“If Phoenix can become sustainable, anywhere can.”
So said NYU Professor Andrew Ross as a photograph of the dust storm that engulfed Phoenix last summer loomed behind him. Professor Ross, who recently wrote the book, “Bird on Fire: Lessons of the World’s Least Sustainable City,” kicked off the Teaching Sustainability Workshop, a one-day retreat for faculty and instructors to integrate sustainability into the curriculum. In his keynote presentation, Ross explained why he chose to research Phoenix and how the keys to sustainability lie in social cooperation.
Ross first addressed why cities are so important to sustainability. National and state governments are not acting as quickly as they need to, and because cities do not have to formulate energy policies, they can act more freely than their heavily lobbied counterparts. Furthermore, although cities currently generate 80% of the world’s emissions, living densely is the only viable path toward emissions reduction.
Phoenix certainly has a long way to go. Ross described its unrestrained sprawl before the financial crash, during which the primary industry was, as Ross put it, “building homes for people who build homes”. Arizona has increased carbon emissions more quickly than any other state, with only 2% of its energy coming from solar, even though it has enormous solar energy potential. And while it is contributing more than its fair share to climate change, it is also in the bull’s-eye when it comes to the effects of climate change because it is dependent on the Colorado River.
Ross argued that Phoenix must develop a sustainable social character, and that reliance on quantitative approaches neglects the true nature of the human condition. He explained that our social makeup should no longer be built around an eco-apartheid, where some live in enclaves of environmental luxury as those on the other side of the tracks suffer. Downtown revitalization, or the transformation and humanization of the metropolis, is the “antidote to sprawl”, and Ross asserted that everyone, especially members of artistic communities, plays a critical role in urban advocacy.
The keynote made it clear that if Phoenix can become sustainable, anywhere indeed can. Moreover, creating more sustainable cities is not a matter of sweeping national or state-level legislation, but a matter of changing our social approaches to sustainability at the city level.