If Phoenix wants to get serious and curb sprawl and truly address our low density-related sustainability issues, the city and state are going to have to take much more dramatic measures. Encouraging infill and adaptive reuse is a good thing, but in our city, it doesn’t go far enough. It’s one thing to dump a bunch of money in the lap of a developer to say, “Good job for reusing that downtown empty space!” But then when that developer turns around and builds an over-priced, high-consumption eyesore that no one can afford to live in or lease for business, the project might just as well go bankrupt and pretty often (as we’ve seen in Downtown Phoenix and in Tempe) it never gets completed. Or, if the place opens, but doesn’t fill to full occupancy, and the developers refuse to lower rents this artificially drives up the cost of housing in the area, even though the demand just isn’t there.
This practice also drives out a lot of the lower-income level, original inhabitants of the area. (It seems to me that poorer Phoenix-folk have historically had a much harder time crying “Imminent Domain! Unfair land use!” than poor folks in other regions of the United States… but let’s just call that a hunch [highway/freeway projects, and certain Downtown Phoenix campus project…] ) Some people call this process gentrification and say it’s a good thing. But others lament the loss of neato historic homes and businesses, deep rooted old trees and a town’s sense of history and identity once that too often around Phoenix and too easily gets erased (for a current example of this practice of Quick-erasing Phoenix memories, see the Frank Lloyd Wright house story: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/04/us/demolition-on-hold-for-frank-lloyd-wright-house.html?_r=0).
In order to encourage a more diverse, fair housing environment downtown, Phoenix needs to address its housing and building practices and make some significant changes in the direction of keeping folks in their neighborhoods and improving in-city and downtown neighborhoods to stay attractive, satisfying places to live.
Adaptive re-use in Phoenix should include adding more “green space” within the city limits. This has a number of benefits not only in fighting air pollution (green spaces help clean the air and produce oxygen) but also increasing the aesthetic appeal and even the property values within urban areas. Lately there have been a lot more independent groups, such the Downtown Phoenix Arts Coalition (D-PAC), Local First, Downtown Voices Coalition, and Roosevelt Row launching programs and projects to help encourage greening, infill and Smart Growth downtown—and this is a very good thing! For example, Roosevelt Row and A.R.T.S. helped support the Valley of the Sunflowers project, where local small business The Growhouse “borrowed” a vacant lot in downtown Phoenix and filled it with sunflowers. The students of Phoenix Bioscience High School will harvest the sunflowers and make biodiesel for a biodiesel vehicle they are building. = A.R.T.S. deserves mad props for using empty downtown lots for community-building events such as the Food Truck Festival and Pie Social. I would like to see these events continue to get support from the public and downtown planners, and hopefully we’ll see this kind of thing sustain and even grow.
Phoenix relies on energy from a number of producers, including fossil fuel burning, nuclear power plant power, and even some hydroelectric power from nearby dams. One of our most obvious resources that seem to go very much overlooked in Phoenix is energy produced from the sun.
From 1990-2007 Arizona added fossil-fuel pollutants faster than any other state—the rate of increase was more than three times the national average. The region is deluged with more than 330 days of bright sunlight, yet only a tiny percentage of its energy is drawn from solar sources. (Ross p. 5).
It seems inconceivable that Arizona would not push development and implementation of solar power plants and private solar panel use more aggressively. Not only could energy become virtually free for its residents, the county and state could even “harvest” solar energy and “sell it back to the grid,” or store it and transfer it to other communities less likely to be able to generate as much solar power. This is a clean, renewable resource and it just seems ignorant that the state hasn’t pushed further into research and development programs.
Luckily for local residents, there are more companies such as First Solar that are starting up in the Phoenix area with the idea of creating solar farms where vast numbers of solar panels with photovoltaic plates will cover open land and soak up and convert sun power into electricity. But again, I do not think that we should stop there. Phoenix should consider implementing a plan similar to the one proposed by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg earlier this year, where he pushed building solar power plants over existing landfill sites (smart, adaptive land use), exploring the use of waste-to-energy facilities where garbage is actually used to make energy, often by burning it, and also adopting 130 other “green” initiatives to help improve quality of life in New York (Colvin 2011).
In his book Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, author, researcher and social critic Andrew Ross explains that while Phoenix might not literally be the least sustainable city on the planet, there are many lessons to be learned from our bad habits as far as abusing water resources, allowing bad planning and zoning which led to massive urban sprawl, consuming natural resources while we virtually ignore solar power, adding to the greenhouse gas mess and unfairly treating minority and low-income populations in sustainable living measures. Ross uses Phoenix as an example, probably because Phoenix’s mistakes have been so highly visible. But that doesn’t mean this city hasn’t done anything right. Introducing light rail and making commitments to expand public transportation and to switch to more solar-generated energy are just the beginning. The City of Phoenix has made a commitment to make sure all of its buildings are meet the minimums for LEED certification, and the city can already brag about the efficiency of buildings like the Burton Barr, Cesar Chavez and Desert Broom libraries, the Phoenix Convention Center West Building and the ASU Downtown Campus’s Cronkite School building. The city is also promoting reuse of building materials, and encouraging developers and planners to always incorporate some kind of shade providing structure when building new establishments. Also, taking the lead for other cities, and successful “green” buildings like the City of Chandler’s new City Hall, the City of Phoenix is also looking into using greywater technologies, and finding ways to add solar panels to its building for solar power energy collection, conversion, storage and use (City of Phoenix website). By encouraging infill and adaptive re-use of existing structures, such as building lofts and commercial spaces in preexisting downtown buildings, the city is also helping itself to lessen its ecological footprint, and to become a more sustainable Phoenix.
If we can make some minor adjustments and avoid depleting our water sources, cut back on greenhouse gas production, and curb our voracious appetite for gasoline, we can keep our Valley of the Sun beautiful, and we won’t have to end up like the Hohokam.