Saturday, June 16, 2007

The First Domed City

Guest Columnist
The New York Times
June 16, 2007


Every week, more than 2,000 people move to the Valley of Sun, to a metro area nearly as big in size as the state of New Jersey. They come from Pittsburgh, from Buffalo, from Cleveland, from Fargo — from yesterday to tomorrow.

A city equal to Rochester plants itself here every two years. And what they find is a compelling urban experiment: nearly four million people trying to live in the Sonoran Desert, and live with what they had at home — golf courses, lakes, perennial green. But they also learn that summer is winter, in the sense that Phoenicians stay indoors this time of year, hunkered inside a climate-controlled world, and plan their extended midday excursions like an astronaut going for a space walk. In the stillness of late-afternoon, you wonder: where is everybody?

Phoenix, even more than the other desert metropolis of Las Vegas, is the new American city. People come here because nobody has a past, and because houses are still cheap and because when the snow reached the roofline they finally said: That’s it! I’ve had it.

But what if this place — so new the Bubble Wrap is barely off the red-tiled roofs of neighborhoods named for whatever they displaced — became uninhabitable? What if the climate models that predict the American West heating up faster than any other part of the country proved all too accurate?

If you live here, you know what it means when the sun becomes an enemy. On Thursday, it was 110 degrees. Yesterday, same thing. Too hot to leave a dog or a child in a car without risking their lives. Your skin stings. You feel your brain swelling while waiting for the air-conditioning when you get in the oven of a parked car.

About 800 people will be hospitalized, on average, for heat-related maladies in the coming months, and some will die, mostly the very young and the very old.

As heat waves go, this week’s mercury-topper is nothing special. It’s been 121 degrees — the all-time high. But if you look at the trends and the long-term predictions by the United Nations climate panel, you wonder how our signature New City will adapt. The average temperature of Phoenix has risen five degrees since the 1960s, according to the National Weather Service. Five of the warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000.

A few years ago, The Arizona Republic predicted that average temperatures in Phoenix might rise by 15 to 20 degrees over a generation, due to something called the urban heat island effect. The more parking lots and Dilbert-filled buildings are slapped over the desert floor, the more heat stays trapped in the valley. On top of that is climate change.

“All of the models say in the next 50 years this place is really going to heat up,” said Robert Balling, a climatologist at Arizona State University.

Outside the city, the forests of Arizona are dying, stressed by drought and rising temperatures. A fire that burned an area the size of metro Phoenix five years ago is seen as a terrifying precursor. What scientists have found is that there’s a threshold at which the forest ecosystem collapses. They’ve looked at droughts going back to the time of the Hohokam, who built canals here, and cannot find anything like the present crash.

Is there a similar point at which the city becomes imperiled? The skeptics say: No, we can engineer our way around it. Look at the ballpark where the Diamondbacks play baseball: It has a retractable roof, which is closed while the stadium is cooled by industrial-strength air-conditioning and then opened in the evening.

Or behold the great veins of the Central Arizona Project, bringing water from the Colorado River to fountains in Scottsdale. The fast-evaporating water courses through the city as it bakes, making it livable.

To their credit, residents are using less water, deploying the sun to power air-conditioning, putting in desert landscaping — cacti and stones, not bluegrass and ponds. I do not doubt that innovation will continue to make it easier to defy the heat. But it’s one thing to bring runoff from the Rocky Mountains to the desert floor. It’s another to bring alpine air to streets and parks and backyards, unless you put a dome over the whole city.

Wallace Stegner always said it was his hope that the West could build cities to match the setting. He never predicted that the setting would be the problem.


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