Argument: Phoenix is world’s least sustainable city

I recently ran into an overview of a 2011 look at Phoenix as the “world’s least sustainable city”:

Phoenix, Arizona is one of America’s fastest growing metropolitan regions. It is also its least sustainable one, sprawling over a thousand square miles, with a population of four and a half million, minimal rainfall, scorching heat, and an insatiable appetite for unrestrained growth and unrestricted property rights.

In Bird on Fire, eminent social and cultural analyst Andrew Ross focuses on the prospects for sustainability in Phoenix–a city in the bull’s eye of global warming–and also the obstacles that stand in the way. Most authors writing on sustainable cities look at places like Portland, Seattle, and New York that have excellent public transit systems and relatively high density. But Ross contends that if we can’t change the game in fast-growing, low-density cities like Phoenix, the whole movement has a major problem. Drawing on interviews with 200 influential residents–from state legislators, urban planners, developers, and green business advocates to civil rights champions, energy lobbyists, solar entrepreneurs, and community activists–Ross argues that if Phoenix is ever to become sustainable, it will occur more through political and social change than through technological fixes. Ross explains how Arizona’s increasingly xenophobic immigration laws, science-denying legislature, and growth-at-all-costs business ethic have perpetuated social injustice and environmental degradation. But he also highlights the positive changes happening in Phoenix, in particular the Gila River Indian Community’s successful struggle to win back its water rights, potentially shifting resources away from new housing developments to producing healthy local food for the people of the Phoenix Basin. Ross argues that this victory may serve as a new model for how green democracy can work, redressing the claims of those who have been aggrieved in a way that creates long-term benefits for all.

Since the population of the United States has shifted in recent decades to Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, tackling sustainability in these more sprawling and hot places seems like it is important. I wonder how much this sustainability push would require curbing sprawl and if there are some critics who would argue places like Phoenix (or even the metropolitan regions of cities like Chicago and New York) can’t really be sustainable unless they severely limit sprawl.

In two trips to Las Vegas in recent years, I was struck each time by the landscape when flying into the city. I always enjoy seeing cities from above but Las Vegas (and presumably Phoenix as well) shows stark contrasts between deserts which suddenly turn into subdivisions, lawns, golf courses, and then opulent casinos. It is a quick reminder that some of these Sunbelt cities are carved out of the desert and this requires a lot of resources to maintain and expand.

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