Feeding the Sun Corridor: Exploring Arizona’s Zero Sum Game

Perceptions of Sustainability

Sustainability is thephoenix2 paradigm of our age.i Architects, urban planners, real estate developers, technology companies, college campuses, food distributors, nearly everyone is doing it. Regrettably, conversation surrounding sustainability is commonly directed at one, shallow resolve: proclaiming whether something is or is not sustainable. 

Use these biodegradable sponges, they’re sustainable!

Don’t buy a vehicle, it’s unsustainable!

Build this home, it’s sustainable!

A more complex understanding of sustainability is necessary to arrive at meaningful solutions. At a fundamental level, we should be critical of the term for its assumption that trusts true sustainability is even possible in an inherently unpredictable world. Inevitably, all things enter and fall out of cycle (certainly this is one reason resiliency is working its way into the mix). Still, sustainability is a concept that drives our thinking, influences our purchases, and directs our policy decisions. Logically, we value the idea that our economic, environmental, and social systems are structured in such a way that they may continue without entirely exhausting global resources. So how do researchers and policy makers respond when one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the United States is also labeled the world’s most unsustainable city?ii

Largely based on distance to reliable water resources, the moniker is valid if we believe all critical resources must be derived nearby. Phoenix manages water from sources as far as the Colorado. To be clear, the Colorado River is in no way the city’s only resource. The Salt and Verde rivers, groundwater, and smaller washes also maintain supply. The fundamental problem when we talk about sustainability is that we often do not specify in what terms we are speaking. Is Phoenix’ mere existence unsustainable? Its growth? Its car-dependency? There are many efforts being made that would suggest Phoenix may be more adaptable than is often assumed. Plans to curb water use, more appropriately manage water resources, and diversify sprawling car-dependent subdivisions are just a few tangible changes in which the city’s residents are actively taking part. However, even Arizona’s most progressive leaders remain confounded by a significant sustainability conundrum. As more and more people choose to live in the sun corridor, less and less water is available to grow food. In a region that was largely built on agriculture, must Arizona leave in-state food production behind to support larger populations?

Expansion, Contraction

An image I derived utilizing a vegetation change detection approach to identifying the prevalence of urban irrigation. The study demonstrated urban irrigation covers over 23% of the land area in a northern section of Phoenix.

An image I derived utilizing a vegetation change detection approach to identifying the prevalence of urban irrigation. The study demonstrated urban irrigation covers over 23% of the land area in a northern section of Phoenix.


Over ninety percent of the built environment within the greater Phoenix metropolitan region was constructed after 1950. The city’s footprint spreads across nearly 2,000 square miles of arid land and continues to grow as developers eye land in towns as far as Apache Junction to the east and Buckeye to the west. Rapid growth and expansion fueled by water redirection strategies might have come to a halt after the 2007 recession, but a slowly recovering real estate market and efforts to densify urban centers suggest newcomers are likely for some time. In spite of relentless criticism from outsiders, a 1.8% one year growth rate as of 2014 suggests many still find the pull of Arizona’s Sun Corridor worth the rumored risks.iii To the north, a journey not more than three hours reveals the wild and diverse beauty of the Arizona landscape. From the drama of the Grand Canyon to Sedona’s awe-inspiring red rocks and the mountains of Flagstaff, it may come as a surprise to find most people living in lowlands plagued by high temperatures far from reliable water. But it’s not called the Valley of the Sun for nothing. Sunny days and comfortable temperatures for two-thirds of the year in addition to affordable housing, plentiful job opportunities, and mountain views are more than enough to capture the imagination of potential new residents.

Today’s Phoenicians are not the first peoples attracted to living on the region’s arid land. Before the Pima, the Hohokam persisted between 100 and 1450 AD. With an estimated population of 40,000 at its height, the Hohokam farmed the valley with water coerced from afar through irrigation canals, a number of which provided archaeological blueprints for modern canals now in use.iv For some, the existence of the Hohokam civilization before American settlers arrived in the nineteenth century is a testament to the legitimacy of the city’s continued growth. For others, the same civilization’s conspicuous disappearance is a haunting reminder of the plagues a volatile desert climate can yield. The ultimate cause of the Hohokam’s slow decline is debated, but most believe extended drought and overpopulation were significant factors. In Bird on Fire Andrew Ross reminds readers that Phoenix rose from the ruins of an ancient civilization and, if the signs are not heeded, could soon return to ashes. While Ross echoes many of the claims made by the city’s harshest critics, he does well to battle hyperbole by documenting the region’s burgeoning environmental movement. He notes Pheonix’s decay may not be “strictly determined by its limited resources” but rather by “whether its residents could cooperate and wisely interact with each other in order to stave off the most dire outcomes.v

Agriculture, development, and water in Phoenix are intrinsically entangled. Until recently, most housing was built on agricultural land farmed for many decades prior. This shift in land use from farm to home is considered beneficial, freeing land from water intensive crops that currently consume 70% of the state’s water.vi By comparison, urban uses claim 30% of the state’s water input (not including private groundwater resources utilized by golf courses, dairies, and mining operations). In a talk hosted by Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Grady Gammage Jr. notes that even in Maricopa county, which is largely urbanized, “more than half of our water is going to agriculture.” As co-author of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy’s Watering the Sun Corridor: Managing Choices in Arizona’s Megapolitan Area, Gammage is quick to defend the city’s right to exist and insists “The Sun Corridor won’t run out of water, but it faces serious challenges about how to strike the right balance between population growth and lifestyle (12).” His voice is one among many working to redefine and reimagine the Sun Corridor’s most pressing problems. In fact, Arizona State University’s Decision Center for a Desert City, established by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2004, is a leader in the implementation of research driven policy in conjunction with the NSF’s Central Arizona-Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research project. It is all the more troubling then that such an extensive and significant document dedicated exclusively to improving water resource management strategies fails to address allocations for agricultural use.vii

A vocal critic of the document’s oversight, Gary Paul Nabhan notes “Although we never expect more than a quarter of the food eaten by Arizonans to be grown in state, we nevertheless need to dedicate water to producing both plant and animal foods, which can reduce, rather than exacerbate, the rising food costs and health problems currently plaguing our residents.” Arizona has lost well over 100,000 acres of irrigated farmlands since 2007. Nabham, a University of Arizona professor and author of Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land, is representative of a growing number of Arizonans seeking to improve food security and access in the arid southwest.

On the Horizon


Canal in Scottsdale, a wealthy satellite city

In early April, I traveled along Phoenix’s light rail line, exploring the changing neighborhoods and city blocks in close proximity to station stops. The system is remarkably quick and convenient, far exceeding Boston’s Green Line in quality of service (unsurprising, given the T’s age). Train cars run up and down dedicated ways at the center of wide boulevards. On many roads, bike lanes run alongside trains and friendly coffee shops dot the streetscape.

Outside of the light rail’s walkshed, housing sprawls every which way, travelling across the valley and nestling up against steep mountainsides. In many circles, Phoenix’s vast housing developments are scoffed at as the essence of poor planning and the ultimate cause of the city’s plight. The suggestion seems almost hypocritical, given I have lived in Massachusetts’ “city of houses” for the past four years. Somerville’s city centers were not built in a decade, nor are they fully realized today. At no more than sixty-five years of age, most of Phoenix’s metro area is still in its infancy. That is not to say the city is any less car-dependent or that the vast space between points of interest within Phoenix is desirable. Unless you are fortunate enough to both live and work near a light rail stop or bus line, you need a car (walking and biking on days that exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit is not advisable). If you must get by without a car, opportunity is scarce. Some of the places that make Phoenix, Phoenix are accessible only by car, as are most grocery stores. To many that recite the principles of new urbanism, Phoenix is the poster child for industry worst practices. Yet inverse livability criticisms were made when older American cities like Boston began industrializing and populations exploded, where onlookers lamented the cities’ oppressive pollution and congestion to no end. Perhaps what Phoenix does have to offer is similarly overlooked. What might we be missing? Whether for better or for worse, unlike in more dense, established cities, there is no lack of space for experimentation and innovation in Phoenix. 


One of a few irrigated fields at Phoenix Renews

I didn’t have to stray far from the light rail to find evidence of the food movement. Located conveniently at Central and Indian School, Phoenix Renews’ largest plot is fifteen acres of publicly accessible private land dedicated to urban farming research and practice. With participation from ASU, University of Arizona, and local organizations, the grounds are active, well kept, and abundant in edible greenery. A fully equipped, modest home provides shade and rest. The shelter is ASU and the University of New Mexico’s joint submission to the national solar decathlon turned model for educating home owners about sustainable building practices. The place itself is a hotbed for local food entrepreneurs and social activists. Here, “Some of the valleys top chefs grow their ingredients” and, “Refugee families are growing their gardens”.viii On a Sunday afternoon, I was not the only person roaming the grounds. A local resident was tending to raised beds while a couple took a stroll along the cool, dirt paths. I stayed on the land for some time, reflecting on its symbiotic relationship with the surrounding built environment. A formerly vacant parcel dedicated to urban agriculture, steps away from light rail! Only in Arizona. For now, the land is leased to the city’s Keep Phoenix Beautiful program, though development prospects will likely reimagine the property. When that day comes, these plots will be able to pick-up and move to the next widely available vacant lot (there are thousands).

Outside downtown, small farms and orchards do persist amongst compactly arranged residential properties. In a tiny subsect, working farms are incorporated into the fabric of the development itself. Agritopia, one of the most prominent examples of an “agrihood” in the nation, offers suburban living complemented by fresh food and livestock at the heart of community life.ix Residents participate by purchasing shares through a community supported agriculture (CSA) model and can pick-up food weekly from the centrally located farm stands ideal for mingling. For developers, the potential opportunities are attractive. Senior fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute Edward McMahon notes “They’ve figured out that unlike a golf course, which costs millions to build and millions to maintain, they can provide green spaces that actually earn a profit.”x As populations shift, age, and renew, golf course communities might consider ripping out water intensive lawns in favor of edible greenery, incentivized by agricultural tax breaks. While the direct farm, community relationship remains rare, CSA’s are not uncommon in Phoenix. According to a presumptuous and frustrated San Franciscan blogger, CSA’s may be the only way to benefit from local foods in the area. In her experience (and my own), local food is difficult to come by in big-box groceries. While Phoenix may not yet be overwhelmed by big organic, whole foods, there are plenty of opportunities for residents and small farmers to grow desert appropriate crops in the soil nearby.

Just down the street from Phoenix Renews, Devine Legacy is a mixed-use, mixed-income development emblematic of change to come. Phoenix Renews and similar ventures are telling and replicable, but cannot resolve Phoenix’ food woes, nor the uphill battle it faces with climate change. A resident of Devine Legacy apartments says it best, “Having a cool place to live is more important to me than food.”xi In a city where temperatures can be deadly if not mitigated effectively, Phoenix faces more challenges than water. But if the problem of balancing residential development, water management, and agriculture is intrinsically related, so too should be the solutions. Higher density, energy efficient housing, narrower, shadier public streets, and wisely irrigated urban agricultural land are tangible development strategies developers might use to simultaneously encourage steady population growth, reduce water usage, increase water reuse, reduce urban heat island, and ultimately foster a more sustainable way of life. In less dense suburban developments, reducing impervious surfaces, xeriscaping lawns, and supporting local agriculture through CSA’s can achieve the same goal. In Bird on Fire, Ross’s shining example of sustainability appropriately applied to claim environmental justice in Phoenix is the Gila River Indian Community’s landmark water settlement, an annual entitlement of 635,500 acre feet of water. With the construction of a canal project currently expected to be completed by 2030, Gila River Farms plans to double its farming to nearly 35,000 acres, more vast than Phoenix city limits.xii Large agriculture has a place in Arizona too. It will take a mix of approaches, more tests, and more failures to get closer to a favorable balance. If engineers alone are capable of moving water hundreds of miles, I do believe a collaboration between residents, developers, engineers, architects, and scientists is equally as capable of re-imagining what it means to live in an American desert city. In Phoenix, the process is well underway with much work ahead. Those leading the way would do well to remember local and regional food systems cannot and should not simply be left on the back burner forever.


i Daniel Abramson, “Obsolescence, Sustainability, and Beyond” lecture, Tufts University, Medford, MA, February 8, 2015).

ii Phoenix has been referred to as both America’s most unsustainable city by numerous article headlines. The subtitle of Andrew Ross’s Bird on Fire refers to Phoenix as the world’s most unsustainable city.

iii Bill Theobald, “Census: Phoenix area grew rapidlyArizona Central March 25, 2015

iv Andrew Ross, Bird on Fire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 5

v Andrew Ross, Bird on Fire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 28

vi Grady Gammage Jr., Monica Stigler, David Daugherty, Susan Clark-Johnson, William Hart, “Watering the Sun Corridor: Managing Choices in Arizona’s Megapolitan Area” (Public Document, ASU Morrison Institute for Public Policy, 2011)

vii Gary Paul Nabhan, Rafael de Grenade, “Water rationing for farmers? It’s on the horizon,Arizona Central July 18, 2014,

viii Nicole Sabetta, “Phoenix Renews – Bringing the Community Together,Arizona Central June 12, 2014

ix Kate Murphy, “Farm-to-Table Living Takes Root,The New York Times March 11, 2014

x Kate Murphy, “Farm-to-Table Living Takes Root,The New York Times March 11, 2014

xi Peter O’Dowd, “Scorching Plans for an Even Hotter Future, NPR August 14, 2012

xii Randal C. Archibald, “Indians’ Water Rights Give Hope for Better Health,The New York Times August 30, 2008

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One Comment on “Feeding the Sun Corridor: Exploring Arizona’s Zero Sum Game”

  1. ConfederateCity November 1, 2016 at 2:40 pm #

    Driven by oil, the fracking boom and exurban sprawl, many of the red state economies are experiencing a vigorous (if ultimately unsustainable) spurt of growth. Thanks to loose land-use regulations and low labor costs, detached, single-family homes can be churned out quite cheaply, generating more middle-wage, low-skill jobs. And since red states spend less per capita on education, infrastructure and social welfare than their blue state counterparts (and many of them receive more federal dollars than they contribute), their tax burdens are lower, too. So great places to retire, if crime is low. Whereas, NYC contributes more tax to the state than it gets back, same with London to the UK…



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