Skip to main content

Forum explores Phoenix's rapid growth and future

Author Andrew Needham, Sarah Porter, director of ASU's Kyl Center for Water Policy, former Phoenix mayor Terry Goddard and Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb participating in a June 2 forum, "Should Phoenix Exist?" at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
Photo by: Zócalo Public Square

June 02, 2015

Electricity and water built Phoenix from a sleepy desert town in the early 20th century into the thriving metropolis that it is today.

They are key to a sustained future, and steps must be taken now to ensure their availability in the years to come, according to a panel of experts speaking June 2 in downtown Phoenix.

Three panelists explored some of those steps at a forum hosted by Zócalo Public Square, a multiplatform, multimedia conversation that brings together thought leaders, public figures and Americans from all walks of life to explore layered questions about how our past can help us understand our future. Zocalo Public Square is an affiliate of Arizona State University.

The forum examined how Phoenix as we know it came to be, the consequences of its rapid growth, and what citizens need to do to ensure its continued success.

“We see Phoenix booming in the middle of the desert, it seems to beg a fundamental question, why is it even there?” said Gregory Rodriguez, publisher of ASU-affiliate Zócalo Public Square

The question was inspired by the book, “Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest” written by Andrew Needham, a New York University historian. Needham was joined by panelists Terry Goddard, Phoenix’s former mayor and former Arizona attorney general, and Sarah Porter, director of ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy at Morrison Institute. Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb moderated the event.  

Needham’s 2014 book examined how Phoenix transitioned from a small agricultural town of 65,000 to 4.3 million in seven decades – and the measures private power companies and politicians went to in order to lure corporations, businesses and future residents to the Valley of the Sun.

Needham said Phoenix’s urban transformation came largely without an understanding by most people of the distance crucial resources must travel to get to a city in the middle of the desert.

“When people in Phoenix turn on their lights or air conditioners in their house, they are using resources from far, far away without really thinking about where it comes from,” Needham said. “Sustainability means to create a consciousness of the resources we use.”

Despite its past of complicated dealmaking in order to grow and thrive, Phoenix is pointed in the right direction, Goddard said.

“There are things that Phoenix could have done differently but now we are maturing and have many initiatives in place to address these issues,” Goddard said. “Should Phoenix exist? Of course we should. In many ways, we are the prototype.”

Porter, who studies water use, said Phoenix and other Valley cities draw water from several different sources, including the 336-mile Central Arizona Project and ground and surface water sites.

Municipalities have also created innovative laws and ordinances for specific water uses, are banking water in groundwater sites, are making investments in how to deal with wastewater and are preparing for drought and fire catastrophe through watershed protection techniques.

Efficiencies in residential and commercial properties have also helped reduced water usage dramatically over the years, she said.

Still, she argued, residents of Phoenix need to be responsible stewards of water to continue the success of a city in the middle of a desert.

The key to sustaining the future, all three panelists agreed, is not only strong and innovative leadership but an informed citizenry.

“Education has to precede action,” Goddard said.  

Needham said he has come to admire the city’s resiliency after his book was published.

“Phoenix has thought about these issues longer than most places and in many ways Phoenix is a marvel,” Needham said. “Many things did go wrong but they’re trying to fix it. I sympathized for the dilemmas they had to face and how they faced them.”