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Debate Continues Over Sustainability of Phoenix, Arizona

Debate Continues Over Sustainability of Phoenix, Arizona

In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, William deBuys, author of A Great Aridness, predicted a bleak climate future for Phoenix, Arizona. He explained that a heat island effect has been created by an overly concrete world and our dependence upon water from the Colorado River. But, in a short piece on KJZZ,

by James Gardner April 11, 2013 2 comments

In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, William deBuys, author of A Great Aridness, predicted a bleak climate future for Phoenix, Arizona. He explained that a heat island effect has been created by an overly concrete world and our dependence upon water from the Colorado River. But, in a short piece on KJZZ, Grady Gammage claimed that Phoenix has done far more than many other western cities to adapt to climate change.

A Morrison Institute report highlights efforts in Phoenix are being made to become more sustainable in terms of water use, which has been the constant criticism of Phoenix. In one of my earlier articles, I mentioned efforts to plan for a more sustainable core along the light rail corridor.

Efforts are being made to adapt to climate change and drought, which can lead to uncertain water futures. These efforts include aquifer management practices and long-term planning. Grady Gammage argues that the measure of how sustainable a place is can be measured by its response to challenges, such as the ones seen here. Water and utility providers in Phoenix have undertaken large-scale projects in order to further the sustainability of their infrastructure. Salt River Project's (SRP) water management site exhibits the mitigation and adaptation techniques being undertaken by their engineers. Arizona Public Service (APS) also focuses on sustainability in order to stay competitive by planning long-term and investing in renewables.  Although these are just a few aspects of sustainability, they are central to the future provision of services to the Phoenix metro area.

Salt River Project's Water Systems

Weigh in – Do you think Phoenix’s future is sustainable? What is your city doing to adapt to climate change?

Credits: Map courtesy of Salt River Project. Data linked to sources.

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James is a graduate student in Urban and Environmental Planning at Arizona State University. Growing up in a small, sprawling town in Arizona, James became attracted to the field of planning and design by taking a critical look at his surroundings, a...

  • Jake Wegmann

    The deBuys piece seemed really unfair to me. It betrayed a disdain that I often pick up from commentators, especially those from New York and elsewhere in the East, for newer, Western cities. The underlying theme, simmering barely below the surface, that I always detect in that genre of writing is that places like Phoenix should not exist, should never have been founded in the first place, and therefore will get what’s coming to them when they dry up and blow away in the wind. There was a lot of very similar rhetoric in the wake of Hurricane Katrina concerning New Orleans.

    I find the idea, taken to its logical conclusion, that we should simply abandon entire American cities to be repugnant and totally unhelpful in the effort to build a sustainable world. The effort to build a coalition of people to, say, do something about climate change is not helped by, in effect, saying to millions of people that their homes are illegitimate.

    Beyond the broader issues it raises, I also found the deBuys piece wanting in terms of the comparisons it was making. Specifically:

    – Yes, it takes a lot of electrical power and energy expenditure to cool a metropolis as hot as Phoenix. But it takes even more energy to provide heating for a place such as Minneapolis. Should Minneapolis then be abandoned, too? Should Western civilization retreat to coastal California, which is the only place in North America with a truly mild climate?

    – Phoenix may be sprawling, but it’s relatively dense. There’s at least the possibility that many of its existing suburbs could be retrofitted with bus service, local stores, bike lanes, and other amenities to reduce car usage. Try doing that in some of the distant suburbs of Boston and New York, where half acre or larger lots abound.

    – deBuys goes on and on about haboobs beginning to affect Phoenix. Yes, I grant that they are troubling, but they are a tiny nuisance compared to what Hurricane Sandy portends for New York. Should we abandon New York and Miami because of the threat of future hurricanes?

    – Water. Yes, Phoenix diverts water from far away. Guess what? So do New York and San Francisco. Does that mean those cities should not exist at all? Yes, Phoenix uses too much water. But that could be changed — Tucson and Las Vegas have drastically reduced their consumption by, among other things, giving incentives for homeowners to rip out lawns and replace them with low-water native vegetation. We could also, I dunno, stop growing cotton in the Sonoran Desert.

    I could go on and on, but there’s a pattern here. Virtually EVERYWHERE is under threat from climate change. New Yorkers can’t sneer at Phoenix without asking tough questions about their own future. In short, we need to pull together and collectively figure out how we’re going to make human civilization work in the future. There are lots and lots of brilliant ideas out there about how to do it. But step #1 is to stop pointing fingers at other people and places. The Phoenix-bashing has just got to stop. For a far more thoughtful analysis about sustainability in Phoenix that rightfully places social equity first, I would suggest “Bird on Fire” by Andrew Ross.

    • Jake,

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree that many critics, especially those in academia or from wetter parts of America, have a skewed view of Phoenix and its sustainability. It is true that Phoenix has become denser, and on the ground, you can tell that. There are initiatives – I’ve written about them – to encourage density along the light rail corridor. I also thought Ross’s analysis of Phoenix was a bit too critical, especially as it was not a comparative analysis with another similar city. Thanks again for the comment!


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