Tucson needs to look in the mirror and see its true size

Review some of the Old Pueblo's rankings in various surveys, and the picture isn't pretty.

In February of this year, Tucson was no. 18 in BusinessWeek's "America's Unhappiest Cities." This summer, we ranked no. 12 in the Old Spice "Sweatiest Cities" survey. And in October, the folks at The Daily Beast rated Tucson a mediocre 17 out of 36 on their "Best (and Worst) Cities to Meet Men" list.

Yes, our high suicide rate is a serious issue; it's hard not to sweat when it's 110; and perhaps our oven-like weather keeps many of the decent guys away.

But looking at these surveys, I have to wonder: Do we have any positive rankings? A little Internet digging yielded some encouraging results.

AARP gave us top honors in their "Best Places to Live the Simple Life" roundup in their magazine's September/October issue. They write, "Longing to escape the rat race? We've found five quiet and casual U.S. cities with thriving arts scenes, lush landscapes and affordable housing."

The folks at Triathlete magazine recently rated Tucson no. 1 on their "20 Best Places to Live" list. They gush: "The variety of training options on predominately sunny, warm, rainless days is astounding."

We're also the fourth-Best Digital City (populations 250,000 or more) in the 2009 National Digital Cities Survey. And last year, Cooking Light magazine gave us top 10 honors in their search for cities that "best fit our philosophy to eat smart, be fit and live well."

With such a contrast of ratings, it's hard to get a true picture of Tucson. In the end, it's what we think of ourselves that matters most. So it puzzles me when I see Tucson referred to as a small town.

Here's a quote from "If Tucson, Arizona living sounds appealing to you, you must check out Tucson, Arizona real estate and your opportunities to be a part of this small town community."

The city of Tucson Web site has similar verbiage: "Tucson boasts the best of both worlds ... the progress and innovation of a metropolitan community and the friendly, caring atmosphere of a small town."

The 2009 Money magazine list of "America's Best Small Towns" includes cities with a population of 8,500 to 50,000. There are more than 500,000 residents in Tucson and 1 million-plus in Pima County. So how exactly are we small?

In other rankings, Tubac—our neighbor to the south—was named one of the top 10 "America's Coolest Small Towns" in the October issue of Budget Travel magazine. I'm happy to see Tubac recognized and put into a proper category. The categorization fits, since the artistic town has fewer than 2,000 residents.

So saying Tucson is small is like shopping for the "S" jeans when you know your butt really fits into "M." You can't fool your body, and we as a city shouldn't be fooling ourselves.

In Erec Toso's Zero at the Bone: Rewriting Life After a Snakebite, published by University of Arizona Press, he writes about the expansion of Tucson. His elegantly stated point addresses a disturbing reality: We are chewing up the desert very quickly.

"The desert serves as a backdrop for lives run by speed, distraction and anxiety," he writes. "And it is getting worse. Winding one-lane dirt roads become two-lane paved roads that become straightened four-lane highways. ... Tucson is like an expanding donut of development. Its heart is the hole and the desert the edge. This donut eats rather than being eaten. ... Tucson will more than double the area it occupies by 2020 if current trends persist."

According to the Pima Association of Governments, the population in Pima County is expected to reach 2 million by 2055. Will we still be "small" then? Still seating ourselves at the kids' table?

I have to wonder if seeing ourselves as a city with a small-town feel is hurting us in the end. Sure, it sounds nice in travel literature, but having the thought that we are this little dusty burg in the desert isn't realistic. In truth, Tucson is an ever-growing city that needs to sensibly address its development. As an expanding entity, size small doesn't fit us any longer.

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