Disappearing Desert: The Growth of Phoenix and the Culture of Sprawl

By Allen, Ralph K. | Material Culture, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Disappearing Desert: The Growth of Phoenix and the Culture of Sprawl


Allen, Ralph K., Material Culture


Disappearing Desert: The Growth of Phoenix and the Culture of Sprawl By Janine Schipper Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. xiii + 146 pp. Illustrations, acknowledgements, appendix, notes, references, and index. $19.95, ISBN 978-0-8061-3955-5.

Reviewed by Ralph K. Allen, Jr., ralphallenk@yahoo.com, Williams Valley Grange #452, Nine Mile Falls, WA 99026

Janine Schipper has provided a neatly written, if brief, volume allowing proponents of development and environmental preservationists to grasp the essence of current planning extremes while searching for grounded answers to population growth. As we approach and surpass the seven billion mark in terms of human occupancy of the earth, studies like this provide a humanistic framework for land-use decision making in hostile as well as friendly environments.

Distilled from her dissertation, Disappearing Desert examines five cultural forces driving suburban sprawl in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area and two nearby sites, Cave Creek and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Her approach combines personal observations derived from growing up in a Manhattan suburb and as an adult being witness to large-scale development as sprawl on Arizona's Sonoran Desert.

As Schipper claims, "This book specifically focuses on those widely held collective perceptions that shape our behavior and choices" (p. 17). Each of the five chapters presents as a cultural force; Rational Society, Cultural Production of Space and Time, Selling of the American Dream, Consuming the Dream, and Rights Wars/Conclusion.

A careful exploration of the often heatedly debated decision-making regarding urban sprawl in the desert southwest reveals a number of dichotomies. Sprawl or concentration, high density versus urban islands, ecology as preservation or identity; advocates for personal gain view development one way while others view the same framework as disasters in larger scale planning.

Schipper walks a middle trail in her discussions, presenting cogent arguments for what some refer to as "rational" (Western) and "traditional" (Native) planning. I suggest this viewpoint is a bit discriminatory as evidenced by the rational use of nature by indigenous populations predating the displacement and disruption of earlier societies' evident successes. Urbanization, at least from the middle-twentieth century onward, has created extensive, person-centered, dislocations of cultures in the form of gated communities, new neighborhoods, conflicting regulatory sets and intense senses of small-scale community perceptions set in large-scale, county wide patterns of land use.

With almost callous disregard to the nature of the environment Phoenix and its suburban neighbors have changed, new terms and new legal conflicts have become engaged in everyday thinking for individuals and communities. As one example, in the case of a similar cityscape, Las Vegas, Nevada, concerns regarding the Desert Tortoise habitat produced a monetary solution wherein the tortoise was well compensated - $550 per acre - for the establishment of conservation areas and other mitigating measures to allow for expansion of suburban development. …

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