- 518.9 sq. miles
- 1,610,071 Total population
- 3,110 People per sq. mile
- 0% Forest cover
- Deserts and xeric shrublands biome
- 7.4% Developed open space
- $54,765 Median household income
- 15.1% Live below federal poverty level
- 60.3% Estimated rent-burdened households
- 9.7% Housing units vacant
- 1.6% Native, 42.5% White, 60.7% Black, 42.6% Latinx, 0.1% Multi-racial/’other,’ 3.7% Asian, 0.2% Pacific Islander
*socioeconomic data estimates are from 5-year ACS data from 2018, racial composition from ACS 2019, and land cover data from 2016 NLCD
The center of the Sunbelt region, Phoenix has experienced skyrocketing growth and sprawl in recent decades. The city occupies the homelands of Hohokam and O’odham peoples in the Salt and Gila river valleys. An oasis in the Great Basin Desert, the city relies on ancient and modern canal systems for its water supply in the face of an increasingly unstable climate.
Green Infrastructure in Phoenix
Official city plans addressing GI in Phoenix include PlanPHX, the Phoenix Strategic Plan, and the Strategic Infrastructure Plan, all of which defined GI using a landscape concept emphasizing city-wide networks of connected ecological elements. The City’s Separated Stormwater System Plan uses the term green infrastructure but does not define it, despite Phoenix’s history of do-it-yourself green stormwater infrastructure. While many documents referred to the 2010 Shade Master Plan, that plan did not utilize the green infrastructure concept or reference equity.
City plans defined GI as networks of hybrid facilities and ecosystem elements, including trails, habitats, parks, street trees, and natural lands. These ecological networks function to mitigate environmental harms while serving as part of the city’s infrastructure systems to mitigate heat, manage stormwater, and improve pedestrian mobility. Yet, definitions of GI did not describe any of the benefits of GI explicitly.
Plans in Phoenix do not define or address equity and justice. Only one plan uses the word equity, and in general, plans do not appear to be created or implemented with thoughtful public engagement. Distributional equity of GI planning is also largely emergent. Despite some promising beginnings, the city has a long way to go to plan equitably for green infrastructure.
Explicitly refer to equity, 100% have equity implications
attempt to integrate landscape and stormwater concepts
seek to address climate and other hazards
apply a lens of universal good to GI
explicitly refer to justice
claim engagement with affected communities in planning
recognize that some people are more vulnerable than others
mention Native peoples or relationships with land
Phoenix through Maps
Many observers might be surprised by the extensive seasonal wetlands present in Phoenix. The city occupies broad seasonal river valleys with extensive canal systems. Larger open spaces are near the more affluent neighborhoods in the sprawling suburbs. Income and density are inversely related. The city appears highly segregated by income and race. Rent burden is more unevenly distributed, but generally high. Like other quickly growing cities, vacancy rates are highest in the older downtown area.
How does Phoenix account for Equity in GI Planning?
No Phoenix plans focus on equity. While PlanPHX does explicitly use the term, it is not defined. Justice outside of the criminal justice connotation is not mentioned in any plan. When framing the social impacts of GI, it is generally referred to as a universal good, providing equal benefit to all. Phoenix was one of few cities that acknowledged its location on Native lands, and yet it appropriates both Indigenous history and identity.
Aside from PlanPHX, plans in Phoenix did not have robustly developed public engagement mechanisms, nor did they indicate intentions to include community groups in their overarching policies for design, implementation, or evaluation.
All plans examined in Phoenix sought to use GI to manage the distribution of hazards, especially climate-related hazards, and add value to the urban landscape, but were not sensitive to the needs of different communities. Labor issues were largely underdeveloped.
No plan in Phoenix offered a strong view of an equitable GI system. PlanPHX used the word 'equity' in its vision and back cover statements but did not define the term. Despite a lack of definition, that comprehensive plan offered a broad and universal vision of equity and stressed that the plan must be implemented in a way that is sensitive to the specific needs of different communities. However, the comprehensive plan did not address how communities have been or continue to be, marginalized. GI is primarily seen as providing universal goods, improving infrastructure for all residents, and supporting universal access to multi-modal transportation. Existing plans are silent about justice.
Plans examined for Phoenix did not articulate robust mechanisms of public inclusion. PlanPHX asserted that it was created with deep public engagement. It provided a number of best practices to solicit public input, including a variety of meetings, social media tools, and regular reporting to participants. The plan also committed to a more deeply participatory process for its complementary neighborhood planning processes. While it was not possible to evaluate how genuinely participatory or democratic the planning process was, the plan required voter approval and is subject to binding regulations concerning public participation. While not ideal, this is certainly a best practice in the plans we reviewed.
For GI, PlanPHX did not specify any mechanisms of participatory design and relied on neighborhood plans for implementation. Passing implementation to a more local planning process is promising, but the plan did not identify what resources were available to communities to lead those efforts, or exactly which binding mechanisms would be used to facilitate interdepartmental coordination to best serve affected communities. In terms of evaluation, there were frequent mentions of continuous community engagement, and a planned series of meetings, but collaboration on benchmarks was vague and no binding evaluation mechanisms were identified or discussed.
There was no mention of public engagement in either the overall Strategic Plan or the Strategic Infrastructure Plan. The MS4 Stormwater Plan appeared to follow a check-the-box approach for facilitating interdepartmental coordination across the GI lifecycle. It explicitly engaged with business and developer communities in its discussion of design initiatives, including the complete streets manual, but the appointed task force could not be evaluated for how well it represented affected communities. While the MS4 Plan had provisions for evaluating compliance with stormwater regulations, mechanisms to evaluate other community-level impacts were lacking.
Phoenix GI plans intend to use various types of GI to mitigate the climate-related hazards of heatwaves, droughts, and flooding, and long-standing water and air quality concerns. Additionally, the Strategic Plan seeks to reduce traffic hazards through GI, and the MS4 Plan references the need to understand and control polluted runoff from brownfield sites and industrial spills. None of the plans contain a discussion of how some communities have been made more vulnerable than others nor a detailed analysis of hazard exposure distributions.
Value-wise, the Comprehensive Plan focuses on equitable cost distributions of green infrastructure. The plan centers on defraying costs for developers and the use of a 1% sales tax for open space acquisition, despite sales taxes taking a larger percentage of income from lower-income taxpayers.
At the same time, plans tout the multiple values of GI, including service level costs of other infrastructure (transportation and stormwater), and the added property value of replicating “traditional systems canals and gardens.” In other words, current plans seek to redistribute wealth upwards within the city while replicating historical patterns of development without acknowledging or addressing inequities. PlanPHX also explicitly calls upon impacted communities to implement the plan’s visions. While this recognizes the broad involvement required for successful GI implementation and maintenance, the plan makes no commitments of support for communities to do so. The city Strategic Plan mentions ‘green jobs’ but does not specify how they will be grown. The Stormwater Plan emphasizes that new forms of job training for existing employees will be required for the city’s GI program to be successful, as will volunteer labor. The Strategic Infrastructure Plan made no mention of jobs.
Recommendations for Stakeholders
Despite decades of community activism and research on endemic environmental racism and injustice in South Phoenix, current plans make no mention of these issues aside from their relevance for Clean Water Act compliance. PlanPHX's vision of a connected oasis “...embodied by a pervading sense of … equity” can be realized, but the concerns and needs of frontline communities must lead any planning efforts to do so. Below, we offer recommendations for those concerned with equitably planning and implementing city-wide green infrastructure in Phoenix.
Many groups are working on racial, social, climate, and environmental justice in Phoenix. However, their concerns and missions are not reflected in current city plans. Given the urgency, scale, and complexity of advancing climate adaptation and a just transition in Phoenix, we offer several proposals for how a city-wide GI system could support existing calls for equity and justice.
1. GI Where it is Needed Most for Who Needs it Most
To date, the city does not appear to have undertaken any real analysis of where GI is needed most, aside from some of the technical analyses required by the city’s MS4 permit. Existing research has shown that there are tremendous disparities in heat exposure in neighborhoods of varied racial composition and income. Community groups can demand that the city accept these analyses as well as other work on the distribution of pollution exposure to center the needs of marginalized communities in further GI planning and implementation.
2. Equitable Planning for Planning Equitably
While PlanPHX used best practices in soliciting public opinion via several avenues, these practices fall short in representing the needs and concerns of minoritized communities. Planning for equity, as the city claims to do, requires centering the needs of those who have been marginalized the most. By definition, it cannot cater to mass appeal for blanket statements of need or priority. Community groups can and should demand to lead city-wide and neighborhood planning efforts. They should also be compensated for participating in this work.
3. GI for a Just Transition and Environmental Justice
Green infrastructure can certainly provide many benefits if it is context-appropriate and maintained, but it cannot erase or remove legacy or ongoing contamination. At best, it can mitigate minor environmental threats. Efforts to eliminate the sources of toxic chemical pollution must be implemented alongside urban greening to make urban environments healthy places to live. The only way to accomplish this is through a just transition framework that builds ecological consciousness and techniques into both the built environment and the urban ecosystem. Movements on the Navajo Nation and across Arizona can serve as partial models and provide a basic framework to address specific environmental injustices in Phoenix’s urban communities.
Policy Makers & Planners
Current plans do not address equity or justice concerns despite ongoing demands from impacted communities. How can policy and planning center the needs of those who have been most marginalized and oppressed within the city? Below we offer several concrete recommendations for improving the equity of existing policies and transforming city planning for green infrastructure.
1. Define and Operationalize Equity
At a minimum, city plans using a vision of an equitable future as their key message should define what they mean by the term. As we lay out in our framework and research process pages, equity must go beyond the visions and frameworks of plans and become embedded within the project lifecycle – from project planning to evaluation.. Equitable planning must also address current and past injustices for which the city is responsible. Only then can the uneven distribution of hazards, goods, and labor of the urban landscape be productively addressed.
2. Abandon Regressive Taxation and Come Clean on Vacant Lands
As mentioned above, funding open space acquisition using a city-wide sales tax is essentially a punitive tax on the poor. Additionally, a long-running controversy in the City of Phoenix not mentioned within current plans revolves around the city’s incomplete inventory of vacant lands that it owns. Other cities have utilized such assets to provide the backbone of their city-wide green infrastructure networks; Phoenix should investigate the potential to follow suit, instead of ceding public assets to private developers.
3. Support DIY GI in a Systematic and Comprehensive Way
Phoenix is known for its DIY green stormwater infrastructure and rainwater capture. These ideas and practices are somewhat reflected in the city’s MS4 Plan, but since it does not define GI, it is difficult to determine whether citizen-led efforts can be included and supported by city agencies. The city should invest resources in supporting self-determined infrastructure in Phoenix communities. Funds that would be otherwise expended on technical planning exercises could be used to support grassroots initiatives complementing city-led technical planning with their local knowledge.
Foundations and Funders
As the Southwest’s largest metropolitan area, Phoenix has numerous active foundations and funders working on a variety of racial and social justice initiatives. From addressing the legacies of redlining, to supporting area foundations and critical social services, funders play an important role in the shaping of social movements in the region. This vital work can support the development of an equitable city-wide GI network in the city. Based on our analysis of current plans, in addition to supporting intersectional organizing efforts seeking transformation, foundations and funders can influence ongoing planning processes in several key areas.
1. Neighborhood Planning Capacity, Coordination, and Oversight
The admirable goals of PlanPHX and the potential of a city-wide GI network will largely be met through the ongoing neighborhood planning process occurring in the city. However, despite some legislative safeguards, the city government appears to have provided limited to no resources for communities to lead neighborhood planning efforts or for their coordination towards achieving a city-wide GI vision. Foundations and funders can fill this critical gap by investing in community-based planning organizations, coordinating city-wide efforts to achieve equitable and sensible distributions of green infrastructure networks, and funding watchdog groups to make sure regulations are being met. Since long-term funding of community-led planning is likely unsustainable for funders, efforts should work towards reshaping the planning process so that a portion of the city’s planning budget goes to funding community-led planning efforts and creating meaningful mechanisms for evaluating their effectiveness.
2. Equitable Financing of Citywide GI for Restorative Justice
The current funding structure for open space acquisition and GI development in Phoenix relies on a regressive sales tax, private developer investment, and some limited public investment, primarily in stormwater infrastructure improvements. Foundations and funders can contribute directly to community-scale green infrastructure projects as part of making GI financing more equitable but such an approach is likely not sustainable. Similar to other nationwide work on equitable financing of GI, foundations and funders could support local efforts to adapt and transform financing policies within the city to address historical harms, achieving equity in cost distributions as well as restorative justice.
3. Improving the Knowledge Base for environmental Justice and Equitable GI
Restorative justice efforts to address disproportionate historical and current exposure to environmental hazards in Phoenix would benefit from an integrated analysis of the social distribution of environmental hazards and community assets. Current work has demonstrated that environmental justice communities have maintained and developed community cohesion and institutions while facing many hazards. These types of analyses can and should integrate a greater variety of community perspectives, specific sources of toxic chemical hazards, and current and potential future green infrastructure assets. Those assets would include potential land acquisitions, public right-of-way improvements, and the use of city-owned vacant properties.
Phoenix has a functional framework to plan for a city-wide green infrastructure network; however, current plans do not do so equitably, nor do they include meaningful leadership from affected communities. Many opportunities exist to (1) update thinking within city policy and planning on the meaning of equity, and (2) transform current planning practices. Now it is up to Phoenix to leverage these opportunities to advance GI equity.
A public access repository of all the 122 Urban plans from 20 US cities analyzed, along with key metrics for each plan organized in a spreadsheet.
Peer-reviewed publications, blog articles, and other writing produced by the team related to this study