Surveying the mayors: Two recent panel discussions outline sustainability and solar initiatives in AZ cities


In the past month, Arizona’s mayors’ from Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Goodyear, and the Town of Clarkdale have actively engaged in ASU organized mayoral panels highlighting their cities’ sustainability and solar initiatives.

Panel 1: “Sustainable Cities: A discussion with the mayors of Phoenix, Mesa, and Tempe on sustainability.”

Taking place at the state-of-the-art Virginia G. Piper Repertory Theater in the Mesa Arts Center, the mayors of Phoenix, Mesa, and Tempe participated in a panel discussion on sustainability. Moderator Rob Melnick, executive dean of the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS), led each mayor into a discussion about present and future efforts to improve sustainability initiatives in their respective cities.

Melnick began by asking each mayor: “What does it mean to be a sustainable city?”

Mayor Smith of Mesa spoke on the economic and environmental benefits of planning and developing his city though a sustainable lens. “[Sustainability] means many different things to different people,” said Smith. “To me, it’s a multi-generational city.” Planning for a city that can be utilized by future generations is an important factor when drafting urban development projects. For Mayor Smith, it is all about common sense and saving money by conserving energy via sustainable development despite one’s placement on the political spectrum.

Mayor Stanton of Phoenix noted that it doesn’t matter how Phoenix ranks in sustainable development across the country. The important point is that Phoenix continues its sustainable efforts. “Every city should do all that they can,” said Stanton. “So the question is, are we doing all we can? We should be able to market this region as a leader in sustainability and entrepreneurship.” Sustainable development for Mayor Stanton is being sure to implement consideration of environmental impact when developing new construction in Phoenix.

Mayor Mitchell of Tempe evaluates sustainability by quality of life. The Mayor talked about the transit system of Tempe and how it has advanced sustainable planning for further development. “The more we work together between Tempe, Phoenix, and Mesa, the more we build a sustainable community,” Mayor Mitchell said. City collaboration leads to a better quality of life statewide, and Mayor Mitchell hopes to continue working together with Mayor Stanton and Mayor Smith to keep sustainable development in Arizona moving forward.

Melnik continued with a question for Mayor Stanton, “Is marketing going to attract people to move here or is it a brand that sounds nice?”

Stanton noted that in order to market Phoenix, the city would also need to deliver. He highlighted intercity collaboration as key to getting sustainability right. He used transportation as an example since the local light rail and Valley Metro bus systems operate throughout a variety of Arizona cities.

Smith also responded to the question noting that when we talk “region” we’re talking “Arizona.” He said that we get lazy in realizing our fragility, and we need to better learn to live within our means to grow as cities. “We’re talking about lifestyle in a way we didn’t four years ago when I took office, which is good,” he said. “The discussion is changing.”

Mitchell added, “Sustainable cities attract business.”

On the upcoming election, Melnik asked, “What do you sense is the level of concern about sustainability? Is it a powerful concern of your constituents?”

Both Mayors Mitchell and Stanton said that government needs to support sustainability. Stanton said that it’s important for leaders to explain to their constituents why it’s wrong to think solar and other renewable energies are not economically viable.

Mayor Smith added, “Solar isn’t a bad thing, but it has its place.” He also noted that we need to be smart in our solutions. For example, transportation options make economies more self-supporting. Urban sprawl is not sustainable, and making sustainable choices “isn’t conservative or liberal,” he said, “It’s life.”

Melnik asked, “What do you do in your cities to reduce your carbon footprint?”

Stanton said that Phoenix is actively reducing GHG emissions and instituting sustainability in city planning. He talked about Energize Phoenix, extending the light rail, bike-share programs, and incentives for companies that assist with green goals. He also thanked ASU for access to a GIOS adviser.

Smith took a different approach, saying that the city has myriad of planned, smart efforts, and that they create environments that are already sustainable. “It’s not a cop out,” Smith said, “We’re making smart decisions without the vitriol.” Sustainability is an initiative in all new Mesa project proposals.

Mitchell highlighted a few Tempe programs like electricity reduction goals, LEED certified buildings, and green grants for retrofitting, but he also urged leaders to get the word out about sustainability because leaders need help from constituents. He also brought up the need to educate both today’s and tomorrow’s generation.

“Are there cities anywhere on the globe that stand out to you as leaders?” Melnik asked.

Both Stanton and Smith agreed that Denver was a great city to model after best practices. Additionally, Smith added Salt Lake City and Phoenix to the mix, noting that their use of land planning and central downtown area development is key to preventing more sprawl. Mitchell noted that he looks at best practices in cities with great transit systems.

Addressing the relationship between city and state, Melnik asked, “Are there things that the state has done that have helped or hindered your efforts?”

“Cities have a philosophical difference with the State, “ Mayor Smith said. “The State never created a single city. Cities are formed by people coming together.” Smith noted that sometimes there are territorial issues, and the legislature needs to help make policies that give cities the ability for more economic drive.

Mayor Stanton said that he is not optimistic about the legislature—that its “hyper-partisan” nature creates disconnect. “Bill Agenda 21 sounded crazy, but it went far,” Stanton said. He also said the legislature should provide the economic tools to help build more sustainable cities.
All three mayors expressed the necessity of collaboration. “We need better relationships to make sure there are no unintended consequences,” Mayor Mitchell said.

An audience participant asked, “If you would need to single out one challenge [where we can] help , what would it be?”

“Education,” Mitchell said, “Educating policy makers. We need to communicate with constituents and get the legislature to help with initiatives.”

Mayor Smith reiterated the need to have conversations from a “common sense” approach.

“Push us to be better leaders,” said Mayor Stanton, “Give us your best ideas and challenge us.” He also emphasized the need to continue sustainability efforts despite leadership rather than go back to the old ways when the economy turns around.

A final participant asked, “How do you work to integrate across departments to be maximiz[ing] and not counteractive?”
Stanton said to look comprehensively and plan right. Mitchell talked about cross-training for efficiency. All three mayors discussed interdepartmental collaboration and working to find best practices within their respective units.

Panel 2: “Solar Summit III: Mayoral Panel discusses game-changing energy projects in their cities.”


Moderator Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, Senior Vice President of the Office of Knowledge and Enterprise Development (OKED), led the mayors of Goodyear, Mesa, Phoenix, and the Town of Clarkdale through questions examining what they envision as both new opportunities and challenges with implementing solar in their cities.

Mayor Stanton of Phoenix highlighted similar points that he addressed at the previous mayoral panel discussion. The Mayor noted that sustainable thinking is part of every Phoenix initiative and planning progress. “The more we tell the world we are committed to sustainability, the more we benefit our economy,” Mayor Stanton said. Stanton also placed the conversation within a moral perspective. Solar may not be the cheapest option, but it’s “the right thing to do,” he said.

Mayor Lord of Goodyear is in favor of solar development, but she noted that a challenge she sees is the lack of information the public receives. “We need to bring people into the discussion,” Mayor Lord said. “Mayors have a bipartisan, closer relationship [to the people]. I don’t just worry for my party.” The Mayor believes that the solar industry in Arizona needs to better engage the public in order to get the support it needs to enact solar policy.

Mayor Smith of Mesa believes that the way to get people to be engaged and excited about sustainability and solar initiatives is to make the new projects less monumental and more ordinary. “Everybody is in favor of sustainability,” said Mayor Smith. “Nobody is in favor of dirty air or dirty water. It’s about how we do it.” To Mayor Smith, it is a matter of culture change. People should see sustainable implementation as regular, common sense practice.

Mayor Von Gausig of the Town of Clarkdale explained that although Clarkdale is a smaller town, enacting sustainability initiatives is still very important. “Sustainability and renewable energy projects [are] important for small towns as well as big cities,” said Mayor Von Gausig. Engaging with the community proved to be beneficial in getting traction for sustainable initiatives for the Mayor. “Small town community meetings have been fruitful in advancing sustainable practice and solar,” Mayor Von Gausig said.

A recent Harvard graduate, one of only a few in his class to return to the Phoenix area, addressed the panel. He found that the city was not developing for the new generation in terms of transportation and sustainable development. He called it a “city of our parents.” The issue of urban sprawl came up several times, and as Mayor Smith noted, “We cannot unring the bell, but the conversation is changing.” All the mayors encouraged people to get involved and engaged. How do you create the city of the future? “Go vote,” said Mayor Von Gausig.

All of the mayors shared the view that energy policy is a bipartisan issue, that the narrative around sustainability has become too politicized, and that with the right leadership, public opinion will follow in the right direction. Despite political party differentiation, mayors from both sides agree that sustainable development and implementation of renewable energy is important as well as continuing to work together to create the policy needed to produce more opportunities for our state.

Written by Gabrielle Olson and Sydney Lines, ASU LightWorks

Photos by Cassandra Strauss and Sydney Lines

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