Learning from Phoenix and Vancouver: An Interview
Posted February 24, 2012
Keywords: density, phoenix, vancouver, xeriscaping, Urban Planning, Land Use, Placemaking, Sustainability
Yuri Artibise is an urbanist and a thought leader who lived in Phoenix for just over 4 years before moving back to Vancouver in May of 2011. While he was here, he made a tremendous impact on our city as a forward thinking writer, an outspoken advocate for a better city and a community organizer. He and his wife Linda are missed a great deal even to this day, almost a year after their departure.
Firefly Living is happy to present a retrospective interview discussing Yuri’s thoughts about his time here in Phoenix.
Taz Loomans: What do you miss most about Phoenix?
Yuri Artibise: I miss the weather, especially this time of year, but even in the summer, there is a quality to the sun light that you just don’t have in northern cities. I also miss the close knit community of urbanists working together. While there is a great and very accomplished urban community in Vancouver, we are busy doing our own things and I haven’t been able to connect with others as closely as I did in Phoenix. It seems the adage that adversity brings people together is true, especially in an ‘urban desert’ like Phoenix.
Taz Loomans: What did Phoenix have the Vancouver doesn’t?
Yuri Artibise: Beside climate (and great tamales!), Phoenix has an affordability that Vancouver simply doesn’t; even before the economic downturn, Phoenix was an affordable place to follow your dream. This led to a more entrepreneurial culture that I miss. Vancouver has a lot of great things going on, but the high cost of living means that security comes first for a lot of people. Despite it’s often inward looking perspective the region has great potential as an incubator for social entrepreneurship.
Taz Loomans: What do you miss least about Phoenix?
Yuri Artibise: The lack of urban form in the city, even downtown. I still pinch myself when I walk outside and see almost everything I strove for during my time in Phoenix, realized in Vancouver, from walkable streets, to mixed used developments to bike lanes, even dog parks! If anything Vancouver may be a bit TOO livable as it’s desirability have driven prices sky-high. (As a result, real estate is the number one topic of most discussions, as it was in Phoenix, just for opposite reasons).
Taz Loomans: From the perspective of someone who lived here and now has left, what do you think Phoenix’s biggest pitfalls are?
Yuri Artibise: First and foremost the extreme political climate. It is the question I am asked about here. Second is sustainability. I know many Phoenix residents don’t want to hear it, but Andrew Ross got a lot right in his book, Bird on Fire. I mean there isn’t even recycling pickup in apartments! But seriously, while things like xeriscaping and shade are important, until the region drops the growth industry mantra and starts thinking seriously about things like residential water restrictions, limiting suburban expansion and significant investing in social infrastructure, especially K-12, the future of the Valley doesn’t look great. In this regard, the sustained economic downtown may be a blessing in disguise, as you will be forced to do more with less. Hopefully politicians will stop looking to external investment as a way to disguise the great harms that that region’s (sub)urban form has done, not only to it’s long term environmental sustainability, but also it’s social and economic sustainability as well. I know that people there don’t want to hear it, but there is a reason that these issues keep being raised by outside commentators like Ross and expats like Jon Talton.
Taz Loomans: From the perspective of someone who lived here and now has left, what do you think Phoenix’s biggest opportunities are?
Yuri Artibise: Phoenix’s biggest opportunities are frankly the great expanses of vacant lots and empty storefronts. Combined with the entrepreneurial spirit and low cost of living mentioned above, the city could become a great laboratory for sustainable desert living, in a manner like Detroit has become a beacon for rust belt revitalization. But to do so, the region needs to seriously consider ways to reconsider its relationship to its climate—not simply push for solar panels and rain barrels. I’m not sure that Paolo Soleri had all the right answers, but his radical rethinking of desert living are closer to what the the region needs. Frankly, I didn’t see that thinking in the most of the current crop of so-called sustainable architects who pushed xeriscaping large lots and shade sails over private pools as sustainable solutions.
Taz Loomans: Would you ever come back to live Phoenix, given the opportunity? Why or why not?
Yuri Artibise: One thing that I have learned after returning to Vancouver is that this is ‘home’ and where my heart is. However, Phoenix will always have be a special place for me, and I’d love to opportunity to return, at least part-time. I think that there is a lot both cities can learn from each other, and I’d love to help facilitate this process.
Taz Loomans: What can we learn from Vancouver here in Phoenix?
Yuri Artibise: There is a lot, obviously, given my previous comments, but first and foremost, Phoenix can demand more from it’s developers. One of the things that has made Vancouver such a livable city is the high level of amenities that the City of Vancouver demands—and receives—from developers, especially when rezoning properties. This helps ensure that new developments are more complete communities, with access to daycare, transit, park space or cultural facilities.
Additionally, Vancouver has the greenest building standards in North America. While Phoenix is applauding itself for adopting a voluntary green construction code,Vancouver requires all new buildings to be at least LEED Gold. Such requirements have been criticized by developers, and have been named a factor is driving our sky-high real estate prices, but I think they have been an important factor in making Vancouver such a livable and sustainable city.
Taz Loomans: What can Vancouver learn from Phoenix?
Yuri Artibise: One thing that it lacking in Vancouver is official neighbourhood input into planning decisions. While the city has an active and the speaking list at rezoning often tops 200 speakers, we have no equivalent to Phoenix’s Village Planning Committees. As a result, many neighbourhoods feel that their perspective is overlooked in planning decisions.
Another idea that Vancouver could borrow from Phoenix is the percent-for-art program that funds public art throughout the city. While Vancouver has a well respected public art program, and public art is often included in the public amenity packages I mentioned earlier, it would be nice to have dedicated source of funding, and more integration of public art into civic utilities and infrastructure. While Vancouver has some great art in our parks and urban core, our highways overpasses are no where near as cool as Phoenix’s.
Photo Credit: The empty lot south of Lux Coffeebar. Photo by Taz Loomans.
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