This week, we've invited Strong Towns members to respond to Nassim Taleb's book, AntifragileYou should really read the book (it's a big inspiration for Strong Towns thinking), but if you haven't, you'll still find it easy to jump in on these topics and conversations, based on the first four chapters of Antifragile.  Here's one perspective from Jeff Gibbs, inspired by Antifragile.

This dry, rocky soil produces some of the world’s best wine! (Photo by Jeff Gibbs)

This dry, rocky soil produces some of the world’s best wine! (Photo by Jeff Gibbs)

Over the years, there have been a number of commentaries suggesting that the Phoenix Valley of the Sun is an inhospitable environment, not suited for long-term human habitation. But following Taleb’s concepts, it is this very inhospitable environment which has provided the stressors which have enabled the Phoenix area to develop the antifragility it needs for its long-term sustainability.


In a big picture sense, the concept of sustainability is really about our long-term prospects for livability and future growth.  Thus it is an important issue for those of us in the Valley.  Are we going to have the resources to support life here over the next 50 years or more?

The concept of sustainability has a number of different dimensions.  In recent years, the continued availability of water has justifiably received a great deal of attention.  However, there are several other potential constraints which need to be considered.

Phoenix’s own Grady Gammage has written an important book which discusses these issues.   The book, entitled, The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix, was published last month by Island Press and contains some important lessons from the Phoenix experience regarding the sustainability of cities.  Grady Gammage is one of the leading lights in the Phoenix Valley of the Sun with regard to issues of sustainability.

Important Considerations with Regard to Sustainability

True sustainability in cities goes beyond just resiliency, which is merely the ability of an urban system to withstand unanticipated shocks.  True sustainability requires that the system or organism actually thrive on randomness and not merely be able to withstand it.  That is, the social system must be able to actually improve itself through its response to randomness.

Based on that distinction, it could be argued that Phoenix has developed the requisite antifragility it will need to ensure its long-term sustainability.

Here are some of the stressors from which Phoenix has benefitted on its road to antifragility.

  • Areas without significant rainfall or access to large bodies of water are unlikely to be sustainable – Although the Phoenix Valley of the Sun is in this category, it has done a good job establishing extensive use of underground banking of water imported from the Colorado River, thereby mitigating these unfavorable conditions.
  • Areas with poor soil are inherently unsustainable – Although the Valley enjoys some good, fertile agricultural bottom land, much of the area surrounding the Valley is characterized as dry, hard, rocky and mountainous terrain.  However, it has been demonstrated that many crops are actually very resilient and do best under these challenging conditions.  The wine industry offers some important lessons in this regard where it is often the poorest soils which stress the plants into producing some of the best wines.

The bottom line here is:  Life in the Valley of the Sun is likely to be considerably more sustainable in the long run than once thought, when one considers the antifragility which the region has developed in response to its harsh environment.

What do you think? Is the Phoenix Valley an example of an antifragile place?

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About the author

Jeff Gibbs has extensive experience in city and regional planning in the states of Oregon and Arizona.  He currently is the author of a long-running column on community growth and planning in the Phoenix Arizona Republic.  His academic work includes post-graduate studies in urban planning and urban systems at the University of Oregon and Portland State University.