Greening Phoenix will require more than just upscale enclaves

Phoenix is the least sustainable city in the world, says Andrew Ross. Much of this is due to the city being in the “bull’s eye” of climate change. It is heating up and becoming arid faster than any other area in the Northern Hemisphere. Exacerbating this dire situation is its sprawling area of 1,000 square miles (two-thirds the size of Rhode Island) and 4.5 million people, all of whom use electricity and water in ever-increasing amounts. This isn’t just about climate change, it’s also about how Phoenix will continue to thrive and grow. If electricity gets too expensive or the water really dries up, then the city itself will be adversely impacted. Certainly conservation, using less power and water, would help. And it wouldn’t necessarily need to be painful. With a little thought, a 5-10% drop in water and power usage is probably quite do-able by most and would hardly be noticed.

Many residents in prosperous enclaves like Scottsdale are already focused on sustainability and conservation with recycling campaigns, using LED and CFL light bulbs, and installing low-water lawns and gardens. While these goals are certainly laudable (and you don’t have to believe in climate change to realize that saving money on power and water is a good thing), such efforts are localized, not part of region-wide policy planning, and generally limited to the upscale 20% or so who have the time and resources to devote to it.

Meanwhile, other parts of Phoenix suffer from heavy industrial pollution, have serious groundwater contamination, are “cancer clusters”, with one zip code having the unenviable title of being the dirtiest in the nation. Yikes. Of course, Phoenix is hardly alone in having huge disparities of wealth. But due to its geography and build-at-all-costs ethos, environmental and climate change problems are more pronounced than elsewhere.

Ross calls the upscale 20% ‘Lohas’, for lifestyles of health and sustainability. But for the other 80%, much of that is out of reach. If both spouses work multiple jobs to make ends meet, they may not have time to recycle, assuming such a program exists in their area. Plus, the pressing problem is much more those nearby toxic industries. Sorting the trash into plastic and tin cans isn’t going to help much. And they can’t afford a Prius.

What will help is region-wide affordable mass transit, creating green jobs in the city as well as in outlying areas, changing regulations to encourage the installation of solar power everywhere without it being subsidized by the rest for the well-off, and most importantly perhaps, investing in the central city. Some areas there are already “beyond recovery.” Others can be saved, but only if a concerted effort is made.

The Hohokam lived and thrived for centuries in the Phoenix Basin and built huge irrigation networks. But in about 1375 AD, the climate changed. There were severe droughts interspersed with serious flooding which destroyed their canals. Within a few decades, their culture was gone. No one really knows what happened to them or where they migrated. Something to think about, for sure.

(Crossposted from IVN)