How Sustainable is Phoenix?

Written by: Dr. Auriane Koster, Sustainability Manager

I have heard countless times that we live in the “most unsustainable city in the US.” However, is that even true? Is Phoenix really as unsustainable as people think it is? How sustainable is Phoenix?

Phoenix is home to the first ever degree-granting institute dedicated to learning about and teaching sustainability: Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability. (My, and four other PEPers, alma mater!) Established in 2006, the School is part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, which is the center point of ASU’s sustainability initiatives. Many students and professors are focusing on sustainability issues in Phoenix, such as:  Dean Chris Boone, a scientist for the urban Long Term Ecological Research project based in Phoenix; Dan Childers, focusing on wetland ecosystem ecology and the Tres Rios Environmental Restoration project in Phoenix; Rimjhim Aggarwal, researching the impact of globalization and climate change on food security in Phoenix; and Charles Redman, an expert on the original civilizers of Phoenix, the Hohokam.

While we know people are focusing on sustainability in Phoenix, is any part of Phoenix already sustainable? As many of us know, Phoenix, and most of our neighboring states, gets a large supply of its water from the Colorado River. While Arizona has relatively low priority water rights, the 1980 Groundwater Management Act ensured that we do no overdraft more water than we have and that we store water for the future. Such policies do not exist in all states that share this water resources.

Phoenix can actual be used as a model of sustainability. In April, 2016, the Phoenix City Council adopted eight 2050 Environmental Sustainability goals as part of the city’s General Plan. These goals focus on: waste; transportation; clean air; water stewardship; local food systems; building and land use; and parks, preserves, and open spaces. Grady Gammage, a well-known figure in Phoenix and a land use lawyer, believes that Phoenix has the potential of becoming one of the most sustainable cities in the US! In his book, The Future of the Suburban City, Gammage argues that: we are more water efficient than our neighbors, we have a high potential for new transportation technologies, we can make dense neighborhoods, and cooling is more efficient than heating.

This isn’t to say that everyone believes Phoenix is/can be sustainable. The book Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City is all about how unsustainable Phoenix is. Andrew Ross argues that “Arizona's increasingly xenophobic immigration laws, science-denying legislature, and growth-at-all-costs business ethic have perpetuated social injustice and environmental degradation.” While he seems slightly negative on the possible sustainable growth of the city, he does take an interesting and holistic view at the problem.

An important component of sustainability in Phoenix is the role that each citizen has. Looking to live a more sustainable life in Phoenix? It is not as hard as it may seem! Purchase local, organic, sustainable food at one of the many farmers' markets throughout the valley. And you don’t need your own car to get there! Take advantage of the variety of public transportation options, such as the free Orbit shuttles around Tempe, the light rail, or any of the Valley Metro bus routes. Try to avoid having a grass yard, and if you do have grass, be sure to only water at night and at dusk. If possible, install solar panels on your roof. If you rent, or are unable to pay for solar panels at this time, SRP offers the EarthWise Energy program, where you simply choose to green up 50% or 100% of your electricity use with renewable energy certificates (RECs) from SRP renewables, a mix of wind, solar, biomass, and/or geothermal. Compost your old food scraps yourself for your own garden, or work with a company, like Recycled City, who will do the dirty work for you! And don’t forget to recycle using the blue bin at home, along with Styrofoam recycling provided by Earth Friendly Building Materials and your city’s textile recycling.