A new documentary, Making Sense of Place: Phoenix, the Urban Desert, uses the Arizona megalopolis to illustrate what happens when suburban sprawl goes unchecked. Historical and current footage shows how cheap land and even cheaper water have encouraged Phoenix to sprawl over more than 1,700 square miles of Sonoran desert. But the resulting generic suburbs, miles from jobs and stores, and the traffic-choked highways and crumbling downtowns aren’t unique to Phoenix. Similar problems plague Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City and other Western cities.

The film was produced by Northern Light Productions and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which studies land planning and economics. The film reveals the compromises and contradictions of Phoenix’s massive growth spurt: Community activists reclaim access to a beloved mountain park cut off by trophy homes. A determined group of residents revive their dying downtown neighborhood. And new homeowners celebrate buying their dream homes, while behind the scenes, the cheap labor of impoverished Latinos fuels the construction boom.

The documentary presents some crucial questions. Do we value land for its intrinsic beauty, or as just somewhere to build? What gives us a true sense of place and community? Without laying blame, the film also shows us the basic paradox of the American Dream: The choices that please us as individuals, like a big house and a big yard, can lead to collective results we don’t like — traffic, pollution, congestion. As the film’s narrator notes, "When we build the homes of our dreams, we put the place we call home at risk."

For more information, see www.makingsenseofplace.org .

Making Sense of Place: Phoenix, the Urban Desert
58 minutes, $25.95.
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2003