When Andrew Ross first came to the Phoenix, he was interested in learning what local artists were doing to revitalize downtown, a desert city with an urban core that, to many urbanists, leaves much to be desired. No city exists in a vacuum, however, and Ross soon came to the conclusion that to understand Phoenix he had to understand the story of the other cities and sprawling suburbs throughout the valley. It was through this research that he concluded that the Phoenix metro area — which includes nine cities with populations of 100,000 or more — was, as he puts it in the subtitle, “the world’s least sustainable city.”
Some may take issue with that claim, but Phoenix’s problem is evident: a sprawling population of four million and counting in a sun-scorched desert certainly poses significant sustainability challenges. Further, as Ross argues, a prevailing culture of rugged individualism and a widespread aversion to all forms of regulation have only exacerbated the sustainability challenges.
As a relative newcomer to Phoenix, I was particularly interested to learn what is being done to make Phoenix more sustainable, and what obstacles stand in the way. According to the book, the obstacles have for the most part gotten the upper hand. But with a heightened awareness of the need for more sustainable living across the country and around the world, Ross believes that Phoenix can point the way to the future, for better or worse.
Speaking at a recent forum in Phoenix, Ross said, “What happens in Phoenix is more important than what happens in Portland.” In other words, if Phoenix can change course, with numerous natural and man-made odds stacked against it, it means a lot more than what cities like Portland have already managed to accomplish.
If there is one lesson to take away from the book, it is that the challenge of sustainability depends upon a variety of factors. According to Ross they include anti-regulatory attitudes, suburban sprawl, excessive water consumption, and a long history of racism and prejudice, among others. While it is clear that each of these factors has played a part in making Phoenix what it is today, at times the book feels a bit like a collection of long, tangential essays that have more to do with painting a stark ideological picture than they do with articulating the state of sustainability itself. To Ross’s credit, however, he does manage to tie many of the loose threads together in the final chapter, and a few of these themes warrant brief summaries here.
That sprawl is unsustainable is widely agreed upon by those who have studied urban development. In Phoenix, many have opted to live at a distance from their places of employment, recreation and worship, because comparatively speaking, land has been cheap, and there has been plenty of it. But in the absence of a well-developed mass transit system (not to mention a culture conducive to it), morning and evening commutes largely consist of single occupant vehicles traveling long distances — a hallmark of unsustainability. Recently, great strides have been made with the Metro Light Rail, which for the past three years has served residents along a single route through downtown Phoenix, Tempe and part of Mesa. There are plans underway for future expansion to include additional corridors as well. This could play a key role in Phoenix’s turn toward sustainable practices, if the funds and political will were in place to ensure it is made a priority.
While certain suburban areas and city centers in the Valley have undergone marked demographic shifts in recent decades — what some observers have called suburban “browning” — the legacy of racial segregation can still be seen in areas like South Phoenix, which is predominantly black and Latino (and poor), while areas like Scottsdale and North Phoenix remain largely white (and affluent). Deeply troubling is the pattern of highly polluting industries being lured in to the lower income areas, where they have been able to operate mostly undisturbed. This has resulted in higher levels of air pollution and water contamination, which present unavoidable and dire health risks to those who are already most vulnerable.
Though Ross is clearly progressive in his politics and highly critical of those on the right who, in his view, have disproportionately contributed to the problem of unsustainability, he notes a strange marriage between environmental activists and those who hold passionate anti-immigrant views. While these are two groups that otherwise do not see eye to eye, together they have suggested that overpopulation is the reason for Phoenix’s unsustainability and that undocumented immigrants play a disproportionate role in the problem. The overpopulation argument gained widespread attention in 1968, when Paul Ehrlich wrote his best-seller The Population Bomb, though his arguments have been widely discredited or diminished in the intervening decades. Regardless, Ross says that the argument linking undocumented immigrants with the sustainability problem are mostly unwarranted. New immigrants, and especially the undocumented, still tend to reside disproportionately on modest means in urban centers, and for that reason alone cannot be considered less sustainable than those more free to contribute to lifestyles and cultures of excess and sprawl.
Since 2007, with the collapse of the housing market and the nationwide recession that followed, the expansion of Phoenix — the fastest growing metro area in the post-World War II years — has come to a screeching halt. Until that time, suburbs were springing up and land was being purchased for further development in far corners of the Valley, so when the market took a dive, Phoenix was hit especially hard. An important question therefore arose: if the growth machine had so much to do with Phoenix’s sustainability problem, what now?
One the one hand, a time of widespread economic hardship is not the most convenient time for sustainability advocates to make their pitch; after all, going green isn’t free, and its benefits often only come by way of delayed gratification. On the other hand, with new construction at a virtual stand-still, this is a great opportunity to reconsider the status quo. And some of the heavy hitters are beginning to do so. With all things green en vogue at the moment, developers who have fed the growth machine are inclined to cash in on the trend and are doing so in their bids to lay claim to lucrative plots of land, particularly in the far end of the East Valley, where they are proposing more sustainable designs. Ross argues, however, that this is only exacerbating the problem, since small gains there will nonetheless mean more and more people spread further and further away from city centers, where true sustainability must happen. Indeed, according to Ross, the answer to the sustainability question needs to involve “infill” of urban centers. Mixed-use zoning, adaptive reuse of existing but vacant buildings, and energy-efficient construction on the Valley’s many empty lots in urban centers, along with a better mass transit system, would go a long way towards making the Phoenix metro area a truly sustainable one.
Ross highlights one particularly bright spot in the fight for sustainability in the Valley: the Gila River Indian Community. This Native American reservation, located just south of Phoenix, had been locked in a legal dispute for more than 80 years over access to water from the Gila River. Finally, in a landmark decision in 2004, a court ruled in the reservation’s favor. While the ruling has complicated the plans of developers elsewhere in the Valley who cannot build without a water supply, it also means that residents of the reservation may be able to return to their original relative prosperity as successful and sustainable farmers, which they enjoyed before years of severe economic and social hardship. But even here, sustainability isn’t a given. It remains to be seen whether farmers on the reservation will opt for the water-efficient, diverse agriculture of their ancestors, or whether they will follow the more recent, and less sustainable, industrialized model.
Whose vision of the future will win out? That is the real question for the Gila River residents and for Phoenix as a whole. Sustainability is anything but a given in the Valley of the Sun. But it is certainly not too late to change course.
This review originally appeared in the Englewood Review of Books.