In the 1980s, when I was a college teacher in Prescott, Ariz., I often took my history students down to Cordes Junction to visit Arcosanti, the architect Paolo Soleri's urban experiment in the high desert.
In class, we were
studying the rise of the city and reading Kevin Reilly's
The West and the World, so we were fortunate to
have, a mere half-hour drive away, Soleri’s vision of a
Arcosanti, which translates as
"architecture before things," was, and still is, a fascinating
experiment, with its south-facing apses — built with the dual
purpose of shielding against the high summer sun and capturing rays
from the low sun in winter — its honeycomb-like apartments,
and its novel use of the surrounding environment. I could tell that
my students were intrigued by Soleri's concept of "arcology," the
relationship of architecture to place.
But when we
entered the visitor center and beheld the small-scale model of the
city, replete with the high-rise living quarters meant to house
hundreds of thousands of people, I could see their fascination turn
As a teacher, I had to argue that,
theoretically, Soleri's experiment made sense. "How else will we
protect our environmental resources in the face of a burgeoning
population?" I asked. But, privately, I shared their feelings. I
could not imagine living so close to my neighbors. Perhaps, I
reasoned then, we can figure a way to find some middle ground in
the future, to have less growth, to build smaller cities more in
keeping with what the environmentalist Kirkpatrick Sale termed
Fast forward to the future. I still cannot
imagine living in such close quarters with my fellow Americans. In
fact, my pipe dream is to own 40 acres of high-desert ranchland
with a house plopped down squarely in the center and a sturdy fence
all around. But after a recent hike on the Sierra Vista Trail in
New Mexico, I thought again of Soleri's hive-like Arcosanti.
To reach the Sierra Vista Trail, you exit Las Cruces on
Dripping Springs Road, and, after a few miles pass between the new
subdivisions of Organ Mesa Ranch and Desert Mirage I and II. Then
you begin the long ascent up the Organ Mountain foothills through
the community of Talavera.
Over the past seven years I
have watched Talavera grow from a small canker sore to a
full-fledged cancer on the Chihuahuan Desert. The two-lane main
road has become inadequate to handle the flow of traffic streaming
up and down the mountain, and noise from traffic and ongoing
new-home construction is omnipresent. At nearly every corner,
multiple "FOR SALE" signs point the way to just-completed houses.
Don't get me wrong: They are beautiful houses, ranging in
price from $200,000 to the low millions, each on its own desert
parcel, no plot smaller than an acre. And who wouldn't want to live
close to the fabulous mountains, their organ-pipe spires reaching
9,000 feet into an iridescent blue sky? At night, Talaverans look
through their picture windows down at the city lights of Las
Cruces, Mesilla and Dona Ana, secure in their fantasy of
uniqueness. But do they know, or even care, how they have
contributed to the urban blight currently consuming the desert?
Some even have the gall to complain about ongoing
construction. When will it stop, they ask? Homes, some on 10 acres
or more, have already begun sprouting along the western escarpment
of the mountains.
When Judy Price, who passed away
recently, was county planner, she explained to me how larger lot
sizes and new-subdivision "hopscotching" created urban sprawl.
Instead of developing property adjacent to city limits, developers
purchased land distant from the urban center, then got permission
from city-county government to build on it. This "hopscotching"
necessitated new water pipes, power lines and telephone poles, and
the bigger lot sizes required spreading it all over a larger grid.
"We could better manage growth," she told me, "if we
could concentrate population in denser urban areas."
thought about what she said as I drove back through Talavera after
my hike, and I remembered Arcosanti. But how, I wondered, could we
ever convince the majority of independent-minded Americans —
all desirous of their own private property — that for the
greater good we must someday live jammed together like bees in a
I can't even convince myself. In
fact, I'm pretty certain that if I won the lottery — which I
seldom play — I would immediately start looking for my