Living like the future matters: Inspiring urban sustainability

A Thought Leader Series Piece

By Greg Stanton

Greg Stantion

Note: ASU and Phoenix have collaborated on numerous big projects through the years, including development of the ASU campus in the heart of downtown. More recently, ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability and Phoenix teamed up to win a $25 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to launch Energize Phoenix, a sustainable energy efficiency program that creates green jobs and reduces carbon emissions while transforming energy use in diverse neighborhoods along a 10-mile stretch of the Metro light rail.

Sustainability is what turns big cities into great cities. It’s a transformation that starts with good leadership and collaboration, then takes off with visionary thinking and long-term planning. Great cities thrive when sustainability permeates decisions, strategies, and operations.

Phoenix has long benefited from visionary leaders with long-term outlooks. These leaders provided the ideas and groundwork that made it possible to create a major city in a vast desert. They secured a multidimensional water supply that is one of the most reliable in the country. They established strong economic foundations for us in information technology, biotechnology, and other high-value industries that are at the core of a sustainable economy. And they set aside vast natural wonders as preserves for future generations.

Thus, Phoenix has paved the way and has become the sixth most populous city in the nation with 1.4 million people across almost 520square miles. More than that, Phoenix is the beating heart of a vibrant metropolitan region that encompasses more than 4 million people. It is also the capital of a huge and diverse state that is home to 6 million residents.

Thinking long-term

But we can’t stop now. We must continue long-term thinking and planning or we will not thrive in the future. With sustainability infusing everything we do, we are better able to craft the prosperous shared future we all desire.

What are some of the sustainability challenges Phoenix faces today? We possess a huge built environment that underperforms in energy efficiency. Our economy needs more diversification involving sustainable businesses. We must expand access to solar and other clean energy supplies. We need to better unify our socially fragmented urban metro region. And we have to bolster our knowledge about how to protect our landscape and resources.

These challenges are much the same for many other growing cities around the world, particularly those in arid environments. That is why we in Phoenix are working to address these issues and provide workable models for others to adapt and build on. Here are a few examples.

Cleaning up energy

Phoenix is partnering with Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability and electricity provider Arizona Public Service, Co. on a landmark project — called Energize Phoenix — to significantly improve energy efficiency on an urban scale. Focusing on a 10-square-mile area along our light rail corridor, we are applying incentives, loans, and expertise to upgrade approximately 1,700 homes and 30 million square feet of office and industrial space.

We believe this replicable project can shrink home energy consumption by 30 percent, reduce commercial energy use by 18 percent, and eliminate carbon emissions by as much as 50,000 metric tons per year. At the same time, this project is expected to create approximately 1,000 new direct and indirect jobs, including many green jobs such as energy auditors and efficient-equipment installers.

To boost our clean, local energy supplies and create additional jobs in sustainable industries, we have partnered with National Bank of Arizona to launch Solar Phoenix 2. This is the nation’s largest city-sponsored residential solar financing program.

The project enables many Phoenix homeowners — including those with low and moderate incomes — to install electricity-producing solar panels without the obstacle of upfront costs. Success here will build on our goals to develop 15 percent of the city’s energy from renewable sources and double the amount of solar power installed on city buildings by the end of 2012.

Strengthening community

We are working to strengthen the fabric of our community. As part of that effort, my sustainability policy adviser is identifying vacant parcels of land that can be redeveloped as community gathering points. These will be transformed into community gardens, art engagement areas, education centers, and entrepreneurial seedbeds that will bring together neighbors and businesses to build social cohesion and a more resilient economic fabric.

This fall, for example, we will renovate a 15-acre parcel of high profile, vacant land into a demonstration area focusing on sustainability — the nation's single largest sustainability-oriented engagement, education, and development space. One idea for the parcel is to invite international refugees to cultivate crops, sell their produce at a farmers market, and share their culture with the surrounding community.

In addition, our city planners have been working closely with ASU faculty and graduate students to engage citizens across the city in understanding and addressing sustainability issues. The sustainability policies that have emerged from this community outreach and education effort are now being incorporated into the city’s new draft general plan.

Inspiring sustainability

We are actively engaged in the leadership of the Sustainable Cities Network, an initiative established by ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability to coordinate sustainability efforts regionally and around the state. This network of more than 40 city, county, and tribal leaders provides a venue for sharing knowledge and best practices about sustainability and allows us to access university knowledge and research that helps us meet frontline sustainability challenges.

Among the sustainability practices we’ve shared through the Sustainable Cities Network is our Shade Phoenix 2030 plan to expand our city’s urban forest. This working model will improve neighborhood livability in the hot seasons and help reduce energy use for cooling.

While we expect great things from these and our other pioneering sustainability initiatives, we must continue to develop and test many more while continuing to coordinate with our neighbors. Unless we get sustainability right in our own backyards, we won’t be able to thrive and compete in the world around us.

And that is the central challenge for Phoenix and all cities. We must rise to the occasion, inspire sustainability at an urban scale, and help each other succeed. We must, in other words, begin living like the future matters.

About the author: Greg Stanton is the mayor of Phoenix, Arizona, the capital and largest city in the state. A native of the city, he has dedicated most of his life to public service, serving as a member on the Phoenix city council from 2000 to 2009 and working as deputy attorney general for Arizona from 2009 to 2010. Stanton has also been active in many community organizations, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Central Arizona, the Arizona School Readiness Board, Arizona Theater Company, and the Flinn Foundation Arizona Bioscience Steering Committee. A graduate of University of Michigan law school, he spent five years in private practice as an education attorney.