Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Bird on Fire – Andrew Ross [Feature Review]

Page 2 – Bird on Fire – Andrew Ross

Speaking at a recent forum in Phoenix, Ross said, “What happens in Phoenix is more important than what happens in Portland.” In other words, if Phoenix can change course, with numerous natural and man-made odds stacked against it, it means a lot more than what cities like Portland have already managed to accomplish.

If there is one lesson to take away from the book, it is that the challenge of sustainability depends upon a variety of factors. According to Ross they include anti-regulatory attitudes, suburban sprawl, excessive water consumption, and a long history of racism and prejudice, among others. While it is clear that each of these factors has played a part in making Phoenix what it is today, at times the book feels a bit like a collection of long, tangential essays that have more to do with painting a stark ideological picture than they do with articulating the state of sustainability itself. To Ross’s credit, however, he does manage to tie many of the loose threads together in the final chapter, and a few of these themes warrant brief summaries here.

That sprawl is unsustainable is widely agreed upon by those who have studied urban develpoment. In Phoenix, many have opted to live at a distance from their places of employment, recreation and worship, because comparatively speaking, land has been cheap, and there has been plenty of it. But in the absence of a well-developed mass transit system (not to mention a culture conducive to it), morning and evening commutes largely consist of single occupant vehicles traveling long distances — a hallmark of unsustainability. Recently, great strides have been made with the Metro Light Rail, which for the past three years has served residents along a single route through downtown Phoenix, Tempe and part of Mesa. There are plans underway for future expansion to include additional corridors as well. This could play a key role in Phoenix’s turn toward sustainable practices, if the funds and political will were in place to ensure it is made a priority.

While certain suburban areas and city centers in the Valley have undergone marked demographic shifts in recent decades — what some observers have called suburban “browning” — the legacy of racial segregation can still be seen in areas like South Phoenix, which is predominantly black and Latino (and poor), while areas like Scottsdale and North Phoenix remain largely white (and affluent). Deeply troubling is the pattern of highly polluting industries being lured in to the lower income areas, where they have been able to operate mostly undisturbed. This has resulted in higher levels of air pollution and water contamination, which present unavoidable and dire health risks to those who are already most vulnerable.

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