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The Lessons Phoenix Can Teach Other Cities About Sustainable Development

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A new book suggests the desert metropolis has been getting a bad rap, and has lessons to offer other cities

Grady Gammage isn’t happy with the way people talk about his city. A land use lawyer and senior scholar at Arizona State University, Gammage believes the stereotypes about Phoenix, that it’s a sprawling city without rules that wastes resources, just aren’t true. His new book, The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons From Sustaining Phoenix, challenges the idea that this is a city in the middle of the desert that shouldn’t exist. Rather, the fast-growing city’s evolution, originally based on autos, air conditioning and air travel, has lessons that apply to other large metro areas.

"I used suburban city in the title because it’s a pejorative term," he says. "I’m OK with that, since I want readers to understand they shouldn’t think of it as a pejorative term. It’s just a different type of city."

Curbed spoke with Gammage about his book and why Phoenix is more of an urban model than outsiders may believe.

Phoenix More Efficient With Water Than You Think

"What’s emblematic of the way people think about Phoenix is water. Since it doesn’t rain here, there shouldn’t be a city here. Guess what? We’ve known that for a thousand years. But we’ve worked very hard here to engineer these complex systems to bring water here—first the Native Americans, then local citizens, then the federal government. Many condemn Phoenix to no future because it doesn’t rain enough here. No city gets enough rain; we’ve always moved water from somewhere. Most cities just have water closer than Phoenix. Let’s not gloss over serious issues, but we’ve built our city around renewable water supplies. We’re in a much better place than California because we regulated groundwater use since 1980. They started last year. But people shouldn’t take it as a complete whitewash. Phoenix was a big farming town, and as it urbanized, it’s decreased its water use. But as we urbanize, we’ll need to make tough choices."

Wide Streets and a Big Grid Make Phoenix Poised to Take Advantage of New Transportation Technology

"Phoenix is well-positioned because most of the city is relatively flat, and because it was a farming town, it has a grid with big arterial boulevards. That’s a forgiving transportation network, and we waited a long time to build freeways. This grid will work very well in the era of autonomous vehicles, ride-sharing, and Uber. It gives us a lot of room to move around. Because it grew with single family homes and shopping centers, it grew with wide streets; it’s easier over time to narrow a street as opposed to widen it, which makes it easier to add bike lanes, or Bus Rapid Transit and light rail lines, to densify the city. Clearly, narrow streets are more charming. The big challenge for a city like Phoenix is figuring out how to make streets more comfortable for pedestrians."

Development wIth Single-Family Homes Can Still Add Density

"While Phoenix is based predominantly on single-family homes, they’re built on relatively small lots. One acre lots are the lots of the very rich. The average home is on a fifth of an acre. We’re not a city that gets less dense as you move out from the downtown. New subdivisions are being built in a relatively dense environment. It’s possible to live in nice, single-family homes on small lots. The other thing is that we’ve figured out how to make those neighborhoods even more dense. Look at developments such as Verrado, a new urbanist development on the west edge of town that’s very dense. It's not going to be a city where most people live in high rises, but it is doing mid-level density better and better. The fact is, 80 percent of people in Phoenix live in a denser situation than 80 percent of people in Portland."

Worried About Those Wasteful Air Conditioners? What About Furnaces?

"There’s a perception that air conditioning in cities like Phoenix is energy inefficient. That’s a very Eurocentric, biased world view. The reality is that with the way that we heat and cool today, cooling is more efficient than heating. It consumes less power on balance. We still have built into our thinking that air conditioning is a luxury while heating is a necessity. I don’t think we should necessarily single out warm places for wasting energy. We’re also learning to be more efficient with air conditioning than we are with heating, and as we begin to convert to more and more solar energy, that will make air conditioning more efficient."