What Andrew Ross gets wrong in his book about the city's flawed sustainability initiatives

The title of Andrew Ross’s new book about Phoenix, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, has a way of getting under the skin of Phoenix residents.

But I bet I can count the number of people who’ve actually read the book from start to finish on one hand. Many more have heard of it, but have yet to so much as flip through. Instead, they may look at the title and conclude that Phoenix is a terrible city that residents should leave stat.

Ross quips that the title isn’t worth arguing over. But I don’t think he realizes how his sensationalist title burnishes Phoenix’s already tarnished image. Far from spurring much needed change, the title minimizes the progress that’s sprouting up across the city.

I should know. As a sustainable urbanism writer, I've written about some of these very efforts. One example – a group of artists formed the Downtown Voices Coalition, which aims to highlight the voices of community members in debates about downtown development. Big developers, whose interests are closely guarded by organizations like the Phoenix Community Alliance and the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, have long had an outsize influence on the planning process.

Individual activists have also had a big impact on areas like South Phoenix and Lone Butte. These activists, with sheer persistence and tenacity, were able to shut down some toxic plants in their neighborhoods and stop the expansion of others.

Arizona was also the first state to introduce a Renewable Energy Standard (RES) target in the early 1990s. The target was nearly eliminated on more than one occasion (no wonder considering our legislature’s stance on climate change), but it’s been preserved. And when the city’s anti-environmental stance started dissuading job-producing companies from coming to Phoenix, the legislature grudgingly began offering tax incentives for clean-tech companies.

All three of these examples appear in the book. But there are even more trends that Ross doesn’t mention.

The city is beginning to make strides in making sure the neediest segments of the population benefit from the environmental improvements that are being implemented.

To date, housing along the new Light Rail in Phoenix has consisted mainly of high-end condominium projects. However, an organization called the Sustainable Communities Working Group has secured $20 million in federal funding to incentivize affordable housing development along the Light Rail.

Another cause for hope is the resurgence of downtown Mesa, which counteracts Ross’s concern that the inner city’s vitality is being hindered by exurban master-planned communities on the fringes. Mesa’s progressive mayor Scott Smith is a strong proponent of transit-oriented development. He is largely responsible for the central Mesa Light Rail extension, which will connect downtown Mesa with Tempe and Phoenix.

Not only is this a coup in regional connectivity, it signals a shift in interest from automobile-oriented, removed bedroom communities to a more central, transit-oriented, developments.

I’m not arguing that Phoenix is a shining example of sustainability. Ross is correct in underlining the city’s addiction to growth and residents' deathly fear of relinquishing any part of their individual property rights for more community-oriented planning.

However, the end of Ross’s book isn’t the end of the story for Phoenix. We refuse to be written off as the least sustainable city in the world. Nothing says that we are fated to repeat our history of sprawl and social inequity.

Lede image courtesy Flick user Kinkisharyo under a Creative Commons licence agreement.

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