Phoenix: What You Might Not Know About the Least Sustainable City

Phoenix is a city known for few things. When asked, people typically describe the Valley of the Sun in similar ways.     

“Hot” dominates the list, followed by “way too hot.” This label is justified, of course. Phoenix reigns as the hottest metropolis in the United States and is getting hotter. Some scientific models project Phoenix temperatures to hit 125 or 130 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050.  

“Sprawl” is also a common description. The capital flourished in the post-World War Two boom as automobile production increased and single-tract housing became affordable. Today, the city boasts over 1,500 lane miles of freeway extending across its impressive 517 square miles.

“Dry” is naturally synonymous with this fifth largest U.S. city, landlocked in the Sonoran desert. It’s a word often paired with its antonym: “water.”  Modern Phoenix would not exist without the engineering marvel of the Central Arizona Project, a canal bearing water 337 miles from Lake Mead to Arizona’s major cities. Even as drought continues to grip two-thirds of Arizona, the population in Phoenix increases at an annual rate of 12 percent as water shortage concerns mount.

It is these truths that led to perhaps the city’s most famous designation – “The Least Sustainable City in the World.” Bill Ross’ 2011 book Bird on Fire, awarded Phoenix this distinction based on its history of poor urban design and weak environmental policies. The narrative found popular appeal in Bacigalupi’s 2015 bestseller The Water Knife, a dystopian vision of a war-torn Phoenix fighting for water. It described a city plagued by problems Phoenicians know all too well. Violent dust storms. A dwindling Colorado River. Searing heat.

This all sounds pretty grim. It would cause anyone to wonder whether Phoenix should exist at all. Is it a city destined for disaster? Will it continue to be known only for sprawling swathes of single-tract homes and emerald golf-courses spiraling into the brown horizon?


Phoenix is changing – and for the better.

Take the great Rio Salado River. It hasn’t run through the city in more than a century, but Rio Salado Reimagined is a partnership working to bring it back. The Tres Rios Wetlands is another successful model for urban growth and sustainability. In collaboration with the City of Phoenix, a local treatment plant diverts wastewater to renew an old riparian environment, sheltering birds and plants while naturally cooling the surrounding area. The Grand Canal Space is another project seeking to return a cherished amenity of Phoenix to its former glory. Phoenix’s canal systems are nearly as extensive as its freeways, running throughout the valley along the same routes as the first irrigation pathways developed by the Hohokam over 1500 years ago. In renovating the neglected banks of these canals, the city hopes to recreate a lost riparian environment, foster community and decrease the urban heat island effect. Arizona State University has also emerged as a leader for environmental change in the city. In 2006, it established the nation’s first School of Sustainability and catalyzed numerous projects within Arizona and internationally.

Change can’t only be credited to government and academic projects. It’s also happening at the neighborhood level, driven by ordinary people.

Gail Letour in one of the community gardens she manages in Phoenix’s Sunnyslope neighborhood.

Gail Letour is one example. Known as ‘Garden Gail’, she manages multiple community gardens for Keep Phoenix Beautiful, a non-profit dedicated to improving communities through cleanup and recycling.

“This all looked like a gravesite when I first arrived,” Letour said, gesturing around her. “Dead and deserted.”

Four years later, the Mountain View Garden is far from that. Now, its raised beds brim with basil and garlic in a sharp contrast to the dry desert. With 28 beds renting for $10 each, the garden is meant to be both affordable and accessible to the community. In addition to managing the garden, Letour also engages children at the local elementary school and hosts coffee events and nighttime community gatherings at the garden.

“We took this area back,” Letour said, speaking of the park housing the garden. “If you offer people tomatoes, you’re offering them community.”

Mountain View Garden sits in Sunnyslope, a neighborhood spread across eleven square miles in Northwest Phoenix. Known for its quirky residents and small-town atmosphere, the area has struggled to keep pace economically with the rest of Arizona’s capital city. This is especially true alongside the Sevens, or the corridor between 7th Avenue and 7th Street, which has seen immense growth in recent years.

“The area west of 7th avenue is a whole other world compared to the east,” City of Phoenix Neighborhood Specialist Krista Roy said. “It’s diverse and historic, but you also have people from all walks of life, including many undocumented people, and there is a lack of trust.”

The garden is on the frontlines of a new and largely grassroots movement to revitalize the area. Recent new stories have heralded these efforts, which include a new coalition by local businesses, the attraction of a famous BBQ restaurant and a burgeoning artist community. For Roy and Letour, the potential for the garden to contribute to the wider social and economic change is clear.

“The garden in Sunnyslope is special because it’s opened a dialogue between folks who wouldn’t necessarily be in the same room,” Roy said. “It’s changed the dynamic residents have with government.”

A garden party at Mountain View Garden in Sunnyslope, Phoenix, AZ.

Driven by residents and businesses, this swell of positive belief in the possibility for the neighborhood to improve shows the intersection between sustainability, economics, and social change. Indeed, Roy attributes the garden to the success of a recent neighborhood cleanup she organized two days before, attended by 200 volunteers.

“Many of the folks who showed me how to prune my basil and dig up my potatoes were the same folks at the clean-up with a shovel in one hand and a trash bag in the other,” she said. “The garden helped pave the way.”

As the population increases even as temperatures rise, ensuring Phoenix can adapt to climate change means understanding the links between development and sustainability – an exploration happening daily across the city.  The garden is one example, among many, of Phoenicians coming together to create holistic solutions.

“Back east, you can only grow for four months or so,” Letour said, as she surveyed the Mountain View Garden.  “But here [in Phoenix], you can grow something every month of the year. You can always grow something.”

The main character in The Water Knife thought of Phoenix “as a sinkhole, sucking everything down – buildings, lives, streets, history – all of it tipping and spilling into the gaping maw of disaster.”  It is a harrowing and enticing image of urban collapse.

But, it’s far from inevitable.

About Amy Scoville-Weaver

A fourth-generation Phoenician, Scoville-Weaver’s family moved to Phoenix in 1913. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found hiking throughout Arizona. She holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the London School of Economics and Political Science and has worked in the environmental field for 10+ years. She currently works for Arizona State University.