Arizona Sustainable Cities Series: An Interview with Tempe Mayor Mitchell


It is near impossible these days to research cities, businesses, or universities without coming across their sustainability initiatives. What exactly does sustainability mean? Why is it so important? ASU President Michael Crow has answered this question by saying, “Sustainability is a concept with as much transformative potential as justice, liberty, and equality.” As our world continues to grow, sustainability will be a leading factor in shaping our future environmental responsibility, accommodating population growth and resource deprivation, and introducing new economic outcomes from residential to global levels. Sustainability is the term to use when we think about designing a cleaner, brighter future.

This Tuesday, September 25, 2012, The Mesa Arts Center will be sponsoring the Sustainable Cities Conference to discuss sustainable initiatives in the cities of Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. Rob Melnick, executive dean of the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) at ASU, will lead Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton in a discussion that will address sustainability challenges and opportunities within their respective cities.

In preparation for this event, I have interviewed Mayor Mitchell to get a closer look on his take of a sustainable city. The following interview spotlights the Mayor’s current initiatives as well as his future plans to further sustainable development in Tempe.

What green initiatives or policies are already in place for Tempe?

Tempe is a sustainable city that takes care of people, profit and the planet through a variety of innovative programs, including water and energy conservation, recycling, composting, alternative transportation, sustainable business practices and environmental stewardship. Specific programs include:

  • LEED certified green buildings – the Tempe Transportation Center, East Valley Bus Operations & Maintenance Facility and Kyrene Water Treatment Facility.
  • Energy retrofits for 23 city buildings and facilities.
  • Telemetry that provides online dashboard showing utility use of 10 city buildings.
  • Streetlight retrofits for 2,000 city street lights (old high pressure sodium lights replaced with energy-efficient induction lights).
  • Solar power installations, including: project at Tempe Beach Park (partnership between the City of Tempe and APS) that provides energy for park lights and splash pad water pump; solar panels at Household Products Collection Center; solar-powered speed limit signs; solar lighting at Town Lake Marina; solar parking meter station adjacent to Tempe City Hall.
  • Waste Grease to Biodiesel Feasibility Study.
  • Public transportation – comprehensive transit network that includes fixed-route bus system, free Orbit neighborhood circulators and light rail.
  • Comprehensive bicycle facility network with more than 165 miles of bikeways.
  • Tempe values our rich social and cultural history, and supports a variety of community programs to preserve and celebrate those assets, including the Carl Hayden Campus of Sustainability and the Rio Salado Foundation.
  • Curbside residential and commercial recycling programs – celebrating 20 years of recycling services!
  • Composting and green waste programs for residents and for city parks.
  • State-of-the-art Household Products Collection Center.
  • Water conservation programs that include: xeriscaping workshops for residents, low-flow toilet rebates, gardening grants for schools, xeriscaping conversion rebates, school outreach presentations and a variety of educational materials and programs.

What is your concept or definition of a “sustainable” city?

A sustainable city is one that – like Tempe – supports programs, policies and practices that provide environmental, economic and social sustainability. Sustainable cities respect their history, their present and their future generations. They create the smallest possible ecological footprint, using resources and land most efficiently while providing a high quality of life for their residents, businesses and visitors.

The crux of this is creating the smallest ecological footprint possible-- producing the lowest quantity of pollution possible, efficiently using land; composting used materials, recycling, or converting waste-to-energy -- thus minimizing the city's overall contribution to climate change.

What efforts have you made so far to make Tempe more sustainable?

During my time on Council, I have supported programs to make the city as an organization more environmentally responsible (e.g., energy-efficient and green buildings, retrofits to city buildings, energy-efficient streetlights, solar power installations) and programs that help our residents to live more sustainably – public transportation, bikeways, recycling and composting.

I’ve supported smart land-use policies like our Community Design Principles, wherein we have building height guidelines that allow for high rises in our most densely developed area, downtown Tempe, and the creation of a transit corridor along the light rail line that allows for higher densities so that more people can live near mass transit. We also allow existing commercial developments to add residential components in the hope of getting people closer to the resources they need. These mixed-use developments will become even more popular as populations become older.

My council colleagues and I proudly support ASU’s new Athletic Facilities District that is being planned as an EcoDistrict, meaning that it will focus on energy-saving buildings and infrastructure while drawing companies that specialize in green research and products. This district is 330 acres and could add 7 million square feet of green development to the heart of our downtown.

ASU’s main campus in Tempe is also home to the nation’s largest sustainability program for a university. We partner with the Global Institute for Sustainability and ASU researchers on a great many projects, including water research, solar opportunities and more. I look forward to continuing to collaborate with ASU and our other community partners on projects that make our region more sustainable.

Where would you like to see our city in 20 years in terms of sustainability?

Maurice Strong, who is widely credited with globalizing the environmental movement, said, “The future health of our planet will be determined in our cities.” In the Phoenix Metro area, Tempe has long been a leader in sustainability – with our public transportation system, green buildings, recycling and many other initiatives. Our forward-thinking residents and city leaders have spearheaded and supported policies and programs that promote environmental, economic and social responsibility.

In 20 years, I see Tempe being a city where sustainability is just a way of life – a natural part of our business practices and way of living that’s so ingrained we don’t even think of it as being anything different. I see our residents and businesses living and working smart to produce minimal waste, recycling and composting to minimize landfill waste.

I see Tempe continuing its tradition of collaborating with ASU and our regional partners to create innovative new initiatives in sustainability. I see our residents continuing to be our partners in finding more sustainable ways to live and creating a sustainable community for future generations of Tempeans.

Do you believe it is important for ASU students to be engaged in supporting Tempe sustainability (even if they are not necessarily from Tempe)?

Arizona State University is integral part of our city – including its institutions, as well as faculty, staff and students, many of whom live in Tempe. Many ASU students will remain here after they get their degrees, finding careers here, raising their families and calling Tempe home. I and several of my City Council colleagues are proud alumni of ASU. Many of our community leaders – past and present – were once ASU students, and we know that many of our leaders of the future will come from ASU. ASU students are important members of our community; they do and can have major impacts on the community – both positive and negative. We look to ASU students to be our partners in sustainability – recycling and composting to reduce landfill waste; biking, walking and using public transportation; conserving water; working on important university research initiatives to contribute to our future as a sustainable community.

Conclusion of Interview

The Sustainable Cities Conference will be held this Tuesday, September 25, 2012, at the Mesa Arts Center. If you wish to attend what is sure to be a great discussion, please RSVP here.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks