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FEATURE:
Greening Phoenix

After decades of rampant growth, sustainability is the new frontier.

11/2009

By Jenna M. McKnight

In the past year, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has become somewhat of a green go-getter. On a sunny day in mid-March, the mayor flew back from Washington, D.C., where he had met with U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu to trumpet Phoenix as the upcoming leader in solar technology. After landing, he zipped over to the new Sheraton Hotel tower in the heart of downtown Phoenix to deliver his State of the City address. Standing before hundreds of business and civic leaders, he unveiled his vision for the future: making Phoenix the first carbon-neutral city in the world.

Valley of The Sun
Photo © Brandon Sullivan

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Called “Green Phoenix,” Gordon’s 17-point plan, developed in collaboration with Arizona State University (ASU), features a broad range of job-generating tactics for a region hit hard by the recession, from installing photovoltaic panels on buildings to developing the area’s canal system for recreational use. All of it would be accomplished through education and incentive programs, rather than regulations. During an interview in July, Gordon told me he doesn’t subscribe to the “thou-shall-not” approach when it comes to sustainability.

“My goal is to make it work on the business side,” he explained, “and then you don’t need regulations.”

The mayor’s ambitious scheme is one of several green initiatives making headlines in the Phoenix metropolitan area, which consists of 34 municipalities scattered across 14,500 square miles. The Valley of the Sun, as it’s called, is celebrating several milestones: a new light-rail system; a revitalized downtown; and the opening of ASU’s School of Sustainability, the first school of its kind in the nation. There are other major projects under way. For instance, a 1,200-acre solar farm is slated to be built on the city’s western fringe.

These efforts, among others, are why the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) selected Phoenix to host Greenbuild 2009. Expected to draw 30,000 attendees, the conference will be held this month in the newly expanded Phoenix Convention Center. Citing the city’s commitment to energy, water, and carbon reductions, Kimberly Lewis, the USGBC’s vice president of events, hailed Phoenix as “an emerging environmental leader in the West.”

Despite all the green hoopla, transforming this sprawling desert city into a zero-carbon metropolis is a tall order. Today, there are roughly 4.2 million residents here, nearly double the population in 1990. With land cheap and plentiful, the city has spread outward, as developers gobble up thousands of acres each year, and highways are constructed to accommodate the boom. Phoenix is one of the hottest and most arid cities in the country, annually receiving only 8 inches of rain on average. Perpetual sunshine has led to a proliferation of golf courses—about 220, at last count.

For some, Phoenix is paradise. For others, it is the poster child for shortsighted urban planning. With these conflicting views in mind, the city is making strides toward a sustainable future without being too heavy-handed. City leaders are quick to point out that “going green” is not a new phenomenon here. “The City of Phoenix has been involved in sustainability for the last 20 to 30 years, long before it was popular,” says Assistant Public Works Director Carolyn Bristo, who oversees the city’s energy program. Her answer to people who question why it has lagged behind places like Portland and San Francisco, consistently ranked two of America’s greenest cities (Phoenix rarely makes the cut): “The only thing we need to catch up on is publicity.”

Certainly in the design community, there is a long tradition of honoring the environment. In the 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright established his winter home and school, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale. In the 1970s, the Italian architect Paolo Soleri set out to construct Arcosanti, an experimental community that embodies a fusion of architecture and ecology. These two visionaries have inspired many local, contemporary architects who now carry the green torch. “The example they set was powerful, and it certainly influenced me,” says architect Eddie Jones, AIA, whose award-winning firm, Jones Studio, is renowned for its sustainable designs. Jones also credits Native Americans, who devel-oped clever strategies for inhabiting the desert. “To this day, I still enjoy the recon-ciliation of modern architecture as it relates to ancient architecture,” he says. “These principles are still relevant, regardless of what materials or form they take.”

Indeed, the desert, with its sizzling temperatures and paucity of water, necessitates architecture that is environ-mentally responsive. “The connection of the buildings to the landscape is more critical here,” explains Mark Patterson, AIA, a vice president at SmithGroup, which opened its Phoenix office in 1973. His firm committed itself to sustainability early on, and increasingly, he says, clients are asking for green features. But they are not always willing to pursue LEED. “A number of owners are still not convinced that they can make it pencil-out appropriately,” he says. 

As of August, the Phoenix metro area had 48 LEED-certified projects. In several towns, new public buildings must achieve LEED certification, with Scottsdale requiring LEED Gold (it was the first U.S. city to adopt this policy). While the public sector has embraced green design, many say the private sector has not. “In the developer community, a lot of them just don’t get it yet,” says Charlie Popeck, founder of the consulting firm Green Ideas. “They see it as a cost-adder.” Another factor: The complexities of LEED can be off-putting to some building designers and managers, explains Curtis Slife, AIA, principal of FM Solutions, an architecture and facility management firm. In response, his company is offering free, lunchtime LEED workshops to anyone who wants to come.

Many point out that green buildings are only a part of the solution. Encouraging denser neighborhoods and boosting mass-transit—that is, curbing sprawl—is perhaps the more pressing concern. While the recession is slowing growth, there are also signs Phoenicians are ready for a more urban lifestyle. For starters, a 20-mile light-rail line completed last December—stretching from downtown Phoenix to Tempe and Mesa—is drawing 35,000 riders a day, exceeding projections. In terms of sustainability, it’s the biggest thing to hit Phoenix in recent history, says Bonnie Richardson, AIA, principal planner for Tempe’s transportation department and chair of USGBC Arizona. “In the next 10 years,” she says, “we’re going to see remarkable change because of the light rail.” Already, transit-oriented developments are popping up, and an expansion of the system is under way.

Another indicator “city living” is taking hold: Downtown Phoenix is a hotbed of activity. The completion of Chase Field in 1998 spurred a major renewal, with scores of new shops, restaurants, and condos emerging in recent years. According to the city, $4 billion in public and private money will be pumped into this 1.5-square-mile district between 2006 and 2011.

Morever, downtown Phoenix has seen the arrival of a new campus for Tempe-based ASU. The university has played a key role in the local sustainability movement, thanks in large part to its president Michael Crow, who took the helm in 2002. Crow has implemented several notable measures, such as requiring all new campus buildings achieve LEED-Silver. Under his leadership, ASU also opened its School of Sustainability, which grants undergraduate and graduate degrees. The students are using Phoenix as a laboratory to study issues such as conservation and smart growth. How’s the Valley performing so far? “I would give it an average grade, which today is a ‘B,’” says Charles Redman, the school’s director. “It’s a young city, it hasn’t matured yet. It’s only becoming self-reflective now.” Given all the recent developments, its future certainly looks bright.

Jenna M. McKnight, a Phoenix native, is the news editor at Architectural Record magazine.

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This article appeared in the November 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine

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