A Thought Leader Series Piece
By Grady Gammage, Jr.
In early October, Andrew Ross issued the latest indictment of Phoenix: Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City. Ross’s book represents the latest, longest, and most articulate examination of Arizona’s capital – the nation’s sixth largest city – as a kind of colossal demographic mistake. But he’s not the first to go down this path.
In a 2006 radio interview, author Simon Winchester said that Phoenix “should never have been built” because “there’s no water there.” In 2008, Sustainlane.com rated Phoenix among the least sustainable cities in the U.S. for water supply, primarily because of the distance water must travel to reach the city. In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that Maricopa County, home to the Phoenix Metro area, was among the “most challenged” places in the U.S. for climate change – this conclusion based on the difference between rainfall and water use within the county. And in 2011, the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) found current patterns of Arizona water use to be “unsustainable,” due to the large amount of water going to agriculture.
These views highlight the huge problems inherent in measuring urban sustainability. In large part, Phoenix seems to be everyone’s favorite whipping boy essentially because it’s hot in Arizona and doesn’t rain very much. This view is too simplistic.