Lessons From Phoenix, The Most Unsustainable City In The U.S.

Forget Portland and San Francisco: If we really want to understand the city of the future, we should look to the Arizona desert, where if they don’t figure things out, there won’t be a city anymore.

Lessons From Phoenix, The Most Unsustainable City In The U.S.
Tango Pango

Hydrologists talk about water “flow” in the West, but very few of the rivers flow naturally anymore, and many, like the mighty Colorado itself, rarely reach their destinations. Except for spasmodic floods, the Salt River has not really flowed through the Phoenix Basin since the early 20th century, and it exists today primarily as an orderly system of canals. In its natural heyday, it was a wildly erratic river, and so its flood plain was several miles broad. Today’s riverbed is a vast moonscape of sand and cobbles, though it is far from deserted. Cheap land and laissez-faire regulation have drawn in the region’s worst polluters over the years. For decades, it was used as a dumping ground for all manner of waste, some of it exported from neighboring states, like California, with more oversight over disposal of hazardous materials than Arizona.


From a commercial standpoint, the riverbed was the mother of all brownfield sites, zealously eyed by developers hoping to cut a deal with government agencies with fast-track access to federal cleanup funds. Dreams of converting the urban portions of the Salt River into a waterside attraction dated back to the 1960s when ASU design students conceived a restoration project under the alluring name of Rio Salado. Although the project was aimed more at urban redevelopment than at riparian restoration, the vote on a countywide property tax to fund it was defeated in 1987, thwarting those who had begun to imagine San Antonio’s Riverwalk in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Undaunted, the city of Tempe forged ahead with its own stretches of the Salt channel, creating a mammoth lake (with almost a billion gallons of precious Arizona water) to anchor its downtown redevelopment plans. Just off the lakefront, an anodyne mega-mall (Tempe Marketplace) sprang up on a complex Superfund site–the largest brownfield cleanup in the state’s history.

Acting on a federal mandate to restore degraded ecosystems, the Army Corps of Engineers conducted feasibility studies on the Phoenix portions of the Rio Salado from 1994 onward. This time, the focus was not on condos and hotels but on restoring an “accurate desert riparian habitat” for wildlife, and primarily for the recreational use of those who might be drawn to a riverscape. The final plan called for the creation of wetland ponds, groves of mesquite, cottonwood, willow, saltbush, and palo verde, and, curiously, a golf course–thrown in, no doubt, to whet the appetite of developers. A low-flow channel in the riverbed would be maintained by pumped groundwater. It was a dubious proposition to many of the city’s environmentalists (one of whom described it to me as a “gigantic mosquito breeding ground”), but the city of Phoenix moved ahead with a 600-acre chunk of the restoration, funded mostly with federal dollars, and today it hosts an Audubon Society nature education center. Replanted trees and other greenery give the spot an oasis feel, but those tempted to take their dogs down for a walk are advised to make sure their pets do not drink the water that trickles through.

Aside from the toxic legacy of several hundred dumps, the riverbanks, during the time of my visits, still hosted a multitude of sand and gravel mining operations. Valley Forward, a green membership organization for businesses, had been pushing a plan for the extractors to dredge a canal through the riverbed in return for extensive mining permits along a 50-mile stretch of Rio Salado. Firms that cooperated would have the opportunity to flip their reputation as bottom-feeders, literally as well as metaphorically, into that of restoration saints. That would be a remarkable PR feat. “I’m sure they deserve some of the bad rep they get,” acknowledged Diane Brossard, Valley Forward’s director, “but this would allow for the balance of economic growth and environmental quality. If the city had to pay to build that channel, it would cost millions of dollars. So let them go in, mine it, and build the channel. It’s a win–win situation, a wonderful landmark project that will create a recreation corridor that can connect cities and neighborhoods.”

On the floodplain perimeter were dozens of asphalt plants supplied by the sand and gravel mines. At nighttime, when inspectors from the county’s air quality agency were fast asleep, the plant furnaces and the mining machinery got cranked up, and the sky was an infernal cocktail of flares, dust, and smoke. The resulting pollution carried all over the metro area, but the most noxious impact was on those living nearby in South Phoenix. One of the asphalt plants I visited, operated by South Dakota–based Fisher Sand and Gravel Company, had been fingered by its neighbors as an outstanding health hazard. Arsenic, lime, and formaldehyde are only some of the many hazardous air pollutants associated with asphalt production, and the witch’s brew that spewed out of the Fisher batch plant’s 70-foot chimney had been linked to the deaths of several residents and the poor respiratory condition of many others.

Calls to shut down the plant from Concerned Residents of South Phoenix, a neighborhood coalition, and Don’t Waste Arizona, an environmental justice watchdog, eventually found a response in the halls of power. Operating since 2006 without a valid city permit, next to a mine that had been an illegal dump, the company was issued literally thousands of violation notices and fines by city, county, state, and federal agencies from 2007 onward. Fisher’s record of pollution violations elsewhere in Arizona and other Western states did not help its case, nor did the three-year prison sentence recently imposed on its owner for tax fraud. Facing criminal charges at the city and county level, the Fisher managers were ordered to close down the plant in February 2010, but continued to operate the neighboring mine, which had a grandfathered legal right to exist because it predated the area’s annexation by the city of Phoenix.

The shutdown was hailed by the neighborhood groups who had been first to raise the alarm, research the site, and bring public awareness to the violations. Yet veterans of these groups knew that Fisher’s conduct was not all that egregious, not when judged by Arizona’s lax regulatory culture, and least of all by the standards to which polluters were held in South Phoenix. That the facility operated in a location that allows residential zoning (asphalt plants usually require zoning for heavy industrial use) was not unusual in an area where residential pockets are frequently interspersed with factories. Before South Phoenix was incorporated into the city in 1960, its traditional barrios and ghettos coexisted with the region’s dirtiest industries, and the legacy of that public health nightmare is still alive and well in many neighborhoods.


Just as typical, according to the advocates, was the initial stonewalling from city and county agencies in the face of petitions from residents and activists. The sand and gravel industry (which had a $5.8 billion impact on the state’s economy) supplied the raw materials for road building and construction, and so it was an essential part of the growth machine. Fisher, it turned out, had enjoyed several lucrative contracts with the city (worth over $10 million since 2005), and had recently won contracts totaling $45 million from the Arizona Department of Transportation to supply the widening of Interstate 10 to facilitate access to new developments in the West Valley. More notably, the firm advertised itself as “the leading supplier of rubberized asphalt in the Phoenix metropolitan market.” Rubberized, or “crumb,” asphalt is a product of ground-up used tires and is associated with the sustainable wing of the industry. In addition to recycling tires, use of the product drastically reduces roadway noise. Arizona, and Phoenix in particular, pioneered rubberized asphalt overlay as a policy priority dating from the late 1960s, and Fisher, an industry leader in this process, operated mines and plants throughout the state. The company, which extracted and processed over 30 million tons of aggregate material annually, promoted itself nationally as an advocate of such “green” strategies.

Shutting down an essential player in the growth machine was not a step to be taken lightly, and so officials and lawmakers had to be lobbied hard on all sides before justice was served on the company. But the Fisher story also presented an illustrative paradox. The city’s use of crumb asphalt was being promoted as a key item in its sustainability portfolio at the same time as the product’s manufacture was sickening and killing nearby residents. This was only one of the many ironies that flowed from the long-standing use of minority-dominant South Phoenix as the preferred location for the region’s dirtiest industry. Leah Landrum Taylor, the feisty state senator who represented one of its districts, summed up the yawning environmental gap between her constituents and the affluent Anglos who enjoyed cleaner air and mountain preserves in the city’s northern suburbs: “Many of those people up there may own some of the companies that are polluting and doing this harmful danger to our community members, but they don’t live here and that’s where the difference lies.” “In my district,” she added, “we have one of the highest incidences of asthma in this nation.”

Landrum Taylor’s most enduring legislative effort was to require companies to report to an electronic database any hazardous substances stored on their premises. In the event of a fire or a large spill, which, she pointed out, “was a regular occurrence” in South Phoenix, “first responders would now know what they had inside the buildings.” Environmental justice was one of the top issues that had propelled her into state politics. “When I looked at a map and saw how many clusters of hazardous material companies are right here, as opposed to spread out throughout the state, it blew me away and just got me on fire.” Nor, in her mind, did the situation appear to be changing. “Phoenix is not getting any smaller,” she observed, “and yet the city is still issuing new permits for companies that are conveniently coming into my district. Why should we have a permitting process which allows that?”

Reprinted with permission from Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World’s Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross published by Oxford University Press, Inc. © 2011 Oxford University Press.

About the author

Andrew Ross is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. He is the author of Fast Boat to China, The Celebration Chronicles, Nice Work if You Can Get It, and No-Collar.