Ahwatukee attorney and land-use expert Grady Gammage Jr. said he sees some fair criticisms in a United Nations-supported study that gave Phoenix only middling grades on reaching international sustainability goals.
The study by a U.N.-backed nonprofit called the Sustainable Development Solutions Network scored the 100 most-populous U.S. cities on the Sustainability Development Goals set by the United Nations. Those include criteria such as poverty levels, water scarcity, climate action and economic growth.
The Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metropolitan area ranked a middling 43rd in the U.N.-backed study, the first time that the sustainability goals have been applied to cities instead of countries. Tucson finished 57th in the report.
“I would say something about this study that is different is that it is mostly about social issues, looking at things like education and social policy when most of the systems I am critical of are looking at infrastructure,” Gammage said.
“In that way, I think this study is a fairer criticism, especially about education,” he said. “I think there are a number of things in here where Phoenix could definitely do better.”
Even so, Gammage, senior fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said the study was not definitive.
“The thing about these studies is that they are just snapshots,” Gammage said. “The history is that cities have been able to deal with these problems over time.”
Gammage authored “The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix.”
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said in his State of the City address this year that Phoenix had been “recognized for our leadership on sustainability.”
Scores on each of the 16 criteria were color-coded from green for good through yellow, orange and then red for the worst.
Tucson and Phoenix each had just one green score, for responsible consumption and production.
But Phoenix had four reds – for poverty levels, hunger levels, climate action and “strong institutions” – while Tucson got reds for those four plus gender equality and decent work and economic growth.
Mihir Prakash, a consultant for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, said the study is meant to work as an advocacy tool to help localize the U.N.’s environmental agenda.
“There is actually a lot of precedence for this,” Prakash said. “If you look at the Paris Climate Accord, mayors signed it and were able to see how localization of global agreements can actually benefit them.”
Stanton was one of 175 U.S. mayors to sign a letter pledging to uphold the Paris agreement after President Donald Trump announced in June that the U.S. would pull out of the accord.
The highest-ranking cities were San Jose, Seattle and Provo – cities that Gammage said “all seem to be affluent,” which he called “a bit troubling.” Gammage said it is important to note the socioeconomic disparity when viewing the ranking.
The study includes a dire warning that must adopt “a more sustainable and integrated approach” and develop “sustainable infrastructure, decent jobs, high-quality education and peaceful communities” to survive.
Gammage took a more positive view, saying that cities will survive regardless of any number of hardships they may face.
“Cities are self-regulating, living things that when things go poorly they are able to adapt,” he said. “Houston will come out of this (recent flooding) with changes to their system in regards to flooding. So, my view is that cities can weather mostly any storm.”