Can Phoenix Be Greened?

The city is ground zero for global warming emissions. But adopting a more sustainable urban planning approach will be very difficult

Image
Flickr/DieselDemon

Today’s title is the question somewhat pessimistically posed by NYU professor Andrew Ross in the New York Times. Ross argues that, if so, it will have to be with a broader effort and despite intense political resistance.

Over a decade ago, I was doing research for a book about sprawl that became Once There Were Greenfields, written with my friends and then-colleagues Matt Raimi and Don Chen. I remember coming across a startling statistic:  metro Phoenix had become the size of Delaware. And that was 1998. Given the deep, deep hole of carbon emissions, water consumption and pollution that we have dug ourselves into with unchecked sprawl, especially in the Sun Belt, how are we going to get out? Certainly not without much smarter land use, including retrofitting some of the mess already made. 

Ross would seem to agree. And, he argues, cities like Phoenix may be more representative of the true challenges facing us than green leaders like Portland and San Francisco.  Here are some of the sobering nuggets highlighted in his column:

  • "Central Arizona is in the ‘bull’s eye’ of climate change, warming up and drying out faster than any other region in the Northern Hemisphere."
  • "Across [Arizona’s Valley of the Sun] lies 1,000 square miles of low-density tract housing, where few signs of greening are evident."
  • "In the Arizona Legislature, talk of global warming is verboten and Republican lawmakers can be heard arguing for the positive qualities of greenhouse gases.  Most politicians are still praying for another housing boom on the urban fringe; they have no Plan B."
  • "Whereas uptown populations are increasingly sequestered in green showpiece zones, residents in low-lying areas who cannot afford the low-carbon lifestyle are struggling to breathe fresh air or are even trapped in cancer clusters."

Ross argues that, if contemplated, tech-heavy solutions ignore the consequences of sprawl, they are doomed to fail:

Solar chargers and energy-efficient appliances are fine, but unless technological fixes take into account the needs of low-income residents, they will end up as lifestyle add-ons for the affluent. Phoenix’s fledgling light-rail system should be expanded to serve more diverse neighborhoods, and green jobs should be created in the central city, not the sprawling suburbs. Arizona has some of the best solar exposure in the world, but it allows monopolistic utilities to impose a regressive surcharge on all customers to subsidize roof-panel installation by the well-heeled ones. Instead of green modifications to master-planned communities at the urban fringe, there should be concerted infill investment in central city areas now dotted with vacant lots.

I couldn’t agree more.  Read the entire column here.

This column originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog. Photo courtey of Flickr user DieselDemon.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.