New book on sustainability issues from attorney Grady Gammage

More from this show

Hear from the author of a new book on sustainability issues from attorney Grady Gammage, a senior fellow at the Morrison Institute and a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU. Gammage will discuss his work, “The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix.” Gammage will have a book signing at Changing Hands Book Store on April 26.

Ted Simons:Tonight's edition of Arizona sustainability focuses on how so-called suburban cities such as Phoenix manage to survive and, in many cases, thrive. A new book takes a look at Phoenix as offering lessons on the future of the suburban city. Here now is the book's author, local attorney Grady Gammmage Jr., a senior fellow at the Morrison Institute and a senior scholar at ASU's Julie Ann Wrigley global institute of sustainability. Busy man. And you found time to write a book.

Grady Gammmage Jr.: Broad and shallow, that's my goal in life.

Ted Simons: I hear you. Talk about Phoenix as an improbable -- this book starts off with Phoenix as the improbable city.

Grady Gammmage Jr.: Yeah, and you know I put the haboob moving into Phoenix on the cover, we got so much national publicity and that seemed like the place was going to be wiped out and at the end of the haboob which lasted about 40 minutes, the biggest consequence was that your swimming pool was really dirty and that's kind of a metaphor for me, that people view Phoenix as kind of presumptively unsustainable. Part of that is when you name your city after a bird that periodically burns itself up in a funeral pyre, you're kind of inviting scrutiny about whether or not you're going to last, so I think there is this belief that this is an impermanent place in a hostile environment that is destined to blow away someday. And, you know, I looked at a lot of the literature about cities and sustainability ratings of cities and Phoenix is not rated well. I think most of those are wrong. I think they view it incorrectly.

Ted Simons: Well, let's start with some of those criticisms. Phoenix as unsustainable. You say blowing away in the wind, whatever the case may be. The fact is there's a lot of folks living out here and not only a hostile but a fragile environment. The desert is a very fragile place. Is it sustainable?

Grady Gammmage Jr.: I think it is. I think the cities of the arid west are no more or less sustainable. The challenges may be a little different. Certainly water management has been a major challenge of sustaining a city here. But I think what's misperceived is it's a challenge that's impossible to meet. We wouldn't be here if we hadn't figure out it out. That doesn't mean we can rest on our laurels but it does mean that that's the kind and character of a challenge that we can deal with. The heat is another example. Again, different cities have different climate challenges. Hot is something we understand. It's something we've been able to deal with for a long time. Climate change will probably make it get somewhat hotter here but that's the same character of challenge we've had in the past, unlike sea level rise in the lower Manhattan or New Orleans area. That's a big different thing they're going to have do deal with in the future.

Ted Simons: And your book you mentioned Andrew Ross, world's least sustainable place, Phoenix.

Grady Gammmage Jr.: Frankly, he doesn't even try to defend the subtitle and I recommend his book to people. It has a lot of insights about this place. But I don't think this is the world's least sustainable city.

Ted Simons: You quote Simon Winchester , "one of three U.S. cities that should never have been built. "
Grady Gammmage Jr.: Yeah, I give Andrew more credit for understanding Phoenix than I do Simon Winchester. He wrote a book about the San Francisco earthquake called a crack at the edge of the world and at the end of an interview on N.P.R., and one on PBS, I heard them both, he would go off on a tangent and say that the three American cities that should never have been built were San Francisco, New Orleans and Phoenix. San Francisco because of the fault, New Orleans because it was just post-hurricane Katrina and Phoenix because there's no water there. Well, if the first two of those are true, those are bigger challenges frankly than Phoenix's water challenge. Water is a portable commodity. Any city is by definition a concentration of people that draw on a larger area of resources. We just have to move water farther than most places do but other places have to move concrete or steel or food long distances and moving water is something we've figured out a long time ago.

Ted Simons: We have figured it out but figured it out by way of the Colorado river in great part and there are those that argue the Colorado river allocations are always iffy. They're there, they're contractually obligated but it always seems as though there's a fight just laying right under the surface.

Grady Gammmage Jr.: And that's right. There is. You may have seen in the Arizona republic this morning, the director of the Arizona department of water resources is following a great Arizona tradition, which is to be out in front on water challenges, not to lead from behind but to think about and anticipate them and tom has been out negotiating what just became public in a very embryonic form, it's not a done deal yet, it would have us take some more shortage earlier point in time but in exchange for that, we wouldn't have to take all of the shortage at the end. To get the C.A.P. built, we became the junior right holder in central Arizona. Well, this would begin to give us some protection against the impact of that and that's a really good thing.

Ted Simons: Okay so the future of the Suburban City is the title. Define suburban city and is there a future for that thing?

Grady Gammmage Jr.: Yeah, okay. So what I mean by suburban city is the post-World War II city, which grew up largely based on the automobile, which is largely an urban fabric of single family homes. In Phoenix's case, relatively dense single family homes, we're not a remarkably low density city. We're pretty dense by suburban city standards. And many of these cities are in the arid west and many are in the sun belt all the way across the country. And the difference between a Suburban city and a more traditional city is that less of it is concentrated around the downtown, frankly, and because it grew up post-automobile, it has a more dispersed urban form. There is a school of thought, largely headquartered in the northeastern United States and the Pacific Northwest that the only cities that are sustainable are the classic high density downtown industrial cities, an urban fabric built around the automobile is going to be unsustainable going into the future because we won't be able to afford petroleum, because automobiles are wasteful, because we should rely more on mass transit. I think some of that is correct. It is more sustainable to live at somewhat higher densities but you can't write off the way 80% of the American public lives as unsustainable or you're not going to rebuild the whole country in the image of Greenwich village, it doesn't work that way. You've got to think about the existing suburban form and make it more dense, introduce mass transit, introduce light rail as we have here, and then on top of that, you have to recognize that between alternative energy, electric cars, and autonomous cars, there is a future for the personal mobility vehicle that will make the suburban form accessible to people.

Ted Simons: With that and statewide plumbing, the way we get our water that a lot of people simply do not understand between water banking and between the canals and the reservoirs with S.R.P. and the Colorado river, between all of that, are you suggesting that maybe a new definition for sustainability is called for?

Grady Gammmage Jr.: You know, one of the dilemmas of sustainability is it's a phrase everybody uses and nobody's entirely sure what it means. A dilemma when you say is a place sustainable or not is what is the place you're talking about? So what I found about these ratings of the sustainability of cities is they tend to look at a city, at that spot where the city is and decide whether or not it's sustainable and they look at things like is the infrastructure keeping up with the people who live there? Well, that rating system disadvantages growing cities because they're always behind in building infrastructure so in that scale, Detroit looks really sustainable and Houston appears to be in big trouble because they're behind, because they're behind on infrastructure. That doesn't make very much sense. So it seems to me you need to think about the logical resource area that supports a city and Arizona is one of the most urban states in the union. We actually are very concentrated in terms of where people live versus the resource area that supports them, and I think if you do that, and you begin to think of sustainability in more logical geography, you translate to a better way of defining and viewing the sustainability of places.

Ted Simons: Phoenix does need to evolve and it does need to change. People, they continue to flock here and the population continues to increase, that has to put pressure on infrastructure.

Grady Gammmage Jr.: It does. It puts pressure on all kinds of hings. I think we need to find ways to become more dense, and I think we're doing that, if you think about Tempe, I know you're very familiar with, we're getting lots of infill housing. It creates political tension between people who are in older single family homes when they see the density that's coming in but we need to become more dense and let's use water as another exemplar here. We're going to have to tough making choices. Our past world view has been when we bump up against a limit we need to get more water, we needed to get the C.A.P. funded. We bumped up against a ground water limit, we passed the ground water management act. We're going to need to make choices do we want agriculture to survive? Do we want to preserve the lifestyle of the people who live here which includes private swimming pools and lush landscaping? Or would we rather have a lot more people here? What kind of industries do we want to encourage to move here? Can we find good jobs that are less water consumptive in character? All of those things that we have to start thinking our way through and dealing with. There are challenges to sustaining Phoenix.

Ted Simons: I know you're going to be at changing hands bookstore tomorrow.

Grady Gammmage Jr.: The Phoenix location.

Ted Simons: You're there tomorrow night to talk much more about this but as far as the book -- who is the book written for? There are a lot of rebuttals in here, even our conversation has been a casual argument, they don't what they're talking about.

Grady Gammmage Jr.: It's written for two kinds of people. One is for people outside of Phoenix who want to casually dismiss Phoenix as a demographic mistake, that people should never have lived here. That's one audience. The other audience is people in Phoenix and the very specific message for them is the biggest challenge of sustainability for Phoenix or anywhere else is whether you are capable of making the decisions you need to make to deal with the challenges you face. We've been good at that here, about water, about transportation, about infrastructure, but the political dynamic that is operative in Arizona and in the United States in general today is not one of realizing that government is the solution to a lot of problems. We have this sort of mantra that government's the problem. Well, we wouldn't be here but for collective action through government to make it possible and we need to continue to recognize that.

Ted Simons: In the book you mentioned the impact of government policy on the growth and history of Phoenix it's huge whether people want to admit it or not.

Grady Gammmage Jr.: Yeah, and frankly but for the federal government and its investment in the territories of the arid lands of the west, we couldn't live here.

Ted Simons: All right. So can Phoenix survive in the long run? Will Phoenix hit build-out quicker than perhaps non-suburban cities, non-western suburban cities?

Grady Gammmage Jr.: I think your first question is can Phoenix survive in the long run, and I think the answer is yes. Will we hit build-out earlier? I'm not even sure we know what build-out means. So much depends on the way in which we choose to live in a place. I could do calculations for you that would show the possibility that Phoenix could have 10 million people in it. Do I think that's a good idea? Probably not. I would prefer it not be like that. I've been here a long time, I like what has happened in this city. But there's a point at which I would rather preserve some of what we've had in the past, even if it means we can't grow quite as far into the future.

Ted Simons: Good to have you here, thanks for joining us. The book, the future of the suburban city, changing hands tomorrow night in Phoenix.

Grady Gammmage Jr.: 7:00.

Ted Simons: All right, sounds good.

Grady Gammage: Senior Fellow at the Morrison Institute and a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU

National Park Centennial

Endeavour Watch Party

“Endeavour” Season 9 Watch Party!

Birdwatching Across Arizona
airs June 7

Birdwatching Across Arizona

Super Why characters

Join a Super Why Reading Camp to play, learn and grow

National Memorial Day Concert image
aired May 28

National Memorial Day Concert

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: