Arcosanti - An Urban Laboratory in the Arizona Desert.

The Road to Arcosanti: Paved with Good Intentions


by Jeff Stein

First things first: Here is a photograph taken just a week ago of the Arcosanti Road  (that’s the new official name: “Arcosanti Road”) leading from Cordes Junction, AZ toward the Arcosanti site. Startling, eh? Of course, this is only the first mile; Arcosanti Road reverts to the old gravel surface we know and love for its final two miles. But it is the start of something, part of a new Arcosanti traffic interchange on I-17. America builds roads!

The new interchange will alter our lives here. It will provide a direct exit to Arcosanti, just north of the current Cordes Junction exit. And most surprising, Paolo Soleri was design consultant to ADOT/the Arizona Department of Transportation for much of its concrete work: the abutments and angled landscape walls of 5 new bridges and off-ramps have giant Soleri designs pressed into their deeply colored concrete surfaces. Such a presence for Arcosanti on the interstate is bound to attract visitors to the site. The whole thing will be completed next June; and, so you know, it cost $51 million of your Federal tax dollars to fund this ARRA shovel-ready project.

$51 million to handle massive car traffic three miles from an urban laboratory that intends to do away with the need for cars altogether. The irony is not lost on us…. Among the issues it brings up: the entire interchange and the cars it serves all depend on oil.

America’s buildings use 48% of all the energy produced by or imported into this country – much of it oil - in their construction and maintenance: heating, cooling, lighting. Their presence on the planet contributes almost exactly that same percentage of carbon to the atmosphere, too.  The oil burned in vehicles needed to travel the miles between all those buildings is about 27% of the country’s total energy budget; and there’s all that time spent on the road.

But this is about roads themselves. The way in which we continue to design these ribbons results in their requiring quite a bit of oil for their construction. We make around 90% them out of asphalt: oil. Here we’re not just speaking of The Dwight D. Eisenhower Defense Highway System – interstates like I-17 in Arizona – that’s oil, of course. We’re speaking too, of local roads and streets, the physical network that separates work from home for most people. Around Phoenix such roads are plentiful: an industrial grid laid-over 900 square miles of thinly-settled suburban landscape. Roads near Arcosanti - Route 69 to Prescott; 89A to Jerome - are nostalgic roads, recalling in their closeness to the very nature they interrupt, a simpler era; fewer people, fewer cars, when to drive was a pleasure; not as it is now, a daily necessity (unless you’re on a motorcycle, like in the photo, but that’s another story). Newly-paved Arcosanti Road, a mile long, lies somewhere between the grid and nostalgia.

America’s first roads were waterways. In part this was because vegetation on land – in the East, particularly - was so thick. In the early 1800’s when Henry David Thoreau was writing about New England, it was a trip on foot of more than two days through thick forests just to get the 20 miles from Concord MA to Boston. The Scotsman James Loudon Macadam was inventing his packed, interlocking crushed stone material – a derivative of which is being used on the foot-thick sub-surface roadbed of the Arcosanti Road today – around that same time, 1820.

The first hard-paved American road, coast-to-coast, was the Lincoln highway, nearly 100 years later, early in the twentieth century. Running far north of Arizona, it was surfaced mostly with concrete, even though asphalt roads had been in use in Baghdad since the 8th century. But oil was only discovered in America in the 1860’s, and it wasn’t until after the Lincoln Highway had been built that anyone imagined using it as a road surface here, as had been the practice in the Middle East for a millenium.  This past week a mile of Arcosanti Road was regraded and resurfaced in asphalt.

The Boston-based landscape architect Paula Meijerink has designed landscapes that include asphalt, and not just for driving surfaces. Her slide presentation describes the work. It’s entitled “Asphalt Sucks!” She’s partly kidding, of course, keying into to the environmental difficulties associated with the material. The thing is, taking the narrow view, asphalt doesn’t suck at all: as a fresh surface that tempers rock and sand and soil, making it safe for wheeled vehicles to roll uninhibited over the planet, asphalt has no equal. Smooth, dark, quiet, easy to lay down, no annoying expansion joints… if you are an enthusiast of speed, nothing compares.

But widen the focus a bit: the useful life of asphalt in Arizona is hard to measure. The Asphalt Paving Association says it should last for 15 years. But because of the nature of our southwest soils, our freeze-thaw cycle halfway up the state, and the decay brought to every human-made surface by new levels of ultraviolet sunlight, most roads in the area are resurfaced with new asphalt every few years.  

Wider still: the stuff is made of oil, and there’s our problem. According to the US Department of Energy, America imports around a million barrels of oil per month for asphalt/road building alone. This figure has held steady for the past twenty years. The price of oil, of course has climbed over that time from around $20 per barrel to its current level, hovering near $95 per barrel today. So the designers of roads – or the designers of buildings that require them – may now need to imagine a future that doesn’t require that we spread oil out on the ground just to get from one place to another. At Arcosanti, we’re working on that, too…