phoenixCan Phoenix remake its desert-gobbling ways?In order for Phoenix to truly be a green city, it would have to be brown. Or not brown, exactly, but the sandy shade of the mountains that surround it: the jagged peaks and parched hills that enclose the Valley of the Sun.

These days, though, Phoenix is a less-natural shade of brown; a ring of smoggy pollution known locally as the Brown Cloud shadows the city. And that’s not the only affront to the environs here. Anyone flying in can see the patches of fierce green lawns that paint the landscape, along with the swimming pools; the manmade lake in the suburb of Tempe, evaporating 452 million gallons of water each year; the sea of single family homes spilling across the desert; the traffic clogging the ribbons of highways; and the heat snakes squiggling from all that boiling bitumen. The 517-square-mile city — the fifth-largest and fourth-fastest-growing in America — just survived its second-driest winter on record and is deep in drought.

So how is it that this poster child for sprawl and environmental ills is being hailed — albeit by its own government — as an exemplar of sustainability? City leaders are quick to tell anyone willing to listen that not only are they finally getting hip to environmental matters, they’ve been attending to some of them for upwards of thirty years. From using cleaner fuels in their fleet of trucks and buses to implementing an environmental purchasing program, from building a new 20-mile light-rail line to signing the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, officials have taken concrete steps to right past wrongs.

ASU president Michael Crow.

Perhaps more important than these piecemeal sustainability steps is the city’s partnership with the local university. What’s wrong with the city — the temperature’s rising, for one thing, and development is still skidding out of control — is what makes it such an attractive candidate for a living laboratory. The city’s environmental deficits are educational opportunities for the students and teachers of Arizona State University’s four-year-old Global Institute of Sustainability.

“When Phoenix is done growing, it will be bigger than Chicago,” says Dr. Michael Crow, president of ASU. “The next massive city of the United States isn’t done yet.” GIOS, then, has a chance to affect these latter stages of growth. And what GIOS gleans from Phoenix just might change the way other desert cities behave — that is, if it’s not too little, too late.

Much of the impetus to tout Phoenix as a city with a long history of sustainability initiatives can be traced to Mayor Phil Gordon, a long-term Phoenician with thick, slicked-back hair and a politician’s gleaming smile. “We didn’t just pilot these programs,” says Gordon — who’s been in office since 2004 — about municipal upgrades like switching light bulbs to CFLs and LEDs and shifting buses to liquefied natural gas. “We’ve been doing it full scale for a decade or more.”

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.

But in 2002, a man as prominent and powerful as the mayor, if not more so, entered the scene. When Crow arrived on the ASU campus, he set about reinventing the school as the epicenter of sustainability studies, one where student and faculty research really gets applied. “We want the actual solutions, not just the theory of the solutions,” he says.

Crow’s warm demeanor, modified good old boy vibe, and credentials galore — he’s the former executive provost at Columbia and co-founder of the Earth Institute there — could bring anybody on board the sustainability train, but city leaders were already poised to explore ideas GIOS was proffering. “There is a realization that this place isn’t sustainable on its present trajectory,” says Crow. “Everything has to be rethought, from the notion of species diversification in the urban setting to water use and energy use.”

And who better to rethink it than those whose job is to, well, think? “This is a great region to study because the knowledge we gather is transferable to other rapidly urbanizing parts of the world, which are often in hot, arid climates like Phoenix,” says Jay Golden, assistant professor in ASU’s School of Sustainability, the degree-granting arm of GIOS.

The school’s first order of business: walk the talk by setting up a branch in downtown Phoenix. This is one of the only major cities without a university (51,481 of its 64,394 students study at the Tempe campus, in the suburb next door, and most of the rest study at two other small suburban campuses). The new wing brings not only jobs and bodies to the urban core — a rather generic-looking area with skyscrapers and some unusable, shade-free public plazas — but culture as well.

With the help of GIOS, Phoenix has brought other changes to its downtown. The answer to sprawl, of course, is density, and while traditional single-family growth continues to spill out to the very edges of the city limits, high-rise, multi-use buildings have been spiking downtown. The city’s infill program and redeveloped planning vision, created and realized with GIOS, saw 4,174 infill housing units grow between 1995 and 2005, many of them structures that provide both density and shade. This growth, in turn, helped pave the way for more changes: a new farmers market, a redesigned inner-city park.

But a desert city needs one thing above all to attract residents and keep them happy: relief from the sun’s relentless heat. “Four to five months out of the year it’s like walking through hell,” says Dean Brennan, principal planner for the city of Phoenix. “We want to provide something that people can sit on without literally burning their butts.” The number of egg-frying-on-the-sidewalk days has jumped — only 6.7 days a year topped 110 degrees in the 1950s; in the 2000s, it’s 21.9 days. Concrete and development trap heat and create what’s called the “urban heat island effect.” So Crow asked GIOS to launch projects that specifically studied potential solutions to the phenomenon.

Professor Golden and other faculty put an army of graduate students on the case. Some 40 percent of the landscape is paved, they found — parking lots, highways, and 5,271 miles of streets. Phoenix is a city that developed without regard to its climate, with millions resettling from Northeastern or Midwestern regions and expecting to live their same lives, sans winter. Parking lots were built without trees. Homes were built without overhangs to shield the sun.

So Golden and his team are helping Phoenix, now home to almost 1.4 million people, reinvent itself as a desert city, the way it always should have been. “We’re looking at everything from new surface coatings for roofs and buildings, to incorporating vegetation and urban forestry, to housing projects with greater insulation,” he says. And they’re codifying their findings in a database of sustainable materials and technologies for any individual or government that cares to peruse it.

For his part, planner Brennan’s pet project is a “connected oasis” of street parks and shade structures both natural (leafy trees) and artificial (buildings and canopies) that will help cool the downtown area and make it pedestrian-friendly. Those streets, too, will be repaved with pervious materials researched and developed by GIOS.

The future’s so bright, Phoenix needs shade.

One challenge in Phoenix is the landscaping status quo: the omnipresent, high-maintenance palm trees — 33,000 in the city’s care — whose smattering of leaves cast so little shade and that contribute to the Anywhere, USA, sensibility here. Pivot the right way, and you can edge out any view of the surrounding desert, conjuring up L.A. or Miami instead. But the Parks Department has implemented a “Right Tree for the Right Place” program, training citizens in the art of selecting appropriate arbors — the native Palo Verde, for instance, requires much less water and care than the palm. And, assures Brennan, “Additional palm trees will not be planted in the public right of way in downtown.”

Even without palm trees, the oasis needs water, and water in the desert, of course, is a complicated issue. Most people, residents and non-residents alike, think Phoenix is using more than its fair share from the Colorado River — and it’s still running out. “Nothing can be further from the truth,” says Steve Rossi, principal water resources planner for the city’s Water Services Department.

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The city may have grown by 28 percent in the last 40 years, Rossi says, but water demand has been virtually flat. “Phoenix is serving 340,000 more residents today than in 1997 — with the same amount of water,” he says. The average Phoenician uses about 120 gallons of water per day, less than the 161-gallon average in other Southwestern cities. And, Rossi says, nobody builds without considering the water supply four or five generations down the line. In 2005, according to Rossi, the city introduced an updated long-range water resource plan that goes well beyond the State of Arizona’s 1980 Groundwater Code. Developers must prove an “assured supply” of 100 years’ worth of water. Until recently, the code was widely ignored, but Rossi says it’s now enforced, and seen as a model by some other desert outposts.

His claims may be difficult to believe, but one trend does seem promising: Fewer folks are interested in the high-maintenance home, the one with the perpetually thirsty lawn. Xeriscaping — landscaping that requires little or no irrigation — is in vogue. “It’s less altruistic and more self-serving,” says Rossi. “People want to use less water because it’s affordable, and they want to do less maintenance — they’ve had enough of mowing the lawn.” New developments, he says, increasingly incorporate drought-tolerant plants.

Even if usage is down, this answer to the water question — 100 years’ worth — doesn’t seem to fit the definition of sustainability. Sure, you know your grandchildren will be able to shower with ease, but in geological terms, 100 years is nothing.

“It’s betting that technology will find alternatives,” admits City Councilor Greg Stanton, who sits on a sustainability subcommittee created last year. City officials assume, then, that in the next 100 years, someone — maybe researchers at ASU — will figure out another way to get water besides pumping it from the Colorado River and sending it down the 336 miles of open canal known as the Central Arizona Project.

That’s a pretty hefty bet, exemplifying a wait-and-see attitude that some outside the city-university partnership see as its Achilles heel. “My hope is that the city will become less reactionary and more proactive,” says Kimber Lanning, founder of Local First Arizona, a nonprofit consortium of local businesses.

Some of the most innovative ideas seem to be coming not from politicians or ivory tower experts, but the citizens themselves, especially Lanning. She opened a record store 21 years ago called Stinkweeds and later started Modified Arts, a downtown performance and art space widely hailed as fomenting the arts scene there. She founded Local First in 2003; it has 1,300 members now. The group works to educate city leaders about the drawbacks of government subsidies for chain businesses and the benefits of hiring local businesses. It’s also created an online directory of local businesses, a map, and an interactive site where residents can find restaurants and shops in their neighborhood.

Lanning is infinitely supportive of Mayor Gordon — “He gets it,” she says — but knows there’s more to a vibrant city than shade and infill. “Our biggest challenge most definitely is our sprawl,” she says. “You can drive for close to two hours and not leave a megalopolis.”

For her part, Lanning would like to see a law requiring owners of downtown vacant lots to landscape and light them, and hold at least one cultural event there per year — which means they’d be insured and wouldn’t be so cheap to leave vacant. Another idea: convince big downtown employers to offer employees incentives to move closer to work. “Have them give $1,000 to anyone who lives within five miles,” she says. “That’s what it’s really going to take.”

No one I talked to in the government seemed willing to say that sprawl is the problem, that the lifestyle on which Phoenix is based is in itself unsustainable and must shift, and that regulation should be part of that shift. “You can call it sprawl or you can call it growth,” said planner Brennan. Later, pressed to admit that sprawl does indeed characterize the area, he said, “I don’t know that sprawl is necessarily a bad word or a dirty word; more importantly is how we’re responding to that growth.”

So far, how the city is responding is decidedly not through regulation — even the municipal recycling program is voluntary. But if the U.S. cities typically held up as models of sustainability are any indication, regulation is a necessary part of the picture. Portland molded itself through growth boundaries, however controversial; San Francisco and New York have passed landmark green building laws. That’s a much tougher sell here in Phoenix, land of individualism. A proposal to implement growth boundaries was handily panned in the late 1990s. “It’s that Wild West mentality,” says Lanning.

Brennan sums up the mentality this way: “This is a pro-property rights town.”

So how far can Phoenix’s sustainability efforts go without real policy to back them up, and without a willingness to question the very lifestyle on which the city has based its allure?

Clearly, Phoenix has a lot of soul searching to do before answering. The city is not done growing: There’s more land to the north and south to annex, and an unending stream of customers eager for their single-family slice of the American dream. The city had the third-largest net migration rate from 2000-2004, and the first-largest the five years before that, importing some 50,000 people each year. The bulk of the city’s infill development is aimed at the seasonal luxury market, which sidesteps a key element of sustainability: affordable housing.

Light rail and new technologies can’t cure all the problems, when technologies like cars and air conditioning are what permitted Phoenix to become what it is in the first place. They’ve allowed Phoenicians to retreat inside when the climate becomes unbearable, rather than think of innovative ways to make that climate better.

That, finally, is beginning to change. Leaders here say sustainability is blossoming, though it might be blossoming as slowly as a saguaro. Its citizens, too, seem more interested in living in a desert city marked by cactuses instead of Bermuda grass — a place where the environment is embraced rather than erased.

“We just move a little bit more cautiously than Portland or Seattle,” says Brennan. “We’re a very conservative community. We’ll get there. We’ll just take a little bit longer.”