Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Trouble With Tucson

Ecologically and economically, Tucson, Arizona may be one of the worst western cities.

I moved from Tucson to Colorado Springs, Colorado to be with my girlfriend, but I probably would have left anyway given the clash between my lifestyle and the realities of this Sonoran Desert city. I must preface this critique by admitting I am spoiled. I grew up in Portland, Oregon and also lived eleven years in Cincinnati, Ohio. Those two cities rank one and two in per capita greenspace of all U.S. cities. If only Tucson was even on the radar in this regard.

False Advertising
Don’t let the tourism machine fool you. The city of Tucson has essentially no natural areas. The renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is west of Tucson, on the other side of the Tucson Mountains. Sabino Canyon, a very popular destination for hikers and tourists is located north of the city limits by about six miles. Neither of these attractions is serviced by public transit. You must have a vehicle to access truly wild habitats, including the many life zones along the Mount Lemmon (Catalina) Highway.

Tohono Chul Park actually is serviced by Sun Tran (the city bus system), though it is just outside the city boundary in the far northwestern corner. Unfortunately, Tohono Chul is a private park that charges a rather substantial admission, whether or not you park a car there. They do provide superior natural history interpretation, including the best presentation on reptiles I have seen anywhere.

Where is the Wild?
The city itself has made almost no effort to provide natural parks. I frequented Greasewood Park on the extreme western fringe by Pima Community College West Campus. There are picnic tables, one central ramada (shelter), and trails, but the park is notorious as a meeting place for gay men to have trysts. Kennedy Park on the southeast side has a few trails and backs up against the truly wild Tucson Mountain Park, but it also has a “lake” stocked with fish, and the requisite ball fields, even an amphitheatre.

Indeed, the county parks are the truly natural parks, but again, they are inaccessible by public transportation. Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Regional Park is a unique, albeit heavily managed, wetland frequented as much by birdwatchers as the average family wanting a barbecue venue. There is also an art gallery and the local Audubon Society chapter has a presence there.

The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan
I got all excited when I first arrived in Tucson back in 2001 because I learned of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, a county blueprint designed to protect critical habitat for vulnerable species like the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. I attended a meeting full of enthusiasm only to learn that the entire City of Tucson was exempted from the plan. This would never be tolerated in Portland, and probably not Cincinnati, either. The Tucson Audubon Society is finally addressing the idea of urban wildlife habitats and corridors, but their emphasis still seems to be on leading birding trips to other areas of southeast Arizona.

Jobs, or Lack Thereof
”You get paid in sunshine” is a recurring excuse for the low wages of Tucson. True, the cost of living is fairly low there, but you can’t get ahead, either. There is an almost complete absence of mid-level jobs. It is either literally “rocket science,” with high-end optics, defense (weapons) contractors, and bio-engineering demanding a highly-educated workforce, or “Do you want fries with that?” While immigrants, illegal or legal, probably don’t impact the availability of jobs, the insistence on catering to non-English speakers means that if you are not bilingual your chances of landing many types of jobs is slim.

Maybe the most overriding and bleakest aspect of Tucson is its sprawling nature. Tucsonans are quick to point to Phoenix as a sprawling, smog-shrouded city to be avoided at all costs, but they don’t have much room to argue sitting in the Old Pueblo. Long ago Tucson decided you couldn’t build anything over two or three stories so as not to obscure your neighbors’ view of the Santa Catalina Mountains, but the price of this has been low-density development and a horizontal expansion that shows no signs of even slowing, let alone stopping. Meanwhile, the economic decline has resulted in many, many vacant storefronts that breed graffiti and other forms of vandalism. Litter swirls in the dust devils. The homeless occupy alleys and city parks.

So Long
While I truly love the friends I made while living in Tucson (and it took a long time to find them given the odd demographics), I can’t say I’m sorry to bid farewell to the town itself. I don’t know yet whether Colorado Springs will be much better, but I’m more optimistic. Tucson *might* be able to turn itself around, but it will take some strong-willed visionaries, and a lot of time. Good luck with that.

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