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Phoenix Mayor Stanton sees empty lots full of opportunities

(From left) Sustainability consultant Bill McDonough and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton discuss sustainability in a conversation moderated by Colin Tetreault (right), Stanton's senior policy adviser on sustainability issues. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Recently elected Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and architectural sustainability consultant Bill McDonough held a conversation with the downtown Phoenix community last month to figure out ways to put the empty lots that dot the city to work.

Their solution combines changing the perspective of the owners of these lots while also moving the community as a whole toward injecting sustainable practices into every facet of life, rather than just on a convenient, case-by-case basis.

“We are at an exciting moment for the future of cities,” McDonough said. “If we only aim to grow ‘less badly’ we are not rising to the occasion. When I see these lots, I think, what if the city can grow its own food? That’s the future.”

Stanton, who has made sustainability a major part of his platform as mayor, said empty lots should be used for “demonstration projects”

that will benefit the community where they are located.

About 100 people gathered in an empty lot near Second and Roosevelt streets in Phoenix last month to hear Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and sustainability consultant Bill McDonough discuss interim uses for the empty lots around the city and ways for Arizonans to live more sustainably. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

“When you have a large parcel in the middle of a city, it’s not just an investment. You have a responsibility to the people in that city,”

Stanton said. “The lots can be used for food, urban gardens, art areas, food trucks. Empty parcels can be used for great short-term uses.”

To achieve the goal, Stanton said the city will take an active role in putting the empty lots to use while promoting sustainability, including using economic tools to incentivize green building.

“The city needs to look in the mirror to make sure we are doing everything we can,” he said. “We need to be cheerleaders if we want people to come. We can’t just talk to friends. We have to reach out.”

Stanton indicated that there is resistance from some private lot owners to allow them to be used while they are vacant. But, he said allowing them to be used for various purposes would be a benefit for whatever business eventually occupies the space. “There are tax advantages, plus building goodwill within the community,” he said.

Among the high ideas and promises to support green development, Stanton and McDonough noted that in the past, desire for rapid expansion and growth has greatly overshadowed sustainability considerations. Success in green planning for the future, Stanton said, hinges on not repeating past mistakes.

“Before, we had an inability to take time to think through what hyper- growth meant,” he said. “In our community, this is a moment in time.

Have we learned the lessons?”

Stanton encouraged the crowd to impress upon city leaders to make visions of sustainability a reality. “Vote, push your leaders to follow through,” he said. “Most of all, we need your ideas. If you wait for government to do it, you’ll still be waiting.”

McDonough added that governments and urban planners need input from residents to ultimately be successful. “Ask us questions, tell us where you want to go and tell us how we can help you get there,” he said.

McDonough, who Stanton jokingly referred to in super-star terms as “the Lady Gaga of sustainability,” has spent years advising cities around the world on sustainable growth, including Beijing and Singapore. He runs several companies dedicated to sustainability planning and growth and is the co-author of “Cradle to Cradle:

Remaking the Way We Make Things.”

The way McDonough sees it, a change in attitude is in order for many large cities. He cited Beijing as an example of a place that is very possibly headed for a disaster. “Beijing is frightening. The population is expected to double in five years,” he said. “You can’t do a lot of thinking when you are growing that fast.”

McDonough said the hyper-growth of the past few decades in Phoenix has a stranglehold on the city’s needs for the future. But he also has boundless hope — dispensed with a bit of humor — for the city and its residents. “We have endless resourcefulness,” he said. “Your growth has been defined by asphalt, which in our lexicon, is two words.”

He sees everything in a city as an asset that needs to be cultivated in one way or another. He suggests reducing energy consumption in existing buildings and constructing new ones to consume 25 percent less energy.

Another challenge faced by Phoenix sustainability planners is what to do with vacant historic buildings. One success story of repurposing a historic building is the A.E. England building near Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus. The building is used by the school for events and gatherings.

“We may be guilty of looking at our historical buildings as obstacles rather than opportunities,” Stanton said. “We need to put buildings that are owned by the city, but not being used properly, into production.”

Stanton predicted that the life lived in the city by future generations will be defined by the dedication and ingenuity of the city planners being educated right now. He hopes to use his time in office to convince those in the business of green to give the desert a chance.

“If you are a sustainability entrepreneur, we want you to come here and test out your theory,” Stanton said. “Our best and brightest have choices, whether they want to live and work here or somewhere else.

what they choose will make or break us.”

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