Experts push innovation, education as solutions at State of Sustainability Forum in Phoenix

A panel of experts discussed making Phoenix a more sustainable community at the State of Sustainability Forum sponsored by Downtown Voices Coalition Tuesday night. (Evie Carpenter/DD)

Working from the bottom up may be the solution to sustainability issues in Phoenix.

Downtown Voices Coalition hosted a State of Sustainability Forum Tuesday night at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center to discuss the most pressing of sustainability issues in metro Phoenix. The forum featured a local panel of experts and Andrew Ross, author of the book “Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City.” Charles Redman, the founding director of ASU’s School of Sustainability, moderated the seven panelists.

The panel began with a discussion of specific topics, such as water supply conservation, adaptive reconstruction and alternative transportation expansion. However, the conversation eventually turned to fundamental problems with sustainable action in Phoenix.

The interconnection of sustainability issues plays a critical role in implementing and maintaining ideas.

George Brooks, president of NxT Horizon Group and a sustainability consultant, said he believes the answer is innovation.

“There are many innovative methodologies that one can use to begin to address these issues that are occurring right now,” Brooks said. “Simply, they need support so they can do more.”

Panelists agreed that zoning restrictions can inhibit the realization of sustainable ideas.

“There is a lack of intergovernmental cooperation to make things happen easily to the public,” Eva Olivas, CEO of Phoenix Revitalization Corporation, said.

Panelists also debated over effective, economical buildings.

Taz Loomans, an architect and a sustainability writer and blogger, argued that tearing down buildings is expensive and contributes to the loss of Phoenix’s identity. Steve Betts, chairman at Urban Land Institute Arizona, disagreed. He said older buildings are costly to renovate and the city should explore adaptive reuse of shopping centers. However, both kept in mind that the city argues for the most cost-effective route.

“We have the richest neighborhoods in historic preservation,” former Phoenix mayor and Arizona attorney general Terry Goddard added. He said retrofitting, or the adaption of new technology to old structures, is an appropriate solution.

Though the discussion led to debate and disagreements, the panelists and audience appeared to be on board with the idea of encouraging more community and individual involvement to reach solutions.

“We are an opportunity oasis,” Betts said. He stressed the importance of entrepreneurial cooperation for the sake of progress on issues.

Silvia Urrutia, director of Housing and Healthcare Finance of the Raza Development Fund, further emphasized the bottom-up solution. “We have progressive people working at the local level that are doing great things.”

“We’ve made it so complicated,” Olivas said. “We really need to help the communities to understand what sustainable communities are.” Olivas argued that proper education is needed at the ground level in order to make improvements.

Jim McPherson, a member of Downtown Voices Coalition and a coordinator for the event, estimated 375 guests attended the forum. Only 200 were initially expected. McPherson hopes the forum will encourage more discussions and looks forward to the coalition hosting similar events in the future.

“We succeeded in our goal,” McPherson said. “That’s what brought out the crowds.”

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