Grady Gammage is the author of The Future of the Suburban City.
Q: You write that “The ultimate question of sustainability is how a particular place deals with its particular challenges over time.” With this in mind, how can other suburban cities extract lessons from Phoenix’s successes to work towards their own sustainable future?
A: I think it probably works better to think about the resilience of cities in reacting to particular challenges. The advantage of “resilience” over “sustainability” is that it focuses on the unique dilemmas of individual places. So, first, identify unique threats to your city: fires; hurricanes; earthquakes; long term water supply; air quality; flooding, etc. If you want New Orleans to be sustainable, work on how to deal with hurricanes and sea level rise. If you’re in Phoenix, think about heat and water supply.
Don’t get lost in how many LED light bulbs you have in City Hall. It’s good to convert to lower energy use and it’s great to recycle more trash. Every city needs to do those things. But it doesn’t define how sustainable your city is. Here’s a recent example of a misguided rating of risk preparedness by “State at Risk.” California got an A for drought preparedness while Arizona got a D+. The reason? California has more policies called “drought preparedness plan.” But Arizona has banked 10 years-worth of urban water consumption to protect against drought. The rating totally missed that point.
Q: Water is an issue that plays a big role in the southwest. How have or should suburban cities be managing water? How do agricultural and development needs stay in balance?
A: The big issue in arid region suburban cities is the use of water in landscaping. That’s where future conservation must occur. Balancing that with lifestyle and climate is a tricky equation. I think it’s important that agriculture survive in the arid west. It’s been too easy in Central Arizona, for example, to convert farms to subdivisions and assume that the water savings will make everything ok. Urban water use is much harder to curtail in times of drought, and therefore sometimes less resilient.
Most critiques of arid region American cities fail to realize how dramatic conservation has been over the last couple of decades. The State of Arizona today uses the same amount of water it did in 1957, with nearly 5 times as many people. Just extrapolating current trends, Phoenix projects their water demand will be basically flat for the next decade. Las Vegas has cut per capita water use by 35% in the last decade.
Q: You dive into a deep history of the Phoenix region. What can be gained from looking to historical policies and trends as a city looks to a more sustainable future?
A: Phoenix has done an extraordinary job of securing and managing its water supply. Historically the issue was simply viewed as too important to be politicized. There was an absolute bipartisan consensus about the need to acquire, store, deliver and protect water. That’s why the last time one state brandished arms against another was Arizona sending the National Guard to scare off California from building a diversion dam. “Absolute consensus” is hard to come by about anything today. We’ve lost sight of the fact that the point of government is to use collective action to manage through threats. The dramatic decline in urban water use throughout the arid west is the result of education, rate structures, incentives and regulation. All those things were policies of local governments that furthered the sustainability of the region.
Q: Suburban cities were built around the automobile. What will its role be in the future of the suburban city? What about self-driving cars and mass transit?
A: We cannot change the single family home fabric, in which 80% of Americans live, into Greenwich Village. Personal mobility vehicles are necessary to make suburban cities survive. They’ll be smaller, lighter, not powered by internal combustion and largely autonomous. It drives me crazy that transportation discussions tend to divide into red/blue camps based on “transit is a huge waste of money” vs. “cars are evil”. Both are necessary pieces of the future.
The future in a suburban city is getting in your Google car in the morning and either heading to a nearby co-working environment or going to a transit stop that gets you downtown. Multi modal isn’t just necessary for cities, it’s the way individuals will live.
Q: Do you think myriad transportation options will work in suburban cities? What impact do you think they will have on suburban sustainability?
A: Places like Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake and San Diego are all having success with rail systems. Cities will change their character to react with higher density along rail lines. Bus rapid transit is a more affordable way to connect “sprawling” urban fabric. And smaller lighter vehicles will solve the “problem of the last mile” connecting single family homes to transit options. We also need to recognize that transportation issues are often being solved with non-transportation solutions. Most of my law partners do not commute at rush hour any more. They get up, turn on their laptop at home, and work until the traffic has cleared. We don’t have to forever accommodate peak rush hour by building ever wider freeways.
Q: The federal government is lagging behind in enacting strong policies that tackle climate change. Do cities, specifically suburban cities, have advantages over bigger government for creating innovative, transformative policy?
A: Most sunbelt cities have nonpartisan municipal elections, and many have the council/manager form of government. That means their decisions tend to focus on practical solutions rather than scoring philosophical points. Most of the time city government actually still works the way it is supposed to. If it were up to me, I’d get rid of the two party system for managing government. I think it’s an anachronism from a time when communication was slow, clunky and lacked feedback loops. Times have changed. Millennials are increasingly voting as independents.
Local government is about efficiency and responsiveness, not ideology and rhetoric. That sometimes makes the decisions seem small and less consequential. But small decisions getting actually decided matters a lot more than big decisions that sit in gridlock.
Q: Is there anything that urban cities can learn about sustainability from suburban cities?
A: Suburban cities are inherently scalable: single family homes and roadways are easy to add in manageable and easily adaptable increments. When your college aged kid needs to move back home, it’s easier to enclose your garage or put him in the basement, or add a guest house on the back of your lot. The future of multi-generational living is far easier to accommodate in the single family fabric. Densifying suburban cities is a trend that will accelerate.
And affordability is an inherent part of making a place sustainable—if only rich people can live in your city, you have to question its long term viability, and recognize the impacts it has on surrounding areas. The average working person in Phoenix can afford the median priced home. That isn’t true in San Francisco. That difference needs to factor into the sustainability equation
Q: Was there anything you found in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?
A: I was surprised by the simplistic analysis of a number of sustainability rating systems. For example, cities where infrastructure needs are lagging behind are often dinged as unsustainable. That means growing cities are unsustainable because they’re always playing catch up. So cities people are leaving, and which have shrinking populations look more sustainable. That seems crazy. But none of the rating systems that found this result seemed interested in asking: “Why are the cities we think are unsustainable the ones that are booming? Could we be missing something?”
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
A: Cities aren’t unsustainable because of climate or geography. The reach of technology and a global economy means that particular challenges like heat or less rain won’t necessarily doom the future of places. The verdict of sustainability is written in the capacity to react and adapt. It’s ultimately about politics and the continuing viability of the social compact.