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Once an Environmentally Unsustainable City, Phoenix Undergoes a Remarkable Transformation

Phoenix has some extraordinary environmental conditions to deal with as it pursues ambitious sustainability goals given that deserts are rather inhospitable.

From a sustainable city perspective, historians may someday note November 2011 as a pivotal point in Phoenix's history. It marked the publication of the book Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City, Andrew Ross's scathing narrative disparaging Phoenix's public- and private-sector leadership for fast-growth/low-density policies that created an unsustainable urban environment.

That same month, former city council member Greg Stanton won election as Phoenix's mayor. Among the many challenges he accepted when taking office was repairing the city's environmental-sustainability image. "My personal conviction led me to only one course of action," Stanton explained, "and that was to change our direction."

Of course, Phoenix hadn't become the focus of Ross's book without assistance from citizen neglect, permissive state environmental policies and a variety of vested business and political interests. Given these conditions, it was far from a foregone conclusion that Phoenix's municipal government could successfully achieve broad support for best-of-class sustainability policies and practices. And yet, that is exactly what has happened. Over the past five years, the city has produced an array of initiatives to set itself on a new path.

In seeking to remake Phoenix as a leader in sustainability, Stanton needed to mobilize action through the same pro-growth, laissez-faire regulatory environment that had generated, or at least contributed to, its problems in the first place. While Phoenix clearly wasn't in the same league, in terms of sustainability resources, with cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore., there were still resources to tap.

For starters, there was public opinion. A University of Arizona/Stanford University research poll on climate change found that Arizonans' views conformed closely to those of most Americans. The researchers found that "three-quarters of people surveyed believe global warming will be a serious problem for Arizona, the U.S., and the world and that it will hurt future generations if nothing is done to reduce it in the future." More than 70 percent thought that the state and federal governments should take action on global warming, with strong support for making electricity from sunlight (88 percent), wind (81 percent) and naturally flowing water (82 percent).

"People do recognize what should be done," says Mark Hartman, Phoenix's chief sustainability officer. "But there had been a disconnect between the general public and state regulators. In Phoenix the mayor, council and others attracted community support by soliciting citizen input and establishing bold goals that could inspire innovation and lead to cost savings."

This April, for example, the city council approved an ambitious set of environmental sustainability goals. "Phoenix 2050" includes a broad range of objectives including making walking, cycling and public transit practical in every neighborhood; achieving zero waste in the entire local economy; an 80 percent reduction in community carbon emissions; maintaining a clean and reliable 100-year supply of water; and, achieving a healthy level of air quality. In discussing Phoenix's sustainability planning, Hartman cites example after example of innovative projects:

  • The city has a request for proposals out for a $25 million project to replace 90,000 energy-inefficient streetlights that's projected to save taxpayers up to $1 million per year.
  • Phoenix is already close to meeting its goal of providing 15 percent of the energy used by its public works buildings from onsite solar.
  • The city has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions from municipal government operations by 7.2 percent and is on track for a total reduction of 15 percent, as of this year, from 2005 levels.
  • Phoenix voters just approved a $32 billion transportation plan aimed at tripling the amount of light rail by 2050 and significantly expanding walking, biking, transit and car sharing.
  • Phoenix recycles 89 percent of its wastewater and puts more into underground aquifers than it draws.
  • And the city has the largest fleet of municipal alternative fuel vehicles in America -- more than Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco combined.
All of this makes Hartman confident. "In about a year we'll be right up there with the top cities," he says. " It is a major effort, requiring a lot of change as well as funding, but will result in tens of millions in annual savings to taxpayers. The good news is that it is possible to cost-effectively improve quality of life for all residents and businesses while also enhancing nature."

Still, the mid-June alert on the city's website warning residents of 120-degree temperatures serves as a stark reminder that the city has some extraordinary environmental conditions to deal with as it pursues ambitious sustainability goals. Deserts are, after all, pretty inhospitable places. If you're going to have millions of people living in one, long-term sustainability really matters.

This column has been corrected to make clear that Greg Stanton was a former member of the Phoenix city council at the time he won election as the city's mayor. This article was originally published on Governing.

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