The city of Phoenix is notorious for being the hottest large metropolitan area in the United States, yet it also maintains the title of fifth most populated national city. Such a combination of factors has heightened ecological concerns such as urban heat, traffic congestion, pollution, water scarcity, and a dry river. As terrifying as that may sound, Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability is addressing the problems plaguing the Sonoran Desert through the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) program.
In partnership with the National Science Foundation, ASU and the City of Phoenix joined a conglomerate of 28 designated biome research sites across the nation. However, the city is in a unique position, considering it is only one out of two sites that focuses on urban ecology. Researchers are thereby given the challenging task of remediating social and ecological degradation to achieve a sustainable future, not only for the region, but also for its inhabitants.
Over the course of the past 23 years, CAP LTER has operated under specified phases of research which entail documented research data, findings and applications. In the current fourth phase of research (CAPIV), the primary objective is to observe how dynamic urban ecosystems and infrastructure impact human outcomes and behavior, while addressing how human actions affect patterns of urban ecological structure, function, sustainability and resilience.
“A lot of what we do involves not formal experiments as much as just keeping track of how people experiment with their own environments,” explained Dan Childers, director of the CAP LTER program. For instance, in their long-term study of ASU student housing projects across 12 experimental neighborhoods on the Polytechnic campus, researchers measured, observed and recorded data on yard landscaping, microclimates, vegetation and water usage. Once scientific data was collected, research teams dispersed a ‘Phoenix Area Social Survey’ throughout the 12 locations which addressed residential perceptions about their immediate and surrounding environments.
Many findings suggested that backyard microclimates notably changed in their composition once various plant species were introduced and maintained. Moreover, mental health benefits were also revealed in the study, thereby increasing resident satisfaction in an ecologically upheld atmosphere.
However, managing these environmental conditions can become challenging when the city is on the brink of water scarcity. According to Childers, “Of the 4.6 million people who live here, 70% or more of [water usage] is associated with outdoor water use.” In the meantime, a substantial supply of the Colorado River’s output into Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will soon be reduced due to record-high drought conditions.
Despite this adverse reality, many affluent regions continue to irrigate with potable water. CAP LTER defined this phenomenon as “Ecology of Prestige,” which essentially demonstrates that well-managed and heavily irrigated vegetation tends to arise in affluent regions, whereas in lower income areas, there is less vegetation and higher levels of surface heat as a result.
“Environmental justice and social justice are very closely tied,” Childers remarked, “We’ve got a research group that’s explicitly focused on environmental justice and equity.” By recognizing the correspondence of social and ecological disparities, CAP LTER strives to adopt strategies for integration and equity across all desert regions —and it doesn’t stop with water.
The ongoing Light Rail extension that expands from Downtown Phoenix to South Phoenix is a transformative strategy to balance challenges within an urban ecosystem. The location of South Phoenix was specifically prioritized in the expansion due to its long-standing history of marginalization, economic isolation, and segregation within the region that stems back to federal government redlining in the 1930s.
Despite the desperate need for this step toward progression, many people are opposed to mass transit expansions due to the convenience of a vehicle and the consumption of road space by public transportation services. In regard to public dissent, Childers explained, “The reality is that if we don’t start making it easier for people to make the harder decisions, then they’re not going to make those hard decisions.”
“Engineered solutions, in a lot of cases, are actually holding the city back from being able to adapt,” Childers continued, “And so we have a number of projects where our urban design folks are working with our climate and heat folks on promoting what a lot of people call these green infrastructure solutions.” Also known as urban ecological infrastructure, these green solutions utilize past and current data to demonstrate future patterns and propose scenarios in accordance with urban sustainable goals.
Through studied cases in the CAP Scenarios and Futures Research Group, projected scenarios of future urban ecological infrastructure were developed by challenging key practitioners and municipal decision-makers, like the chief Sustainability Officer for the city of Phoenix, to envision the future of the city without its current ecological burdens. “The idea is to think about the future that we would want,” Childers expressed, “If we start where we want to be 50 years from now, and we go backwards, what kind of things have to change in order for us to get from where we are now headed in the right trajectory?”
Although eco-anxiety is ever looming, there is ample hope and potential for future generations. CAP LTER’s targeted mission is to foster the next generation of environmental stewards through educational and communal outreach. Ecology Explorers is one of the primary outlets for informational dissemination, whereby researchers and ASU scholars conduct seminars with K-12 teachers and students to enrich their curriculum with sustainable-focused initiatives.
But the work doesn’t stop there —educating the public of all ages and experiences by involving communities in the sustainable work that CAP LTER does encourages participation, collaboration and critical thinking. “The more you empower [community organizers and members] with the knowledge to make better decisions, the more likely you are to get better decisions moving forward,” Childers stated.
In today’s ever-changing urban ecological landscape, it’s imperative that we address these issues and concerns from a reconceptualized perception. “Thinking out of the box is not good enough, what we need to do is think about an entirely new box,” Childers explained, “If you’re thinking out of the box, you’re thinking about ways of tweaking the current system so that it will change into where we need to be; and in what we need, in many cases, is an entirely new system.”