In 2011, a sociologist at New York University wrote a book that called Phoenix “the world’s least sustainable city.” The next year, Greg Stanton became mayor. He treated the book not as an insult but as the template for an urban agenda.
Phoenix was the kind of city it had been for decades: a sprawling, car-oriented metropolis economically dependent on the real estate industry. It prospered during the housing boom and suffered worse than most places when real estate values plummeted and construction slowed in the Great Recession. The city was also poised to experience some of the worst possible effects of climate change -- temperatures even hotter than usual, more frequent droughts and parched soil. The city’s water came from a distant and dwindling source: the Colorado River.
The most brilliant political leader in the world couldn’t make Phoenix as green as Boston or Seattle. But under Stanton, the city has taken significant steps in the direction of sustainability. It sought to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2015, and achieved that goal by replacing 90,000 energy-wasting streetlights with LED bulbs, making municipal buildings more energy efficient and converting more of the methane released from city landfills into electricity. Stanton now wants to reduce emissions 40 percent by 2025. Earlier this year, when President Trump announced that the federal government would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, Stanton was one of the first mayors in the country to announce that his city would keep its commitments to cutting back on energy use and air pollution.
Two years ago, while campaigning for a second term, Stanton also campaigned for a 35-year transportation package that would add 42 miles of light rail, more than 1,000 miles of bike lanes, 135 miles of sidewalks and expanded hours of bus service, at a projected price tag of $31.5 billion. It’s not typical for politicians to push for a sales tax increase as they seek re-election. “My political consultants were not happy about that,” Stanton says, “but it was the right thing to do.” Voters said yes to both Stanton and his transportation agenda by comfortable margins.
Stanton frames his environmental policies as part of a broader goal of diversifying Phoenix’s economy. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this green market-based philosophy is a business incubator supported by the city and Arizona State University. The school’s campus houses burgeoning public-private partnerships that aim to help the city recycle materials that would otherwise go to a landfill. So far, firms have found ways to create new, profitable products from discarded mattresses, food waste and palm fronds. In five years, the city has doubled its waste diversion rate from 15 percent to 30 percent.
The 47-year-old Stanton, who has announced he will step down as mayor to run for Congress next year, likes to point out that his environmental policies have coincided with a booming local economy. Last year, Phoenix had the largest numerical increase in residents of any city in the country. Not only has the city unemployment rate steadily declined, but in the past year the Phoenix metro area saw the highest year-over-year wage growth in the nation. Tech jobs increased more than 18 percent and the number of tech companies downtown has quadrupled.
-- By J.B. Wogan
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