’s uncertain, messy, and banks charge accordingly high interest rates on all associated loans, if you can get the loan at all.

    All this comes through in the price you have to charge for the finished houses.

    Compared to which, buying multiple acres of prime farmland on the edge of town, with no neighbours to complain, and building dozens of near-identical 2 1/2 storey houses with large lawns and the prescribed 2 car garage with parking space for a further 2 cars on the driveway, is a smooth and simple process, approval is a rubber stamp away, the houses sell at a predictable rate, and the bank acknowledges this low-risk plan with low-interest loans.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      And, of course, if we didn’t have that byzantine system, everyone would be complaining about developers just slapping any old thing up wherever they can get land in a downtown and damaging the character of the area.

      One would think there would be a way to split the difference, but between politicians and city officials working to secure their own fiefdoms, and every noisy minority who demands that they need to be listened to and taken into account…Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

      That is all completely true, but there is another side to it.
      All those external stakeholders you mention, the neighbors, the vest interests, traffic advocates and the like, are part of the very same factors that make an urban lot so attractive to begin with.

      Saying that it is cheaper to build out in the hinterlands is like saying it is cheaper to buy Marvin’s Gardens compared to Park Place. True, but not really relevant.

      The density of people, jobs, shopping, services and infrastructure adds tremendous value to real estate, even though it also adds the number of variables to the equation.Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    The long debate in urban development is whether the automobile centric, strictly zoned suburb filled with nothing but single family homes is what Americans by and large want or was it forced on the American and other people. What is really amusing about this debate is that you have a bunch of free market oriented libertarians, or market urbanists, and a punch of left-leaning urban theorists arguing that the suburb as we know what would be impossible without top down government intervention.

    I think that the automobile centric, strictly zoned suburb is what most Americans want even if they protest otherwise. Americans fell in love with the car as soon as it appeared and forgot about other forms of transportation. Likewise, Americans long preferred the singe-family home above all other forms of housing. Many cities during the late 19th and early 20th century, advertised themselves as a city of homes because of the dominance of the single-family home. Likewise, cities started implementing strict zoning as soon as it became viable. Its just that since consumers are also voters, they elected politicians to make their preferences law.Report

    • I’m kind of a both/and kind of guy on this question. I think people really do want single family homes. I own one myself. At least here, the problem is that for much of the local population, this has become too expensive a dream to realize. I think it might be possible to allow for more owner-occupied single family homes in Flagstaff, specifically, which has a lot of college students and a lot of childless professionals who might actually go for high density urban living. Young families, probably not so much, but they would benefit from less competition for the single family homes.

      On the other hand, the development of the suburban dream really did get a push from up high, in the form of the Interstate Highway system, and federally backed mortgages, both of which were partly done for Cold War civil defense reasons. And partly not, of course.Report

  6. Avatar Kazzy says:

    You discuss how near/far certain things are and it reminded me how specific notions of walking distance are to a particular area.

    In Texas, walking from the far end of a parking lot to the store door is often deemed “too far”; in NYC, half a mile (10 blocks) can simultaneously be so close or obscenely long, depending on what the two points are.

    Driving is similar. Californians I know speak of weekend 8-hour-each-way drives between SF and LA. East Coasters grumble about 4-hour drives between NYC and DC.

    Our sense of near and far is fun to think about in these ways.

    As a “NY-er” and avid walker, I’d considerr everything you described as “so close”! But I’ve never done Arizona in the summer…Report

    • I have a lot of family in Phoenix and Los Angeles, so I know from experience how living in a car-centered environment changes your perceptions. In Phoenix, driving 45 minutes to get somewhere interesting isn’t exceptional. You probably do that much driving just to do routine shopping.

      And then I come home, where the whole town is only 15 minutes drive end to end, and I feel like I can’t go somewhere because it is “all the way on the other side of town”.

      As for the weather, it snowed yesterday. Nothing serious, it is all gone now, but it is still cold. The climate here is very different from Phoenix. I don’t even have an air-conditioner in my house.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog says:

        An aspect of car-centric construction that contributes a lot to that effect is what you have to walk through is different. How far we’re willing to walk through different environments makes a huge difference to how far “walking distance” is.

        Walking from the far end of the parking lot in Texas, you’re walking though a big parking lot. There’s nothing interesting around you, no shelter from the elements, nowhere to walk where people aren’t also driving their cars. It’s very obviously an environment that only barely tolerates your presence.

        Walking half a mile in NY, there are sidewalks and parked cars separating you from traffic, there are people around, houses, apartments, shops to look at, trees and buildings sheltering you from sun and wind, kitty cats to pet, etc. It’s an environment that wants you there.

        “Walking distance” from my house, for example, extends much farther east and west than it does north and south. North of us is a highway, crossing of which entails either a 600 m or 1 km walk along bleak noisy “desert” environment, depending where you cross. South of us is a busy road, which can be crossed every block but it’s still an obstacle – crossing that road is enough cognitive load that it contracts the “walking distance” area on the south side by a few blocks. East and West of us are no roads that major for some distance.Report

  7. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    As a “NY-er” and avid walker, I’d considerr everything you described as “so close”! But I’ve never done Arizona in the summer…

    Don’t forget to allow for the elevation. Flagstaff is higher than Denver, and averages somewhat cooler than Denver in the summer as a result.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      Oh man… I do not know my geography! I remember the elevation in Denver and Boulder being killer.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        My favorite map of the 48 contiguous states.

        One July 4 when my sister and her kids were visiting, we drove up to the top of Mt. Evans in the morning (elevation 14,200 ft, temp in the low 40s, played with the snow disk sleds in the remnants of the snow pack), stopped for lunch and a short hike in the Pike National Forest (8,000 ft or so, temp about 70), went swimming in the west Denver suburbs in the afternoon (5,400 ft, temp about 90). Straight line distance between the end points of that trip is about 30 miles.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          That’s a very cool image! It really is amazing how many things are so relative.

          While making a cross country flight during daylight hours, I remember looking out the window as we crossed Western PA and thought, “Damn… this is really the middle of no where.”

          Then we crossed the midwest/Great Plains region. “No… THIS is the middle of no where!”

          Then we crossed the southwest. “No no no… this REALLY is the middle of nowhere. Is that Mars?!”

          The highest point in NJ is, amazingly, High Point, NJ. Elevation: 1804. If you get to the top, it feels pretty cool.

          Then I went to Boulder. We climbed the Flatirons. No… THAT was cool! Then I looked off in the distance and saw what I could only guess were billion feet tall mountains and felt completely deficient. Earth is cool!Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            And, of course, relative to the size of the planet, the earth is downright smooth.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              I’ve heard it said smoother than a billiards ball if shrunk down to the same size. Can that be true?!?!

              I mean, I guess we are talking about heights of 5+ miles on something that is about 24000 miles around. If my math serves, that means a diameter of approximately 8000 miles. 5/8000 = 1/1600.

              That’s… pretty frickin’ smooth methinks!Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain says:

            Another of my favorite maps.

            The classical Eastern US settlement pattern — small town every several miles in any direction, small cities at fairly regular intervals — disappears across the Great Plains and western mountains. Different reasons for that on the Plains than in the mountains, though.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              The town I currently live in and the one I grew up in both had populations of about 40K, which it sounds like is where Flagstaff was a decade ago. Traffic lights, multi-lane roads in a few sections, multiple business districts, mass transit… these are all standard and would lead most people to look at our areas and call them cities or, at the very least, urban. But we call them suburbs because we are a stone’s throw from NYC. Yonkers… population 200,000, 4th most in the state… isn’t even recognized as a real city because it borders NYC. A city next to a city? WTF?!

              Then I look at where I lived previously in Orange County, NY and I call that the sticks and we consider that rural but it really, really, really isn’t by any standard other than NY/LA/Chicago.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain says:

                A city next to a city? WTF?!

                Welcome to Colorado. Consider the north end of the Front Range urban corridor running 85 miles from Fort Collins on the north to Parker on the south, and 15 miles east or west of I-25. No cities of a million people, or likely to make it in the 2020 census. How many over 500K? One. How many between 150K and 500K? Two. How many between 100K and 150K? Six (amusing meaningless statistical fact: Colorado has as many cities >100K as New York and Massachusetts combined). How many between 50K and 100K? Six. Side-by-side? I can drive you from Parker to Fort Collins and never be out of sight of a housing development.

                Actually pretty standard in the West. Count the number of cities >100K in the LA basin, or in the counties surrounding San Francisco Bay, or in Maricopa County in Arizona.Report

  8. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Smooth enough you wouldn’t be able to detect the roughness of the billard ball Earth with your finger.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        Science & Scale!Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          Recently Mayo asked me what’s faster, the Earth or the Sun. That led to a conversation about the Earth rotating on its axis and how it is actually rotating very, very fast. He asked why he didn’t feel it moving.

          “Because you punched your brother yesterday.”Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            The Earth and the SunReport

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              SO WHICH IS IT, NERD?!Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:


                Listen, I spent three semesters learning how to do the various matrix transforms that let you calculate this stuff, I earned my nerd badge!Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:


                What’s funny is your three-semesters answer is the same as his 5-year-old answer and you’re the only two people who could offer it an actually be correct.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                The earth moves around the sun, the sun moves through the galaxy, and the galaxy moves through the universe.

                And they are all move along at a very good clip!Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                That’s what I tried to explain. But, ultimately, if the relationship between the Earth and the Sun is more or less unchanged, aren’t they moving at the same speed?

                How does space work…?Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                It all depends on your frame of reference. If the frame of reference is Earth, you don’t notice the movement. If it’s the sun, you only notice how fast the Earth orbits the sun. If it’s the center of the galaxy, you’ll notice the orbital speed of the Earth and the speed of the sun as it moves through the galaxy. Pick an observation point far from the Milky Way, and you’ll see how fast the Milky Way is moving, plus the sun, plus the Earth.

                But first you gotta pick a frame of reference.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Ummm… is all speed relative?

                If you zoomed out as far as you could, you’d see all these things moving but wouldn’t the be moving at pretty much the same speed? If they were moving at different speeds, wouldn’t they be getting closer to or farther from one another?Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Ummm… is all speed relative?


                And zooming out to see how things are moving relative to each other is how astronomers figured out the big bang, and started scratching their heads about dark matter, etc.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                I need to put you and Mayo in a room together because you’ll explain all this and he’ll ask more thoughtful questions than I do and then, at the end, he’ll strike a really condescending tone and remind you that cheetahs are really the fastest and MAAAAAAAAAAAY-be it’s just the sun going around the Earth because that’s what he sees.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe says:

                What will really twist your noodle is that the entire universe is also getting bigger.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                I’ll do you one better. In space, velocity has no absolute value, it’s only value is relative.Report