Sustainable? Phoenix?

19 thoughts on “Sustainable? Phoenix?”

  1. God save us all from the easily led!!!

    Phoenix Temps for the last 30 years
    Hottest month of 1986 was June – average daily high 105°F
    Hottest month of 1987 was June – average daily high 106°F
    Hottest month of 1988 was July – average daily high 107°F
    Hottest month of 1989 was July – average daily high 109°F
    Hottest month of 1990 was June – average daily high 107°F
    Hottest month of 1991 was July – average daily high 105°F
    Hottest month of 1992 was July – average daily high 104°F
    Hottest month of 1993 was July – average daily high 104°F
    Hottest month of 1994 was June – average daily high 105°F
    Hottest month of 1995 was July – average daily high 106°F
    Hottest month of 1996 was July – average daily high 105°F
    Hottest month of 1997 was July – average daily high 105°F
    Hottest month of 1998 was July – average daily high 105°F
    Hottest month of 1999 was August – average daily high 103°F
    Hottest month of 2000 was July – average daily high 106°F
    Hottest month of 2001 was August – average daily high 104°F
    Hottest month of 2002 was June – average daily high 106°F
    Hottest month of 2003 was July – average daily high 108°F
    Hottest month of 2004 was July – average daily high 105°F
    Hottest month of 2005 was July – average daily high 108°F
    Hottest month of 2006 was June – average daily high 106°F
    Hottest month of 2007 was July – average daily high 106°F
    Hottest month of 2008 was June – average daily high 106°F
    Hottest month of 2009 was July – average daily high 108°F
    Hottest month of 2010 was July – average daily high 105°F
    Hottest month of 2011 was August – average daily high 108°F
    Hottest month of 2012 was June – average daily high 105°F
    Hottest month of 2013 was June – average daily high 107°F
    Hottest month of 2014 was July – average daily high 106°F
    Hottest month of 2015 was August – average daily high 107°F

    1. As to your video, no one is planning to destroy all the suburbs. Some people want to live in these boxes; some will accept them because they can’t afford the suburbs, or because the suburbs are too far away from work. We need both/and.

  2. What I wonder about is not whether Phoenix ‘can’, but why it would bother. Yes, lots of people living there, many dedicated to place, etc. But NYC, NO, SF, LA, so many of these cities that are at risk in whole or part due to climate change have geographic reasons to exist that will not go away with sea-level rise. They may not be up to the challenge, but they have a reason. What innate reasons does Phoenix have? And this is an honest question, I haven’t been since I was 9 years old. But it seems that other than housing a state government (which may or may not exist after massive societal upheaval), being dry (which is great if you’re Doc Holliday), and being flat with few natural boundaries (which is great if you’re old or looking to take advantage of the systems we’ve built our economy upon).

    If you’re raison d’etre is ‘the livin is easy’, and the livin ceases to be easy, you have no raison.

    So over the course of 50 years or so the population halves and halves again, down to a more natural carrying capacity.

    Or is that too cataclysmic?

  3. Sometime when we see each other, I would love to chat with you on what else the book says about potable water.

    Outside of this source, I haven’t heard a lot of great things. And if Phoenix is an outlier of good management, it’s not a bell weather place to hold up to against other places in the desert SW much less well managed. As always, this is a discussion about expectations. Will civilization be much less in Phoenix without green golf courses? No, but for some that could signal the downfall even though it really isn’t. It’s just a realignment of expectations. Potable water though is a more difficult thing to deal with in region that large.

    Although I have talked to someone who studies climate change scenarios that says there’s a 30% chance based on simulations that places like Vegas and Phoenix end up in some kind of African Savannah like future climate where rain is much more prevalent seasonally. I can see long term storage on a widespread scale being a potable water solution, it just needs to rain a little more frequently. So even climate change working in its favor isn’t out the question as a possibility. That same model has Minnesota with climate more like Missouri. If there’s a 70% chance of it getting hotter and drier instead, that’s already taxing current strategies.

    I actually buy a lot of the other arguments regarding solar powered cooling (and or going back to adobe/masonry houses), some of the land use stuff (only if shanty towns of small buildings are allowed to occupy the large spaces in between 90s era car development – again expectations) since those problems will be faced by other places and the technology based nature of a solution will be scaled. I don’t like whole gadget green strategies because it means you have to have a functioning manufacturing supply chain (I hope there are a lot of AC part factories in AZ) to sustain over the long run. Plus really distributed knowledge on how to repair the units affordably.

    I just can’t get over the access to water part. Maybe it really is being done better there, but I just wonder how fragile that setup is over the scale of how spread out that region is. Perhaps you can tell me how much better they have it in AZ over Southern California or Nevada where I’ve witnessed it going very badly for years.

    Jim Kumon Executive Director

    Incremental Development Alliance

    612.875.1196 | Minneapolis, MN

    T: @incrementaldev @jimkumon

    FB: Small Scale Developers – IDA

    1. Jim – Grady Gammage makes some valid arguments. We need to stop thinking of places like Phoenix as parched versions of Minneapolis that can’t be saved and start thinking of them as different kinds of cities with alternative strengths and weaknesses that can be successfully managed. This is mostly about politics and culture. Arizona was good at this sort of thing earlier in its history. It could rise to the occasion again if the population was so inclined. (Big if.)

      As the saying goes, “Water flows uphill towards money.” Water for cities in dry regions isn’t the problem. For example, only 5% of the water used in California is for buildings. Only an additional 5% is used for lawns, trees, gardens, parks, and swimming pools. Another 10% is for industry. So even massive cities like Los Angeles are not big hogs in terms of water consumption. The giant sponge is the 80% that goes to agriculture. Legally, politically, and culturally it’s easier to regulate and economize water consumption in cities and suburbs than to arm wrestle agribusiness. And at the end of the day we all need to eat.

      In the case of Phoenix the city can grow from 5 million to 9 million without “running out” of water, but only at the expense of zero local agriculture and significantly higher energy use. Energy will continue to come mostly from coal and nuclear. Distributed solar is de facto dead in Arizona and Nevada after the large utilities arranged a series of coups in the legislatures. That’s currently the business-as-usual trajectory. I can see all sorts of unintended consequences, but time will tell.

      The water flowing out of the taps and sprinklers in Phoenix today comes from infrastructure that was built before many current residents were born. Water for them was very much an inheritance from previous generations. But let’s face it, the most organized and strident voters in Arizona today are of an age where they won’t be with us by the time additional big water projects finally come on line. Asking them to pay for such infrastructure isn’t easy when they’re convinced Big Government is evil and the water will only be squandered on illegal immigrants. That’s the real challenge – not the lack of water.

      Failure is an option. Phoenix might not get its shit together and people might migrate away to some greener pasture. But wet cities are going to have all sorts of parallel problems at the same time. Keeping all those glass skyscrapers and poorly insulated tract homes in Chicago and Toronto warm in an energy constrained future might be just as tricky as keeping Phoenix wet. And as we’ve seen in Flint, just because you have lots of water doesn’t necessarily mean you can drink it.

  4. Interesting contrarian read on Phoenix. Native Americans managed in the arid Southwest over a long period of time. The Japanese deal with regular devastating earthquakes without much drama. Italy has a similar climate to California, a smaller area & 20 million more people! Etc. Where there’s a will there’s a way. People are the problem more than the planet.

    But obviously the devil’s in the details and it usually takes a crisis to force real change. In other words, Americans aren’t gonna start living sustainably until the SHTF. We’ve seen glimpses of this during the CA drought, the spike in gas prices (remember that?) and the mortgage meltdown. Buckle up, it’s gonna be a rough century.

    1. Gammage’s main point is that the Phoenix metroplex is going to have to start making intentional choices in an organized manner in the years to come. The population could increase from five million to nine million without running out of water, but that would require all agriculture to stop as farm fields became subdivisions. That’s the business as usual model. So Phoenix would become dependent on imported food and the Valley would be even hotter as a result of more pavement and less vegetation. Or Phoenix could announce that it’s done expanding and it could densify by turning all the Jiffy Lubes into mixed use buildings along transit lines. If popular opinion resists that concept (think Scottsdale revolting with fire brands and pitch forks) Phoenix could go the way of California where all new growth is rejected and the market seizes up. The list goes on.

      The good news is Americans are so amazingly profligate that we can massively reduce our consumption and still live completely comfortable lives. All we really need to do is think about which frills we want to let go of in order to hold on to the really important stuff. There’s a lot less wiggle room in a place like India where people already scrape by on almost nothing. Are they going to stop eating those extravagant lentils?

      1. “The good news is Americans are so amazingly profligate that we can massively reduce our consumption and still live completely comfortable lives.”

        True that. Over the past couple years, we tore out our lawn, ditched one car and went more or less Pescatarian. Not out of concern for India’s lentil eaters mind you. Just thinking about my own time, money and health. Back of the napkin I halved my resource consumption? So easy. We got it made here.

        On the flip side, I was talking to a Chinese guy yesterday who had moved to the Bay Area less than a year ago. He said he liked it because there was less “competition for resources” and Americans value work/life balance. I doubt many Americans would describe San Francisco 2016 in that way but from his perspective (Shanghai) it’s easy street over here.

  5. New York has managed sea level rise with landfill over the years, and as Bjorn Lomberg argues they will be able to continue doing so.

    1. Manhattan and the expensive bits of NYC will be supplied with dykes and barrages against sea level rise. But what about all the fair-to-middling swaths of New Jersey and Long Island? There isn’t enough wealth there to justify the expense of massive infrastructure. Same here in the San Francisco area. Will there be a huge outcry to save Vallejo? The low laying parts of Oakland? I’m guessing a lot of stuff is going to be given the old heave-ho.

      1. Hey Johnny, I’ve been one of your lurkers for some time now. I’ve always want that I find a lot of your ideas very interesting, even if I don’t agree of some of your conclusions (I, for one, am even bearish about America’s future than you are).

        But back to the topic on hand. Oakland and Vallejo (and by extension the low-lying Central Valley) have the advantage of being hideously easy to protect, due to fact that you “only” need to dam the Golden Gate. Not saying it’s guaranteed to happen, just one possibility amongst many.

      2. Hi Johnny, I’ve been reading your blog for sometime now. I find a lot of your ideas to be very interesting and thought provoking, even if I find myself disagreeing with some of your conclusions (For one, I’m more bearish on Americas future than you are).

        But back to the matter at hand, Oakland and Vallejo have much more geography in their favor than does Long Island and New Jersey.

        1. People often think I’m a doomer. Not so. I think America runs in cycles and we just happen to be at the bottom of one. We’ll bounce back again, but first we need to work through a transition. Old institutions that used to work reasonably well inevitably become sclerotic and dysfunctional. No one gives up their position easily so there has to be a crisis that compels change. Then new institutions will emerge that work better – until they too get funky. Rinse. Repeat.

          1. I’m not really a dimmer myself, and I do believe that history rhymes a lot. However, I see certain factors in play that could make this particular period of crisis way worse than the last one we went through. (Like Transhumanism)

            And sorry for the double post.

      3. For the bay area, there’s the option of reviving the old megaproject of damming the golden gate.

        Yes, it’s been considered before; it’s why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a working hydraulic model of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento – San Joaquin River Delta System, which you can see in Sausalito.

        1. There are all kinds of problems with a dam at the Golden Gate.

          The bay is flushed twice daily as the tide comes and goes. Fresh river water from the Sacramento delta and brackish bay water mix with sea water that heads out to the Pacific. If the bay were cut off from the ocean all manner of sediment, pollutants, sewerage treatment plant discharge, and agricultural run off would stagnate all across the inland wetlands of northern California. The nutrient induced algae blooms and hypoxia could be messy.

          The disruption of shipping lanes would be hard to work around. Locks would be terribly slow and would have to be huge to accommodate super tankers and container ships. And there would have to be enormous pumps for the locks that would stress an already aging and fragile power grid.

          Yea, yea. I know. “Solar and wind.” It totally could be done from an engineering perspective like the Dutch or Danish or Singapore models. But good luck with getting funding from D.C. Building a sea wall for the Bay Area would be 1) admitting that the sea was in fact rising and 2) spending federal money – including some tiny amount from conservative states – on San Francisco liberals who are already plenty rich…

          How would state or local government pay for such a massive project? A parcel tax on every lot in a twelve county radius to save 1) wealthy land owners on premium waterfront locations? An additional half cent sales tax? A sin tax on carbon? I just don’t see it happening. Most municipalities and counties can’t pay for their own schools or minor road maintenance. I can already hear the rallying cry echoing from cul-de-sacs across the dry suburbs from hill to hill. “Think of the children!”

          The more politically expedient approach is to fortify the expensive real estate with hyper local tax assessments, then discreetly backstop the funding with money gleaned from the general fund in a series of invisible line items after the fact. Isn’t that how things get done?

          One of the convenient side effects of political gridlock and benign neglect is that large sections of low value property occupied by poor people will not survive the rising tide. All those folks will just have to go away – New Orleans style. Pobrecita.

          And then there are all the fish and marine mammals that travel between inland waterways and the ocean that would be cut off by a dam. Are we going to build a barrage with sea lion steps like they do with salmon?

  6. Miami is doomed because of its porous limestone foundation; New York City will use expensive Dutch engineering to survive. What will likely get Phoenix, if not water supply, is extreme heat. When the entire summer is over 110 degrees with temps not dipping under 90 at night, it will become a much less desirable place to live year around, especially when other parts of Arizona aren’t nearly as hot. Las Vegas faces the same problem. In addition, there’s also a growing trend for people to age in place, live near family for eldercare support, or live in multi-generation households, so it’s likely there will be fewer retirees flocking to Arizona to buy houses/condos as baby boomers die off.

    1. Notice the question marks in the title to this blog post. The long term sustainability of Phoenix is still open to debate. Time will tell. Extreme endless heat is something people in other parts of the world have adapted to over the centuries. It’s possible. It isn’t all that different from building a city like Saskatoon in the frozen northern prairies of Canada. People adapt. But that’s a different question than whether people will continue to choose to live in Phoenix relative to other available options. Phoenix is first and foremost a cheap and easy place to live – not a place that attracts masses of people looking to overcome obstacles or hardship. Take away the cheap and easy parts and what does Phoenix really have to offer?

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