By Dorie Morales
The city of Phoenix once held the dubious distinction of being one of the least sustainable cities in the nation. But Mayor Greg Stanton helped to change that. The Arizona native, who took office in 2011, launched a public transportation plan to increase Phoenix’s light rail system, expand public bus services, and create 1,000 miles of new bike lanes within 35 years. Phoenix has also become a leading municipality for solar energy, and the mayor and council passed an initiative to convert all 100,000 city streetlights to LED, which will cut pollution by more than half. In 2017, these and other contributions helped Stanton became the first Arizona mayor to be named “Public Official of the Year” by Governing magazine.
Green Living magazine had the pleasure of talking to Stanton about his history with sustainability, successful green initiatives in Arizona, and his future political goals.
Green Living: Public transportation is an important part of eco-responsibility and is clearly an issue you’re heavily invested in. Growing up in Phoenix, did you use the public transit system?
Mayor Stanton: I grew up in West Phoenix around 39th Avenue and Dunlap; so for us, using the public bus was a necessity. We were a working-class family and could only afford one car. Using the public transportation system was just a normal part of our upbringing. It was expected. We actually had a better bus system in the 1970s in Phoenix than we do today, in large part because the city was more compact at that time so we didn’t have as many miles of service to cover.
GL: What other aspects of your childhood were related to living green? Your mom composted at home, correct?
Mayor Stanton: Yes, she would save all the old eggshells and other things to help her garden grow. We have a composting program around the city, but we just did it inside our own household. I had no idea what the meaning of that was at the time. We didn’t think of it as a sustainability thing, we just grew our own vegetables in our backyard and put them on our own table. During showers we were expected to turn off the water as we cleaned ourselves, then turn it back on. Those were good habits that my mom taught us.
GL: Was there a specific time in your life when protecting the environment became a priority?
Mayor Stanton: I’ve always tried to be aware of those issues, but certainly when I was lucky enough to have my son Trevor, it put things into perspective. I think we become a little more dedicated to [the world]. In our house, we try to make recycling fun. We encourage our kids, and they encourage us to be good on recycling issues.
GL: What percentage of waste is Phoenix diverting from the landfill?
Mayor Stanton: When I started we were at 13 percent, and we’re now at about 30 percent. [Waste diversion] is probably the area where public education is the most important. Just getting people to understand what can and can’t be recycled. Our Resource Innovation Campus gets innovators out on our public works sites to help us figure out what can be diverted. Palm Silage is taking palm frawns out of the landfill and using them for animal feed. Goodwill is getting all the mattresses, and almost all of those parts are recyclable. If we get innovators and entrepreneurs out there side by side, we’re going to come up with lots of other ideas about what can be diverted or reused.
GL: Congratulations on hitting the 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. How did you reach that goal?
Mayor Stanton: The greatest thing that’s happened during my time as mayor is the urbanization of our city. Phoenix has invested billions of dollars in improving public transportation, including the light rail. The marketplace has responded beautifully to it; we’ve had $9 billion in investments along the light rail line. In fact, Phoenix, for the first time in decades, is actually increasing in population relative to our neighboring cities. Young people want to live in a more bikeable community or walk to work; they don’t want to live 45 minutes away in a bedroom community. That lifestyle change can have as big of an impact as anything we’ve done.
GL: You were among the first to speak out against the United States’ withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Tell us more about that.
Mayor Stanton: I have strong feelings on that. President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement has been really bad public policy. First, the substance of it: the United States has to do its part, just like every other nation on Earth, committed to their part in fighting climate change and making sure that the Earth’s temperature levels don’t create incredible challenges for people across this globe. Secondly, when the United States makes a commitment, we have to keep it. That’s what global leadership is. I really believe that the message was sent to the rest of the world that you can’t rely on American leadership – not just in the area of climate change, but that if you reach an agreement with the United States you can’t rely on our commitment, on our word. Mayors across the country, including here in Arizona, are going to up our game and do our part to meet our commitment under [the Paris Agreement], but it’s very difficult to restore that damage.
GL: What’s next with your plan to run for Congress?
Mayor Stanton: I will be on the ballot in 2018 and there’ll be a special election to replace me [as Phoenix Mayor]. Just as I’ve done as mayor, I want to prioritize infrastructure and infrastructure investment. The United States has fallen behind our competitor nations in that regard. We need to better support cities on the climate change action that they are taking. I want to continue my work supporting and improving relationships with Mexico – you can’t be a representative of this area, with the beautiful diversity that we’re lucky enough to have in the Phoenix metro area, without supporting appropriate immigration reform, including the DREAM act. People like me need to step up to the plate and do more. I love public service, and this is an additional opportunity to serve.