My 40 acres of Eden and the planner’s dilemma

  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 future metropolis.

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 to disgust.

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 "human scale."

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."

I 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 gigantic honeycomb?

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 40-acre Eden.

Robert Rowley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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