Photos by Madeline Pado
The environment of the Sonoran Desert is second only to the Amazon rainforest in terms of biodiversity. Phoenix was prominently called the world’s least sustainable city by New York University professor Andrew Ross. Arizona’s political climate has been resistant to implement environmental regulations and sustainability efforts.
These facts and more informed the second Downtown Devil Discussion of the semester on Tuesday, which featured five panelists: Colin Tetreault, Mayor Greg Stanton’s senior policy adviser on sustainability; Jonce Walker, sustainability manager at Maricopa County; Stacey Champion, grass-roots organizer and founder of Rogue Green; Kevin Gurney, an ecological scientist and associate professor at ASU’s School of Life Sciences; and Adriana Johnston, a masters student in recreation and tourism studies at ASU’s School of Community Resources and Development.
The panelists agreed that Phoenix — a city with a unique social, political and geographical climate — faces sustainability challenges that are difficult to compare to those of other cities.
“Phoenix is a baby city compared to most of the top cities in the country,” Walker said. “So that’s good and bad. The good is that we have very young infrastructure and we have a lot of opportunities. The bad is we’ve tried to copy other cities and not paid attention to our climatic context.”
Still, comparisons to other cities were made. Moderator Connor Descheemaker, an ASU urban studies sophomore and the Downtown Devil’s director of community initiatives, asked Tetreault about Phoenix’s sustainability plan compared with those of cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and El Paso, Texas, which have set specific milestones for sustainable development. Tetreault is the first policy adviser on sustainability for Phoenix.
“It is important to understand that we are not Portland,” Tetreault said. “Some things are apples and apples. This is like apples and broccoli.”
Champion credited Stanton for making some forward progress in sustainability planning, but she said the city government should look to “other desert cities” such as Las Vegas and Albuquerque, which have made concrete plans.
“I can’t wrap my mind around how it is that we’re the sixth-biggest city in the United States and we don’t have a comprehensive sustainability plan,” Champion said.
Champion called the Motorola Superfund site “one of the biggest, most obvious cases of socioeconomic environmental injustice” in Arizona. The site contaminated the public drinking water of Scottsdale with illegal levels of the toxic chemical trichloroethylene, or TCE.
Champion also brought up Senate Bill 1507, a proposed bill that would ban governmental support of the 1992 United Nations Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, commonly known as Agenda 21. SB 1507 failed to pass in May.
Discussing his work to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, Gurney talked about the effect that scientifically misinformed constituents can have on policy makers to halt sustainability initiatives.
“There’s always a big gap between the scientific community and the decision-making community,” Gurney said. “Frankly, there’s a tremendous amount of science that’s available, but it doesn’t get translated well across this cultural divide.”
Gurney said that there has been encouraging cooperation between cities on sustainability efforts, and praised efforts between cities and counties to share data, which he believes has opened up channels of environmental information.
“The city networks have been incredibly valuable,” Gurney said. “What you get with these networks is a powerful amount of information. … Cities are different, they’re somewhat idiosyncratic, but you can compare them.”
About 40 people attended the discussion, and the audience included sustainability professionals and ASU students.
Mara DeFilippis, a clean-tech business liaison for the city of Phoenix, said she liked Champion’s discussion of the legislative process involved in SB 1507.
“I thought it was very informative,” DeFilippis said. “People don’t realize how far something can get when it’s embedded, and nobody’s paying attention, and everyone thinks everyone else will take care of it.”
Martin Gromulat, an ASU urban planning doctoral student and co-author of the textbook “Understanding Sustainable Cities,” thought the mix of panelists from a variety of backgrounds helped to promote creative solutions to sustainability issues.
“One of the best things we talked about was the citizen engagement, and how we use all aspects from academia to the city to activism to engage in substantive change for the city,” Gromulat said. “And the city is us, the city is you, the city is me, it’s our elected officials, it’s everyone. But providing a framework for everyone to be involved and to have an equal say in the future orientation of where Phoenix is going is paramount.”
The next Downtown Devil Discussion, titled “Risk Takers and Game Changers,” will focus on entrepreneurial development and business innovation. Planned panelists include Stanton and business owner and activist Beatrice Moore. The discussion will be held Nov. 27.
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