PHOENIX — The last time the Phoenix Suns made the NBA Finals, the Valley of the Sun was ranked as the 20th largest metropolitan area in the country. Phoenix was ranked 10th among the nation’s cities.
After 28 years of explosive population growth, the Suns are now rallying a much bigger Valley.
In 1993, Charles Barkley led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals, ultimately falling to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in a six-game series.
Census bureau figures estimate that 2.2 million people resided in Phoenix metropolitan area at the time, just behind the metro area surrounding San Juan, Puerto Rico and slightly higher than the Tampa metro. The city of Phoenix was under 1 million residents and roughly the size of San Antonio. In 1990, it made up 44% of the Valley’s population.
A bigger and wealthier Valley
The Valley of the Sun has exploded in size since the early 1990s.
According to census bureau figures from 2019, the Phoenix metro grew by 121% since 1990, exceeding all other U.S. metro areas ranked in the top 20 at the time.
Phoenix increased its population by 70% from 988,983 to 1,680,992 during that time, moving the city from the 10th to the 5th largest in the nation, just behind Houston and ahead of Philadelphia.
During this time, the median household income in the Phoenix metro increased at a little over the national average.
In 1990, Maricopa County (1990 Census: Median Income, States & Counties, Race & Hispanic Origin) had a median household income of $30,797, 2.5 percent above the national numbers. Today, that estimate is more than double at $68,649, about 10 percent above the US.
Education attainment has largely tracked with U.S. estimates. In 1993, Maricopa County’s population with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 22.3%, with the nation coming in at 20.3%. Today, the county’s population of college educated adults is 33.5%, slightly higher than the U.S. rate of 33.1%.
A changing landscape
Looking at Google’s repository of historical aerial photos and satellite imagery, the population growth in the Valley of the Sun becomes more evident.
The photos below are comparisons between images captured between December 1993 and December 2020. Use the slider to see the differences.
The Phoenix metro area grew by 121% since the 1990 census.
Development clusters are centered mostly around north Phoenix and the Scottsdale/Tempe/Mesa region of the East Valley.
Suburbs nearer to Phoenix, like Chandler and Awhatukee, were starting to see housing developments, but the land area was still dominated by agriculture. The story is similar in the West Valley with Avondale and Tolleson appearing as small towns surrounded by fields.
Phoenix’s downtown core surrounding where the Phoenix Suns play has seen major changes over the years.
Phoenix Suns Arena was completed just in time for the Suns' 1992-93 run up to the Finals, though at the time it was known as America West Arena.
The biggest change to the area is the addition of Chase Field, which started construction in 1996. The west end of Jefferson Street major developments include the federal and municipal court buildings and the completion of Phoenix City Hall.
East and West Valley – From farms to freeways
No region in the Valley saw more explosive growth since 1993 than the town of Gilbert.
Once a sparsely populated collection of corn and hayfields interspersed with pockets of housing developments, the town has grown by a staggering 770% since 1990.
To accommodate the booming population, the San Tan freeway portion of Loop 202 was opened in 2006. A second freeway expansion is in process right now, expanding State Route 24 from Ellsworth Rd. to Ironwood Dr.
The story is the same in the West Valley.
In the early '90s, Avondale and Litchfield Park were noticeably separate from the sprawl of Phoenix and Glendale.
State Route 101 was already in development, but it terminated at Glendale Avenue. The warehouse and distribution zones surrounding Tolleson just south of the Interstate 10 was in its infancy.
Population growth continues to be a driving force in the Phoenix metro.
The Maricopa Association of Governments projects the population of Maricopa County will reach 6.7 million by 2050. The population of the metro area, which also includes neighboring Pinal County, is projected to reach 7.7 million.