Grady Gammage, an Ahwatukee resident and one of the state’s foremost land-use attorneys, said Phoenix is years ahead of most every other metro region in the country in sustainability practices, particularly groundwater regulation.
Kimberly Carrillo/AFN Photographer

The Valley is not the poster child for sustainability, but if Grady Gammage Jr. has his way, it soon could be.

The noted Ahwatukee land-use and zoning attorney literally wrote the book on why Phoenix and its surrounding cities should be commended for prudent planning and development.

Gammage, who recently authored “The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix,” delivered the keynote address at the SRP 2017 Forum, which focused on sustainability and development in the East Valley. Salt River Project hosted the event along with East Valley Partnership.

Gammage addressed what he claims are five incorrect indictments of Valley cities, including that they have no water, consume too much energy and rely too heavily on automotive transportation and urban sprawl.

He countered these claims by illustrating the ways in which local governments and utilities in Arizona have planned for the unique conditions in the desert over time. For instance, Arizona has regulated groundwater since 1980 and California only began doing so in 2015.

He also pointed out that Arizona has a water management system designed to deal with variability.

“What the SRP reservoirs do, and SRP’s groundwater [supplies] that they still have, is they take a highly variable input and smooth it,” said Gammage.

He also cited a Brookings study that showed that Phoenix, long criticized for urban sprawl, actually converted rural land to residential use at 1.48 acres per new home between 1980 and 2000 – below the national average 2.0 acres during the same span.

“The last criticism that you’ll hear a lot is that Phoenix is just a giant Ponzi scheme where people just sell real estate to each other. That’s really kind of true,” Gammage said, eliciting laughs from the audience. “This is the one that I think is maybe the most justifiable criticism.”

Gammage then pointed out that Phoenix’s economy is actually more diverse than those of New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, according to information from Urban Land Institute. However, he did note that in-migration and homebuilding have buoyed the local economy historically and that will likely have to change.

While Gammage’s speech focused on traditional sustainability topics such as water scarcity and energy use, those are not the only factors that affect long-term sustainable development. In Mesa, for instance, education, efficient economic development, and public health also play a role.

City of Mesa development services director Christine Zielonka addressed the subject as part of a four-person expert panel following Gammage’s speech. The panel also included Steve Betts, senior advisor to the Holualoa Companies and Hines Development; Marc Campbell, manager of sustainability policy and programs at Salt River Project; and Steve Sossaman of Sossaman Farms.

Zielonka focused her opening remarks on city leadership’s top-down approach to developing a resilient economy that can sustainably grow over time. “One of our biggest challenges… is getting developers to get on board with the concept of a more resilient economy,” she said.

Betts, an experienced developer, agreed. However, he does see developers rethink their standard economic model to focus less on home building and “building outward” and direct more resources toward infill development, building inward and upward and creating walkable urban spaces.

“This [recession] was different,” said Betts. “I think this one was so severe, and for Arizona and the Valley it was so severe that it caused all of us to grow and rethink a little bit how we grow and how we build.”

Infill projects take advantage of existing infrastructure at a time when developers do not have the funds to build new infrastructure, said Betts.

Gammage, who aColorful costumes and breathtaking dancing are hallmarks of Ahwatukee dance instructor Kimberly Lewis' productions and her production of "I'm Home" Saturday at Desert Vista High School is no exception, as these photos show.lso moderated the panel, posed a question as to how cities like Mesa can deal with “shopping centers that are dying” as a result of many forms of retail moving to the Internet.

“I think you get really creative and really flexible,” Zielonka said. “You find ways, not necessarily just by putting money on the table, to incentivize the reuse of those buildings.”

Those methods include revisiting building codes to remove or modify prohibitive regulations.

Another way the city attracts business is focusing on the “quality and speed” of how business gets done, said Zielonka.

Part of attracting new businesses is providing quality utilities and infrastructure. SRP, for its part, views a push toward sustainability as a smart business move because it provides better costs and less risk for consumers.

However, despite the buy-in from city leadership and SRP, one barrier is education.

“I will say the thing I get pushback on a lot is our education system,” says Betts. “They keep hearing a lot about the fact that we’re down here at 48th or 49th [ranked] in terms of our education system, so I oftentimes have to defend that.”

Betts went on to note that industry professionals he interacts with are impressed by Arizona’s university and community college systems.

In addition to education, jobs and development, Zielonka also made a point to signal out public health as a key cog in sustainable development and emphasized the need to create recreational spaces for residents and promote healthy living.

This move toward public health could include the creation of pocket parks but also includes focusing on developing urban agriculture Gilbert as a way to provide walkable outdoor spaces.

The amount of acres used for agriculture in Arizona has not changed much in recent years, but farming has increasingly moved away from cities, said Sossaman.

A push to increase urban agriculture could not just increase those walkable spaces but also cut down on the carbon emissions caused by transporting food long distances and also work to fight the problem of hunger in the community.

“How can we truly be a sustainable community as long we have hungry [residents] in our midst?” said SRP’s Campbell. “When we start to think about that — how do we really play our assets to, water in particular, to bring some local farms back into the community, so we can address some of those food deserts? That is a really big area that I have thought a lot about.”

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