Politics, Resilience, and Survival

  • Grady GammageJr.


Just as the Death and Life of Great American Cities offers seminal insights into the evolutionary growth and vitality of cities, so Jared Diamond’s book Collapse illuminates why various societies have failed in human history. Diamond catalogs the factors that can stress a society to the point of extinction: (1) relationships with trading partners go awry, (2) the society is beset by enemies, (3) climate changes threaten a particular locale, (4) local resources are depleted beyond the point of sustainability, and (5) a place fails to respond adequately to the other four factors. The most critical factor is the last. In the history of Phoenix, the Hohokam apparently failed to adapt to the challenges they faced.


Eminent Domain Suburban Neighborhood Registered Voter Restrictive Covenant Suburban City 
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Just as the Death and Life of Great American Cities offers seminal insights into the evolutionary growth and vitality of cities, so Jared Diamond’s book Collapse illuminates why various societies have failed in human history. Diamond catalogs the factors that can stress a society to the point of extinction: (1) relationships with trading partners go awry, (2) the society is beset by enemies, (3) climate changes threaten a particular locale, (4) local resources are depleted beyond the point of sustainability, and (5) a place fails to respond adequately to the other four factors.1 The most critical factor is the last. In the history of Phoenix, the Hohokam apparently failed to adapt to the challenges they faced.

This fifth factor is the question of resilience. It is the question of how flexible a society’s decision-making structure is, how quickly it can react to a challenge, and whether it has the capacity to recognize a mistake and change course. Resilience is all about politics.

Many of America’s suburban cities are in the southern half of the country—the Sunbelt region. They tend to be hot, and many of them are not located on a coast. Their politics lean toward the conservative. The reason for the conservative bent of suburban cities is complex. In part, it is the product of the mythology of the West as a place of rugged individualists. In part, it is the result of the area having been populated by people fleeing older cities, which they perceived as being “high tax” environments or being dominated by corrupt political machines. Ironically, in the West the perception of less need for an activist local government is often the result of an umbrella of federal protections and interventions in the economy. Vast tracts of federal land, the exploitation of federally owned natural resources, and massive investments by the federal government in airports, interstate highways, and water systems all made the urban West possible. Those massive investments made locally driven government seem less necessary. At the same time, those massive federal investments, and particularly the pattern of federal ownership, made Westerners resent their Big Brother on the East Coast dictating how things should be done.

The mix of “Sunbelt capitalism” (to use Elizabeth Tandy Sher-mer’s phrase) is nowhere more evident than in Phoenix.2 It was Phoenix, after all, that gave Barry Goldwater to the modern conservative movement. In recent years, the nonpartisan city council governments of metro Phoenix (including the City of Phoenix itself) have by and large been practical, efficient, and relatively pragmatic. Most philosophical differences have been compromised and managed, even in times of severe budget stress.

At the state level, however, Arizona has been consumed by political posturing and right-wing legislation like the infamous SB 1070, an attempt to make immigration a state issue. This disconnect comes from the excessive partisan divide that plagues all American politics today, but in Arizona’s case it is further reinforced by term limits and public funding of elections. These two reforms have had the unintended consequences of facilitating fringe candidates, eroding institutional memory, and diminishing the influence of the business sector.

Arizona’s demographics alone facilitate a political disconnect: Arizona has lots of old white people and lots of young minorities. William Frey of the Brookings Institution calculates the state’s “cultural generation gap”—the white share of over-65s minus the white share of under-18s—at 41 percent, higher than that of any other state.3

Arizona’s statewide elections are caught in a distillation loop. In 2012, about 35 percent of the electorate were registered Republicans, 30 percent were Democrats, and 33 percent were independent or “other.” The non-party-affiliated component is the fastest growing, especially among younger citizens. There are significant barriers to the participation of such independents. The parties select their candidates in partisan primaries funded by the state. Increasingly, in this very red state, the Republican primary decides who will ultimately be elected. Only about 25 percent of registered Republican voters participate in the primary. This means that 25 percent of 35 percent of registered voters are ultimately deciding who is elected to statewide office—resulting in about 8 percent of registered voters making that choice. Since only about two-thirds of the voting-age population is even registered to vote, this means that about 5 percent of those who could participate are actually making meaningful voting decisions.

The result is that statewide offices in Arizona are relatively easily captured by zealous partisan conservatives. As an increasing number of voters are turned off by this result, more and more leave the two parties to become independents, further distilling the small piece of the electorate that is actually deciding. This has driven the elected representatives in the state legislature further and further to the right, even as the overall population has grown and moderated. It is not surprising that “The Arizona We Want” poll conducted by Gallup in 2009 found that only 10 percent of Arizonans believe that elected officials represent their interests.4

How Arizona got to its particular political perspective is worth analyzing in light of the fate of suburban cities. Arizona is often the butt of political jokes nationally, as well as occasional analysis about the prevalence of “tea party” attitudes in the Sonoran Desert. Ken Silverstein in 2010 wrote an article in Harper’s magazine called “Tea Party in the Sonora.”5 His conclusion: a “confluence of nativism and antigovernment sentiment makes Arizona fertile ground for an especially showy brand of symbolic politics.” Arizona, he suggested, was a harbinger of the future of conservative American politics. From the early stages of the 2016 presidential race, this cautionary note appears prophetic.

Arizona’s politics are a mix of factors, which are present in different proportions in other suburban cities. First in Arizona is the geography of insecurity. The principal city, after all, is named after a bird that burns itself up. This is not an image of stability. In addition, Arizona, like much of the West, has a tense relationship with the federal government, which owns 70 percent of Arizona land. The state may exist only because of the federal investment, and yet the US government is viewed as an evil and distant interloper. Arizona’s geography is insecure also because of an international border it cannot control.

A second factor is institutional immaturity. Arizona entered the Union as “The Baby State.” This is not a nickname to create a sense of pride and high self-esteem. It was changed, fortunately, to the more macho “Grand Canyon State.” Arizona is wedged in between two enormously populous and influential states, Texas and California, both of which have a strong self-identity. If the Texan caricature tends to be arrogant, the Californian image leans toward smug. Texas tell everyone not to mess with them, while California’s attitude has been: “Hey, we’re California, everyone knows we’re the center of the universe.”6 Arizona, by contrast, was carved out of New Mexico—a state that is now one-third its size in population. Arizona does not have a coast, does not have a port, and was never a big rail center; overall, the reason for its existence is not self-evident.

The state is also relatively young. At the turn of the twentieth century, Colorado had almost ten times as many people as did Arizona. Now the states are of relatively comparable population size. Arizona boomed late and as a result did not develop many of the institutions that exist in other parts of the United States. There is no suite of liberal arts colleges started by every conceivable Protestant denomination like those scattered all over Ohio. The institutional higher-education base is three big state universities, a robust community college system, and an unusual for-profit education sector.

As to philanthropy, people tend to give to Milwaukee or wherever they came from rather than to Phoenix. Arizona came of age in an era of globalism. Just as it was becoming a serious city, all the big local banks disappeared. Phoenix has fewer headquarters of Fortune 500 companies than any big city in America. It is often the last US outpost before an industry goes offshore, like chip assembly plants or call centers.

So Arizona has institutional immaturity in a place of geographic insecurity, and on top of that it has an unstable population. In high-growth periods, for every five people who move in, three move out. More recently, the statistic is closer to four in and four out, making Arizona a desert encampment of nomadic people. In addition, the state lacks any dominant cultural influence. Utah has the powerful presence of the Mormon Church. There the church creates a backdrop, a set of relationships and shared expectations among citizens. New Mexico, similarly, has a dominant force in its Hispanic heritage, permeating the way that state thinks of itself. Though Arizona has major elements of both those influences, neither is dominant. In fact, the only dominant cultural group is transplants from the Midwest who moved because of mild winters and cheap houses.

The fourth factor that shapes Arizona is a history of conservative populism. The state was born in a spasm of early-twentieth-century populism. Initially, the politics were classically liberal and pro-labor. There remain remnants of that original populism: the entire legislature stands for election every two years. The state almost failed to be admitted to the Union because it wanted to be able to recall judges; William Howard Taft resisted statehood for so progressive an idea. But that populism began quickly to shift rightward. As Tom Frank wrote in What’s the Matter with Kansas?: “The gravity of discontent pulls to the right.”7

The pervasive Western myth is that of the rugged individual—the cowboy. The image of the West is a place where you can eke out a living in the desert with nothing other than a gun, a dog, a pickup truck, and maybe a chain-link fence. The reality is that you cannot do much of anything in a place like Arizona unless you get along well enough with your neighbors to share some kind of plumbing system. Historian Thomas Sheridan put it well: “Behind every rugged individualist stands a government agency.”8 Arizona is a place that exists by the dint of collective action. Yet Westerners distrust collective action because of this conservative populist bent. In large measure, the tax structure reflects this conservative populism. Arizona has among the highest business property taxes in the United States and among the lowest homeowner property taxes. What message does that send to the market? Answer: We want retired people to move here and buy houses, but we do not really care about companies.

Phoenix, like most of the new suburban cities, is a place where the social contract is still being negotiated. Because it is so immature institutionally, and because it is not sure what the sense of shared enterprise is, the nature of the social contract is unclear. Cities of nomadic transplants who live with walled backyards tend to think as individuals. If they do not like the “direction” their neighborhood is headed, they can leave. Perhaps they fail to join bowling leagues, tending to “bowl alone.”9 In most suburban cities, the trappings of urban political life in industrial cities—political machines, labor unions, community organizers—seem part of a dim and distant history. “Collective action” sounds slightly socialistic and sinister to many suburban city dwellers.

In thinking about the resilience and adaptability of urban areas in facing the challenges of the future, modern suburban cities may find themselves at an ironic disadvantage. Because the suburbs grew so quickly and were planned so deliberately, the possibility of change and adaptation has often been seen as a threat. A single-family home is the largest investment most Americans make in their lifetimes. In doing so, such investors are understandably nervous about the how potential changes might affect their investment. Further, a homeowner feels most comfortable living among people who have made a similar investment to his, and to bolster this reassurance, legal systems such as the zoning regulations imposed by municipalities have been created to protect neighborhoods against dramatic change. In most suburban cities, those regulations have made a very finely graded set of distinctions: 10,000-square-foot lots are separated from 14,000-square-foot lots. One of the strongest criticisms offered by New Urbanists is that this extreme form of segregation, based on lot size as a proxy for house cost (and therefore social group), is a negative consequence of suburban development. What it means for resilience and adaptability is that as houses on 14,000-square-foot lots become less economically viable, and as higher densities are needed to support alternative transportation systems or changing family patterns, such neighborhoods must be rezoned.

Rezoning in Phoenix can be a blood sport. Hearings are televised and often attract a surprising number of viewers. An area may be rezoned by the decision of a city council sitting in a legislative capacity, effectively changing the law as it relates to a given subdivision. Every zoning ordinance in Arizona contains a provision mandated by state law and drawn from the original standard Zoning Enabling Act of the 1920s, which mandates that a rezoning decision requires a supermajority (three-fourths) of the city council in the event that a certain number of neighbors protest. What this means is that shifting a large-lot neighborhood into zoning that would allow splitting lots or two homes per lot, or adding granny flats on the back of a lot, faces an extraordinary uphill battle against neighbors who fear any change in the status quo.

Changing the zoning in an existing suburban neighborhood is hard enough, but there is a bigger lurking problem with the future adaptability of suburban subdivisions. Starting in the 1950s, virtually every new subdivision had a set of “Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions” (CC&Rs) that were imposed specifically to thwart change and adaptability. Originally, the CC&Rs were often used for the purposes of racial exclusion. The infamous exclusionary CC&Rs were voided by the US Supreme Court in 1948 in Shelley v. Kraemer.10 But covenants continue to be used to impose a minimum size on houses in an area, to limit how many pets or animals can be kept, to create an architectural committee to review proposed houses to ensure that they are “harmonious and compatible,” and to prohibit unsightly things like basketball backboards. Covenants have often come under fire for their restrictions on free speech in terms of flying the American flag or posting political signs at residences, which have been generally found to be protected by the First Amendment and therefore actions that cannot be prohibited by covenant. For-sale signs are often restricted in order to give the impression that no one in the neighborhood is trying to sell. Covenants have been used for all sorts of purposes. The legendary savings and loan executive Charlie Keating tried to impose covenants on a master-planned community in Phoenix to prohibit anyone in that community from keeping pornography in his house.

Unfortunately, the very thing that makes single-family houses so adaptable—the backyard space, garages, and carports where additions can be built or that can be converted to other uses—is very often prohibited by restrictive CC&Rs. Increasing the density in a neighborhood by adding a granny flat to the back of a lot, converting a garage to a bedroom, or building a second-story addition onto the back of a one-story home is often violative of the CC&Rs. There are hundreds of thousands of American homes built in areas where restrictive covenants give little flexibility to change or adapt to meet future conditions. Modifying or amending these restrictions is even more difficult than changing the zoning in a subdivision. Wholesale modification or amendment of covenants usually takes something on the order of three-quarters of the owners of a subdivision to agree—a nearly unattainable standard. Because these covenants are private contracts, it would be highly unusual for legislation at the state or federal level to interfere with an owner’s contractual property rights. But the inability to modify covenants may actually ultimately work to cause the decline of some suburban neighborhoods rather than to enshrine the ideal suburban existence in perpetuity. At some point, it may be necessary to view some aspects of restrictive covenants as contrary to public policy in the same way the racial exclusions of the 1940s and 1950s came to be viewed.

The tip of the spear of the restrictive covenant issue may be the question of what to do with the excess number of golf courses built in places like Phoenix over the last several decades. There was a period of time where every major master-planned community seemed to center on a golf course. It was the amenity you needed in order to lure people to move to the Southwest with their sunny dream of retirement. Outside of Phoenix, the original Sun City includes no fewer than eight golf courses. The entire Phoenix metropolitan area has more than 200 courses. Some of these courses are municipal and some are associated with resort hotels, but most of those created within the last fifty years have been built as amenities for development. Many of the courses themselves never actually made enough money to fully pay for their ongoing maintenance costs (including water), much less for the underlying land value. But these courses made sense because the value of the lots surrounding the courses was increased so significantly that it made up for the decrease in the land value of the property actually occupied by the course.

Today there is a huge, well-documented decline in the number of golfers or the interest of baby boomers in seeking golf as their number-one goal in retirement. The Phoenix area alone may have twice as many courses as can economically survive.

To the extent that people paid premiums to look at and live on these golf courses, their interests were likely protected by an explicit covenant or deed restriction requiring that the course remain a golf course either in perpetuity or at least for a very long time. Even if there were not an explicit restriction, Arizona and a number of other Western states recognize an “implied restrictive covenant” doctrine, which holds that if a golf course was used as a marketing amenity and people paid a premium in the expectation it would be there, a restriction will be implied.11

With the decline in demand for golf, a number of these courses, including some that are explicitly restricted to remain golf courses, have today been shuttered and essentially abandoned. Standards that would demand unanimity, or three-quarters, or even a bare majority of homeowners under the restrictive covenant to approve the conversion of the golf course are almost surely impossible to meet.

Because of this quandary, courts will begin to fashion remedies allowing the modification or removal of deed restrictions. The acreage under these courses will then likely be redeveloped in a combination of higher-density housing and an alternative form of open space.

Sun City, Del Webb’s prototypical retirement community on the west side of Phoenix, faces a CC&R problem beyond just golf courses. The community is both zoned and deed-restricted to limit the age of its full-time residents to fifty and older. These age-restrictive covenants are permitted because discriminating in favor of senior citizens is not illegal in the way that discriminating against them would be, and discriminating against younger people does not trigger strict scrutiny. Mounting evidence suggests that the baby boom generation is not as interested in purely homogenous communities of seniors the way earlier retirees were. This may result in such communities becoming less desirable and in property values being less stable. For these communities to change and adapt to have a fuller range of residents would require modifying both the zoning and the deed restrictions.

Other creative legal mechanisms that have flourished in newer cities can also result in impairing the ability of such cities to change and adapt. There are locations in the Phoenix metropolitan area today where suburban-style apartment complexes have been converted to condominiums, or where townhome communities were built adjacent to freeways, in which a transition to much higher-density residential or office uses would be supported by the market. These sites would be ripe for redevelopment. Because ownership is fractured into more than a hundred or more individual units by the condominium regime imposed on the property, reassembly of the site for redevelopment is a daunting, nearly impossible task. A single holdout can thwart the possibility of redevelopment entirely. Once upon a time, this sort of problem was handled by declaring a redevelopment area to be a “slum and blight” condition. A developer seeking to redevelop the property would then go out and acquire as many sites as possible, knowing that if there were a few holdouts the city could use its power of eminent domain to force a sale at fair market value for the purposes of completing the assembly. The use of municipal eminent domain for purposes of redevelopment has been all but completely halted in Arizona by Proposition 207 and a case called Bailey Brake Shop v. City of Mesa.12 The proposition came into existence in the wake of the Kelo decision by the US Supreme Court, which authorized the use of eminent domain not just for redevelopment purposes but for economic-development purposes where the area being condemned was not necessarily in a “slum or blight” condition.13 The outcry over this result was so intense as to cause an extreme backlash against the use of eminent domain by cities for anything other than straightforward construction of roads, parks, or other public amenities.

These particular challenges to making suburban cities resilient are driven by the strong but sometimes contradictory commitments in the United States to democratic decision making and also to the protection of individual property rights. These principles are sacred to Americans, particularly western Americans, and not likely to be compromised. The dilemmas they create, however, are very real.

Sustainability sometimes remains an elusive “I know it when I see it” concept. The myriad efforts to classify and rate the sustainability of cities may be useful in many ways, but they do not really address the question of whether a particular city is likely to survive. Some of these efforts fail to achieve this goal because they look only at the static measurements of how a city is performing as measured by a narrow metric at a particular point in time, which misses the entire matter of adaptation, change, and resilience. Some reviews base sustainability metrics on the “norms” of cities in wet or temperate climates very different from that of the desert Southwest. Some analyze only how seriously a municipal government takes its role in setting policy that is perceived as furthering sustainability.

The ultimate question of sustainability is how a particular place deals with its particular challenges over time. The challenges facing the Western cities of the arid Sunbelt are distinct from those facing wetter, cooler places. If there is one lesson to be learned from Phoenix about resilience and adaptability, it is how to accommodate a large city in a place with very little rain and no bodies of standing water. Political decisions made throughout the twentieth century created for Phoenix a robust and resilient watering system. The fact that the city has been able to bank trillions of gallons of water against future drought is evidence of that continuing commitment to resilience.

Throughout its life, Phoenix has had to cope with a difficult and challenging geography. Even in an era of increasing climate challenge, this past ability to deal with a severe climate suggests a future capacity to continue to do so. This is particularly true when the past challenge—a hot and dry climate—remains similar in kind to what will be faced in the future.

In a place that has long dealt with extremes and a high degree of uncertainty, an increase in the range and extent of that uncertainty can be met with the same kind of creative management that has worked before. In this, metro Phoenix may actually be better positioned to deal with the future than other places that relied on natural bounty and a temperate climate—and where climate change may portend dramatic changes.

The potential ubiquity of the impact of climate change on Phoenix runs the “frog in the boiling pot” risk—turn up the heat slowly, and the frog simply boils without ever thinking of escape. The threat to Phoenix’s sustainability is the expectation that abundant land and sunshine, along with portable water and cheap housing and petroleum, will forever provide a winning formula. As climate challenges make a place built on climate less attractive, and as lifestyle and work patterns move beyond the age of the automobile, it would be easy for a place like Phoenix to miss out.

Suburban cities are not dying. They are becoming more dense, more diverse, more interesting, and more urban. And urban areas are, as the Economist found, becoming more livable, friendlier, softer, less dense, and more suburban. The confluence of urban and suburban forms is yet another demonstration of the thesis that cities are the products of millions of individual choices made in the context of a particular geography, technology, and government structure. There, of course, lies the central challenge of all sustainability: individual choices can add up to a collectively unsustainable condition. The challenge of sustaining any city is, quite simply, a manifestation of the tragedy of the commons. Managing that “tragedy” is the job of collective decision making. The story of Phoenix is a tale of adaptation and the power of collective action—government action—to confront the challenges of geography and respond through public policy. Canals and dams were constructed, highways and airports created connections, and a city was built in an unlikely place.

The future of all cities depends on a continuing capacity to navigate the social contract—to balance the dream of individual freedom with the challenge of a collective threat. For a city like Phoenix, the challenge may be greater—not because of climate, or density, or energy, but because, when you’re sitting next to a private swimming pool, or driving alone in an air-conditioned car, it is too easy to forget about the historic social investments that made individual existence so comfortable. Suburban cities are designed around convenience, and the risk is that convenience begets complacency. The irony of sustainability is that greater challenges are more likely to precipitate more-robust solutions, so let us hope for an inconvenient future.


  1. 1.

    Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, revised ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2011).

  2. 2.

    Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

  3. 3.

    William Frey, Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2014). An interactive cultural gap calculator is available at

  4. 4.

    Center for the Future of Arizona, “The Arizona We Want,” Gallup Poll, 2009,, accessed October 29, 2015.

  5. 5.

    Ken Silverstein, “Tea Party in the Sonora,” Harper’s, July 2010.

  6. 6.

    See, e.g.: James Flanigan, Smile Southern California, You’re the Center of the Universe (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford General Books, 2009).

  7. 7.

    Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Holt, 2005).

  8. 8.

    Thomas E. Sheridan, Arizona: A History (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1995).

  9. 9.

    Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001).

  10. 10.

    Shelly v. Kraemer, 334 US 1 (1948).

  11. 11.

    See, e.g.: Shalimar v. D.O.C. Enterprises, 688 P2d 682 (Az. App, 1984).

  12. 12.

    Bailey v. Myers, 76 P3d 898 (Az. App, 2003).

  13. 13.

    Kelo v. City of New London, 545 US 469 (2005).

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© Grady Gammage Jr. 2016

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  • Grady GammageJr.

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