In its early days, downtown Phoenix  served as the city’s commercial and residential district, surrounded by thousands of square miles of farmland and undeveloped desert. Its churches, theaters, and department stores attracted distant farmers and ranchers who would “go into town” for supplies and entertainment, all of which lent itself to a lively downtown familiar to most American cities. The postwar building boom changed all of that.
Servicemen, who were captivated by Arizona’s climate and landscape while stationed at one of the state’s many military training facilities, returned to Phoenix after the war with their Midwestern families and 1950s expectations of a three-bedroom home and a green lawn. The Valley of the Sun’s burgeoning housing industry was happy to oblige, and developers conjured cookie-cutter track housing and large master-planned communities with amenities like parks and golf courses that appealed to young families as well as retirees.
As air-conditioning became widely available and early technology-manufacturing companies also moved to the city in search of cheap land, the population grew past 100,000 by 1950 and neared an almost-unimaginable 440,000 by 1960. Former agricultural land was quickly consumed by thousands of ranch houses, forcing new home-buyers further and further out into the suburbs. All of this sprawl and, some would argue, poorly managed growth has created a few unexpected consequences.
A brown smog cloud often chokes the Valley’s famed blue skies in the winter, and the dry desert air that once attracted health-seekers suffering from asthma and tuberculosis is now burdened in the spring with pollen from nonindigenous plants brought in from other parts of the country. Formerly independent towns and suburbs now blend from one into another, with regional malls and business districts that have sapped away much of downtown Phoenix’s urban appeal.
Things are changing, though. Some 1.5 million people live in Phoenix, making it the country’s fifth-largest city, and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates an additional 3 million residents in the surrounding communities. Many of these folks are driven by the same optimism and pioneering spirit that attracted the waves of settlers who preceded them, pushing these new Arizonans to dream up solutions to 21st century problems. Phoenix , Scottsdale , and Sedona  now seemed determined to harness their growth responsibly, forcing developers to be mindful of the desert landscape and developing green-minded enterprises like solar-powered energy.
Downtown Phoenix is once again a center of activity, thanks to $3 billion worth of new projects, including condo and hotel towers, restaurants, stadiums, museums, and a 20-mile light-rail system that many hope will curb the city’s love affair with the automobile. And it’s anyone’s guess what seemingly impossible feats the residents of this dynamic city will tackle next—a looming water crisis likely tops the list. Nevertheless, Arizona’s landscape has sparked hope, art, and opportunity for generations. Now its citizens are working to ensure it inspires generations more.