Plight of Phoenix: how long can the worlds ‘least sustainable’ city survive?

Set deep in the Valley of the Sun, the lush and sprawling megalopolis has a problem the rivers

Jennifer Afshar and her husband, John, propagandized their bicycles across the grass and paused to savor the sunshine, while their two boys went to look at the duck pond. Other adolescents were playing football or doing jokes in the skate common, and pedigrees picnicked on cloaks or fired up a barbecue across from the swimming pool.

We moved here from Los Angeles, to get away from the rising cost of living and the traffic, alleged Jennifer. When we saw this park, we thought they were punking us it was so good. Theres low-toned atrocity, the home owners association takes great care of the grass and trees we like it.

The Afshars live in the squeaky-clean suburb of Anthem, Arizona. Its part of a beings conurbation of satellite townships bordering Phoenix, and is a classic example of why this metropolitan or megapolitan locality is tempting fate.

Twenty years ago, Anthem leapt out of maiden desert, a community masterplanned from scratch with academies, shops, diners and comfortable residences numerous behind high walls and electronic gates and its own country club and golf course. It now has a population of 30, 000.

To look around Anthem would be to imagine “were not receiving” such thing as a irrigate scarcity. But the lush vegetation and ponds is not occur naturally. Phoenix gets less than eight inches of rainfall each year; most of the water supply for central and southern Arizona is pumped from Lake Mead, fed by the Colorado river over 300 miles away. Anthems private make paid a neighbourhood Native American tribe to lease some of its historic spray freedoms, and pipes its sea from the nearby Lake Pleasant reservoir too filled by the Colorado.

That river is drying up. This winter, snow in the Rocky Mountains, which feeds the Colorado, was 70% lower than average. Last-place month, the American government is estimated that two one-thirds of Arizona is currently facing severe to extreme drought; last-place summer 50 flights were grounded at Phoenix airport because the heat which made 47 C( 116 F) attained the breath very thin to take off safely. The heat island influence saves temperatures in Phoenix above 37 C( 98 F) at night in summer.

Phoenix and its smothering country is known as the Valley of the Sun, and downtown Phoenix which in 2017 pas Philadelphia as Americas fifth-largest city is easily walkable, with diners, tables and an evening buzz. But it is a modern temple to towering cement, and commits highway to endless sprawling that stretches up to 35 miles away to homes like Anthem. The neighbourhood is still flourishing and is dangerously overstretched, experts warn.

There are plans for substantial further growth and there exactly isnt the sea to patronize that, articulates climate researcher Jonathan Overpeck, who co-authored a 2017 report that associated declining flows in the Colorado river to climate change. The Phoenix metro area is on the cusp of being dangerously overextended. Its the urban bullseye for global warming in north America.

One of those plans is Bill Gatess brand-new smart municipality. The Microsoft founder recently vested $ 80 m( 57 m) in new developments conglomerate that aims to construct 80,000 new dwellings on undeveloped land west of Phoenix, and a brand-new freeway all the way to Las Vegas.



Despite year-round sunshine, Arizona only extracts 2-5% of its exertion from solar power. Picture: Deirdre Hamill/ AP
Another firm wants to build a master-planned parish, like Anthem, south of Tucson, and posed after the hilltop cities of Tuscany. It fantasizes five golf course, a vineyard, parks, lakes and 28,000 dwellings. The promotional video does not contain any detailed information on where all the ocean will come from, but boasts: This is the American dream: what it is you miss you can have.

What these cities require is ocean. The Phoenix area draws from groundwater, from big flows to the east, and from the mighty Colorado. The Hoover Dam accommodates lots of the Colorado's flow in the immense Lake Mead basin, but the river itself is sorely depleted. That sea has now dropped to within a few feet of positions that California, Nevada and Arizona, which all rely on it, weigh as official scarcities. Lake Powell, the reservoir at the other extremity of the Grand Canyon, similarly averages half its historic levels.

And hitherto despite the federal Bureau of Reclamation reporting in 2012 that droughts of five or more times would happen every decade over the next 50 times, greater Phoenix has not certified any spray rules. Nor has the position authority decided its official drought event proposal.

Theres a tremendous fight over all this, answers Jim Holway, vice president of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. Climate change is having an impact but that's a contentious, unsettled matter in the countries of the western US.

Sprawl is the norm

As a hummingbird scooted to a shrub near Tollways swimming pool Phoenix from above is a off-color mosaic of back-garden pools Holway has pointed out that the Valley of the Sun may have to choose between agriculture and farther urbanisation. Twenty years ago, when he moved here, his home inspected out on to citrus woodlands and flower farms. Now the valley is dominated by mega-farms germinating winter vegetables for exportation and thirsting alfalfa for the cattles feed marketplace. Do we want to grow houses or pastures? he asks.

The conversation in Arizona even moves periodically to the preposterous ideas of sucking liquid from the Great Lakes 1,700 miles away, or build expensive desalination floras on the Pacific Ocean, instead of imposing water restrictions.

Greater Phoenix is good at recycling waste water, but the majority of members of it is used for refrigerating the Palo Verde nuclear power plant to the west of the town, the largest in the US and the only one not on its own body of water. Conversely, the ocean district is Arizona's biggest energy customer, because it has to spouted the irrigate uphill from the Colorado along miles of canals into Phoenix and Tucson. And most of that electricity comes from the heavily polluting, coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in the north of the state.

Meanwhile, despite experiencing more than 330 epochs of colors sunshine a year, Holway estimates that Arizona merely receives 2-5% of its force from solar power.



The Navajo Generating Station in north Arizona. Photo: Alamy
Phoenix is extreme but not alone. Most American metropolitan use more resources than needed and thats the method they were designed, says Sandy Bahr, chairman of the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club. There is overconsumption and a expendable mentality. Our garbage is taken to remote landfill sites, the cities are designed for gondolas, and sprawl is the norm.

In his 2011 journal Bird on Fire, the New York University sociologist Andrew Ross labelled Phoenix the least sustainable metropoli in the world. He says he stands by his assessment and warns of an eco-apartheid, whereby low-income districts on the more polluted south side of the Salt River( which formerly spurted energetically through the city and is now a seep) are less able to protect themselves from the heat and drought than wealthier citizens.

Q& A

What is the Overstretched Cities series?

Overstretched Cities is an in-depth look at how urbanisation has appreciated metropolitans all over the world sprout in sizing, putting new strain on infrastructure and natural resources but in some cases offering hope for a more sustainable rapport with the natural world.

Over the course of the week, Guardian Cities matches will look beyond the numbers to tell the stories of people affected by the 21 st century's person and intake boom. From sprawling cities in the developed world the hell is downing more than their fair share of energy and sea, to less wealthy municipalities unequipped to handle the rapid increase in geographic and population size, we will ask this world phenomenon by talking to the people who are trying to mitigate its bad upshots and glitter a light on the upside of human populations boom by researching the social and environmental advantages of metropolitan density.


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Theres a stark inequality, he responds. The aid shelters, with their hybrid vehicles, their solar panel and other light-green thingamajigs; and the tribes on the other side struggling to breathe clean breath and imbibe uncontaminated spray. Its a prediction of where the world is headed.

Or, he responds, you can just look at the past. The Hohokam people were the original irrigators of the valley that subsequently became home to Phoenix. Their civilization, numbering an estimated 40,000, crumbled in the 15 th century for grounds believed to relate to disagreements over scarce water.

This week, the Overstretched Cities line investigates the impact of the rushing to urbanization, which has heard metropolitan around the world explode in length. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to join the discussion, and explore our archive here



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