Below is an article written by Phoenix’s sustainability officer about our city’s state of sustainability published in the Arizona Republic on Friday January 20, 2012:

Greening of city hits stride – by Carolyn Bristo

Phoenix led the way in sustainability decades before “green” was cool.

Though the color brown is often associated with our desert region,”green” has saturated our policies for more than 30 years.

In the 1960s, Phoenix developed rubberized asphalt made from recycled tires.

We adopted water-conservation and energy-efficiency programs more than 30 years ago.

Our alternative-fuel program is now one of the largest programs in the country, with more than 50 percent of the city’s fleet running on alt fuel.

And we were one of the first in the nation to adopt a co-mingled, single stream residential-recycling program. Twenty years later, the program remains a national model that other cities follow.

But that is our history. Today, we are focused on the future of sustainability. The city has adopted an aggressive set of goals, that we are well on the way to achieving.

By 2015, we will reduce green-house-gas emissions for city operations to 5 percent below 2005 levels.

Our city will achieve 25 percent shade-canopy coverage by 2030, and we continue to make great strides on our 17-point Green Phoenix Plan to become the most sustainable city in America.

This past year, the city provided almost $1 million in incentives to home-owners and businesses to build green and adopted one of the first green-construction codes in the nation.

The city is rapidly installing solar power on city buildings – 20 so far. Today, Phoenix generates nearly 7 megawatts of renewable energy from solar. By the end of this year, the output will be 12 megawatts.

Our country’s largest desert city faces sustainability challenges not faces by other cities. We see this as a challenge more than a liability.

We are named for the mythical Phoenix bird, after all. We continue to rise to new challenges, and when it comes to sustainability, we will soar beyond anyone’s expectations.

Carolyn Bristo’s article is ironic to say the least in light of Andrew Ross’s book Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City and the subsequent community discussions about it like last week’s State of Sustainability Forum which was organized by the Downtown Voices Coalition.

According to Bristo, Phoenix is a stellar example of sustainability and has been over the past 30 years. Now I don’t know a whole lot of people who would agree with that, other than maybe her boss, City of Phoenix manager David Cavazos. If you’ve read Ross’s book, you’ll know that we’ve been anything but sustainable over the last 30 years, with our wanton penchant for sprawl which fostered an almost-exclusively car-dependent culture and reserving clean air and water for the well-heeled while relegating the poor with toxic industrial plants.

I’m not going to argue every point that Bristo makes in her article, but I do take exception with her perspective that Phoenix has been and is doing incredibly well in terms of sustainability. For example, we may have been progressive with recycling twenty years ago, but now we’re average at best, compared with other cities, even regionally, with multi-family dwellings not being served, no municipal composting in sight, and abysmal recycling amenities in our public spaces.

Bristo’s heavy-handed use of the words “we will” when it comes to achieving targets set by the city is deceptive. Yes, the City may have set those goals, like the 25% shade canopy coverage by 2030, but are we really making progress on this goal, or is it just words? What has the City done to fulfill on this promise and the others that Bristo boasts about?

Newsflash city officials: your constituents are not idiots and we’re not going to be appeased with empty words that sound wonderful on paper, but when it comes to reality, get tossed out at the first sign of an unhappy developer.

Bristo’s rose-colored account of the city’s past accomplishments and its fantastic future that will surely come true just by setting goals shows that the City is more concerned about looking sustainable than actually taking steps towards being sustainable.

If we were more serious about being sustainable, Cavazos would not appoint an existing Public Works employee to be the sustainability officer for the City in addition to her current duties in Public Works. If we were serious about sustainability, the City Manager would appoint someone who is much more qualified, passionate, innovative and focused on sustainability to fill this very critical position – someone more like Jonce Walker, who is the exceptional sustainability manager at Maricopa County.

I love this city and it is because of this that I won’t accept untrue assessments about how well we’re doing in the arena of sustainability. On the contrary, we need to wake up to the fact that we have A LOT of ingrained and fundamental obstacles that are standing in the way of a sustainable future for our city, and there is no way we can tackle these by covering them up with shiny bandaids such as the 17-point Green Phoenix Plan.

I’m happy that our new Mayor, Greg Stanton, has shown a commitment to sustainability, and this is very important. He has even appointed a sustainability advisor, Colin Tetreault, who I hope has read Ross’s book and is including social equity as an integral part of sustainability for Phoenix.

But for there to be any real change, for it is change we need, not false pride in how great we’re doing, we must see the mayor’s commitment translate into the actual running of the city and onto Cavazos’s daily agenda, our councilmembers’ priorities and the staff’s daily enforcement of sustainability policies.

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12 Responses

  1. Barry Graham says:

    Thanks for writing this. When I read Bristo’s piece, I honestly thought at first that it was a parody.

    25 percent shade by 2030? What are we supposed to do meantime?

  2. Brenda says:

    Taz, I always find what you write so fascinating. Is anything being currently done for the shade canopy coverage goal?

    • Taz Loomans says:

      That’s a good question Brenda. I’m going to ask Lyssa Hall, one of the authors of the Tree and Shade Masterplan, and get back with you.

  3. Pete says:

    Ironic & sad is more to the point. Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Taz!

    For there to be any real change, this city needs a shift in the way The City does business… namely, use a city gov’t model that ACTUALLY let’s the mayor be a mayor, instead of a glorified council member.

    Stanton can appoint all the advisors he wants, but Phoenix is still run by an unelected official – the City Manager – at the end of the day.

    Change that and maybe it’ll interject some accountability into the process…

  4. While I agree that Bistro’s piece is excessively positive, Ross is excessively negative. I’d like to see someone step up with balanced point of view rather than being presented with extremes on both sides. Until then, I’ll have to weight both points of view on my own, and I applaud Bistro for at least presenting a contrasting opinion in opposition to the widespread embrace of Ross that I am disappointed to see among so many people with whom I otherwise agree.

  5. Will Novak says:

    ^David B, spot on as usual 🙂

    Pete: Agreed on your assessment of our City government. I wrote a piece on the topic a while back here, if you haven’t seen it already:

    One idea I think the City should pursue is getting the Suns & D’backs involved in the Tree & Shade Master Plan. When the Rodeo Chediski fire happened the D’backs had a program where they donated X number of trees to that area when they hit a home run. The City should pursue something like that so the Suns donate based on 3 pointers & the D’backs on home runs or whatever. It would obviously help cover the cost of creating the urban forest, but get the idea in the minds of thousands (millions?) of people who otherwise would be unaware.

  6. Lisa says:

    Thanks for this discussion, Taz!

    When I arrived in Phoenix 7 years ago, I was shocked at the lack of recycling options on the street, in restaurants and at the multi-unit places where I have lived (to name a few). I also work on many events at hotels and am constantly seeing things like glass bottles being thrown into trash bins during the after event clean up. Not just one or two bottles, but 300 people’s worth. On the other hand, I have been in many hotels that are very green and do a very good job at recycling. That is more of the exception to the rule though.

    It seems so strange that, in 2012, my husband and I have to collect our recycling in several bins inside our small condo and then drive 40 minutes round trip to take them to a recycling center each week. When I see how much recycling we have collected and I think about how many multi-unit dwellings there are in the city that do not have recycling services, I’m really angered. I have contacted the city of Phoenix recycling services, but am told there is nothing that can be done. I’m sure this is not true.

  7. For all concerned, there are regularly scheduled Environmental Quality Commission Meetings and others that may be worth your while engaging to understand the current dialogue, players, opportunities and constraints. Another tactic is to help develop strategic plans around the issues you’re concerned with: http://phoenix.gov/citygovernment/strategicplan/index.html.
    I believe Ms. Bristo’s comments are mainly regarding internal city department practices, policies and accomplishments. Our unfortunate reality is that we all must help create the city we want. If you’re not at the table or in the room, you won’t be heard. As for Street Trees, Shade, or art, if you want it, the city needs maintenance agreements because they don’t have the money or staff to maintain the investment. If it’s multi-family and commercial recycling you desire, it is currently an option for property managers to buy collection services from private providers and most of them don’t or won’t. I’m not sure if it’s a lack of demand or justification of the expenditures not in the current management budgets. If you’re driving 40 minutes each way, consider that your recycling is likely being shipped to China to be processed into a product that comes back here. I’m not sure the triple bottom line is balanced there. But our beat will go on and the music will get better.

  8. Greetings Taz. Good sitting on the Sustainability Metro panel with you at George Washington Carver Museum. It was a good night. Now on to business. I would not be so hard on Carolyn. I am not saying that your concerns are not valid. Far from it. Only as a city employee it is her job to be positive while seeking to solve the problems and keep the promises.

    Regarding the Mayor and Colin. Colin is knowledgable though he will have a steep learning curve in understanding how the city works and not much time to do it. I am sure if he is open, he will succeed. Also during the election, Mayor Stanton got an ear full from yours truly regarding the relationship between sustainability and social equity. Since then in his speeches he has indicated an understanding of the subject. Between the two of them I am looking forward to see what is put into action.

    One last point. Over on the Valley Forward Blog (http://valleyforward.org) I have a piece up called “To Survive and Prosper.” Part of the thesis is that because there is no coherent and agreed definition of sustainability, there is confusion on what the outcomes should be. I think Mr. Pops’ comments at Carver made that abundantly clear. To paraphrase him, while we worry with solar panels elders in South Phoenix can’t get a break on their water bills. This simple fact (no clear definition) may also be part of the root of the concerns you state in your blog. Wishing you and Bamboo good health. Cheers.

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