By Grady Gammage, Jr.
In early October, Andrew Ross issued the latest indictment of Phoenix: Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City. Ross’s book represents the latest, longest, and most articulate examination of Arizona’s capital – the nation’s sixth largest city – as a kind of colossal demographic mistake. But he’s not the first to go down this path.
In a 2006 radio interview, author Simon Winchester said that Phoenix “should never have been built” because “there’s no water there.” In 2008, Sustainlane.com rated Phoenix among the least sustainable cities in the U.S. for water supply, primarily because of the distance water must travel to reach the city. In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that Maricopa County, home to the Phoenix Metro area, was among the “most challenged” places in the U.S. for climate change – this conclusion based on the difference between rainfall and water use within the county. And in 2011, the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) found current patterns of Arizona water use to be “unsustainable,” due to the large amount of water going to agriculture.
These views highlight the huge problems inherent in measuring urban sustainability. In large part, Phoenix seems to be everyone’s favorite whipping boy essentially because it’s hot in Arizona and doesn’t rain very much. This view is too simplistic.
Cities, by their very definition, are concentrations of people supported by the resource base of a larger geographic area. Water is a resource like most others – transportable and subject to supply and demand pressures. That is apparently lost on Sustainlane.com, which found reliance on groundwater mining to be more sustainable than transported, renewable surface water because it is “closer.” Never mind that groundwater is an exhaustible resource.
NRDC’s rainfall deficit for Maricopa County similarly misses the point. Local precipitation has been insufficient for civilization in Central Arizona for more than a thousand years, but this is neither a revelation nor meaningful for the current situation. SEI’s criticism boils down to “too much water being used to grow crops,” based on their assumption that farming will continue at current levels as urbanization advances. That scenario hasn’t been true for decades.
One feature of Ross’s book is a repeated reference to the egregious carbon footprint of central Arizona’s urban dwellers. Nowhere does he actually attempt to quantify that footprint, or actually compare it. The Center for Climate Strategies has done so: Arizona emits about 14 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person per year – 35% below the U.S. average of 22 tons. Why? It takes less energy to cool than to heat, and the state doesn’t have a lot of heavy industry.
Yet Phoenix is just too attractive a target. Surely it is running out of water? Hence it is unsustainable. Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, however, recently examined that issue in its report, Watering the Sun Corridor. The conclusion: Phoenix has some tough choices ahead, but the water supply of the Sun Corridor (a megalopolis including Phoenix and Tucson) has been managed to deal with change and uncertainty, and is remarkably resilient.
Phoenix should not be deemed unsustainable simply because it grew in a desert. Sustainability is not so simple as measuring rainfall or the distance from a watershed. It requires understanding complex systems, sorting through multiple choices, and managing through adversity.
This is not to say that cities are destined to just keep growing. They can shrink, too. Once proud and flourishing urban centers, such as Babylon and even Venice, have reached points of economic obsolescence and declined, often precipitously. Detroit, once the fourth-largest city in the U.S., is now half its previous size. And St. Louis, once the greatest boomtown in America, is now home to nearly 100,000 fewer residents than the Phoenix suburb of Mesa.
Ross’s most trenchant criticism is when he looks at Phoenix’s politics, and in particular its emblematic libertarian bent. This is an astute point. You cannot exist in a hot, arid, challenging environment as a rugged individualist. The significant challenges of sustainability are only met through collective action. The lesson of Central Arizona’s water supply is that it has been examined and dealt with time and again through political decisions and institutions.
It is understandable that Phoenix strikes people as a fragile place. But at the end of the day, the verdict on urban sustainability is not about geography, but about politics. Before we brand Phoenix as “the world’s least sustainable city,” we need to figure out how to rate political foresight and willpower. The real measure of sustainability is in how a place responds to challenges.
About the Author: Grady Gammage, Jr. is a Senior Sustainability Scholar in the Global Institute of Sustainability, a Senior Research Fellow in the Morrison Institute for Public Policy (College of Public Programs), and a practicing lawyer with Gammage & Burnham in Phoenix. An expert on land use and urban development, he has taught numerous classes at ASU in areas such as land use regulation, historic preservation, urban policy, and sustainability. Gammage is a past president of the board of directors of the Central Arizona Project, which oversees a key component of the state’s water supply, and he was principal author of the 2011 Morrison Institute report, Watering the Sun Corridor: Managing Choices in Arizona's Megapolitan Area.