Hope for a desert delinquent (What Phoenix, the poster child for environmental ills, is doing right)

[Source, Lisa Selin Davis, Grist Magazine, May 13, 2008] — In order for Phoenix to truly be a green city, it would have to be brown.  Or not brown, exactly, but the sandy shade of the mountains that surround it: the jagged peaks and parched hills that enclose the Valley of the Sun.  These days, though, Phoenix is a less-natural shade of brown; a ring of smoggy pollution known locally as the Brown Cloud shadows the city.  And that’s not the only affront to the environs here.  Anyone flying in can see the patches of fierce green lawns that paint the landscape, along with the swimming pools; the manmade lake in the suburb of Tempe, evaporating 452 million gallons of water each year; the sea of single family homes spilling across the desert; the traffic clogging the ribbons of highways; and the heat snakes squiggling from all that boiling bitumen.  The 517-square-mile city — the fifth-largest and fourth-fastest-growing in America — just survived its second-driest winter on record and is deep in drought.

So how is it that this poster child for sprawl and environmental ills is being hailed — albeit by its own government — as an exemplar of sustainability?  City leaders are quick to tell anyone willing to listen that not only are they finally getting hip to environmental matters, they’ve been attending to some of them for upwards of thirty years.  From using cleaner fuels in their fleet of trucks and buses to implementing an environmental purchasing program, from building a new 20-mile light-rail line to signing the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, officials have taken concrete steps to right past wrongs.

Perhaps more important than these piecemeal sustainability steps is the city’s partnership with the local university.  What’s wrong with the city — the temperature’s rising, for one thing, and development is still skidding out of control — is what makes it such an attractive candidate for a living laboratory.  The city’s environmental deficits are educational opportunities for the students and teachers of Arizona State University’s four-year-old Global Institute of Sustainability.  “When Phoenix is done growing, it will be bigger than Chicago,” says Dr. Michael Crow, president of ASU.  “The next massive city of the United States isn’t done yet.”  GIOS, then, has a chance to affect these latter stages of growth.  And what GIOS gleans from Phoenix just might change the way other desert cities behave — that is, if it’s not too little, too late.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

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