A Tale of Two Cities: How Two Cities are (or aren’t) Preparing for Climate Change

By: Jonce Walker

For the first time in human history over half of the world population lives in an urban place. This means that more people rely on a complicated network of electricity grids, sewer systems, and transportation networks. When disaster shocks this system, be it climate change related super storms or rolling black outs, the cities with the best resilient urban design will take care of their citizens better than the cities that remained too complacent to plan and design for these events.

Nearly six months ago I moved from Phoenix to New York City. I want to be very clear that this isn’t a PHX vs NYC comparison. They are of course incredibly different places. However, since they are both home to several million residents they both have the responsibility to make good policy decisions that protect the health and human safety of people who live there.


A place that has had a 122 degree day, has a vulnerable water supply and has selected to carve up the fragile Sonoran Desert to build freeways and subdivisions. A place that also has incredible mountain preserves, breathtaking sunsets, and the saguaro cactus. Phoenix is certainly at a unique crossroads to determine its future.

TRANSIT The 2008 ribbon cutting of the 20 mile light rail starter is one of the most important sustainability events to happen in Phoenix. In a place that boasts over 1,500 miles of freeways, a 20 mile light rail seems insignificant. However, the Metro Light Rail has sparked incredible ancillary sustainability spin offs, including Transit Oriented Development (TOD) policies, bike share, and an ability for some Phoenecians to shed the car altogether. From a carbon emissions perspective, Metro Light Rail reduces more than 12 tons each day compared to emissions associated with the same amount of passengers in cars. It has truly been a game changing public works sustainability project.

WATER | ENERGY Phoenix has a water availability complex. An already over allocated Colorado River, which no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez, supplies the Phoenix metro valley with 1.8 million acre feet of water per year. When the snow pack continues to decline in the Colorado River watershed not only will Phoenix have a water supply issue, it will have a energy production issue. Phoenix uses effluent to cool the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, and several other large natural gas fired power plants in the west valley. The water and energy nexus is dangerously multiplied in the summer because this is when the crippling heat creates more of an energy cooling need from thirsty power plants.


The largest city in the United States at over 8 million residents, NYC is truly an exceptional place. However, it didn’t just assume that its geographic location is going to ensure its greatness. A dizzying history of human will has made NYC the sustainability leader that it is today.

LEADERSHIP The sustainability leadership in NYC is incredible – from the Bloomberg administration that created PLANYC back in 2007, to the tallest LEED Gold building in the North America, to the longest subway system in the world. NYC has cared about its ability to remain an incredible place for a long time. It’s a place that does not sit on its hands when it comes to sustainability decisions.

SANDY The subways flooded, lower Manhattan went dark, and the dense city didn’t have a great plan to to send the displaced. In the end, many New Yorkers stayed in their homes and rode it out. But if an even bigger event happens, FEMA will not have the room to place their harmful trailers in Central Park. Much like the change that swept over NYC in the immediate post 9-11 period, the post Superstorm Sandy NYC is proving to be a time of responding to the vulnerabilities of a coastal city.

We are living in a world that is getting hotter at an increasing rate. How certain cities respond to this reality will determine if they will become a relic of failed leadership or a dynamic place where citizens thrive.

Photo Credit: Photo by the author.

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One Response

  1. Phil Allsopp says:

    Nice article, Jonce!

    One of the challenges we have in the Phoenix metro region is the number of people who think that climate science is made up or is some kind of UN conspiracy to take over the United States and – according to some recent legislative proposals – “herd us all into Euro-Style cities” (some fate, eh?).

    Fortunately, many among our younger generations who are moving into managerial and decision-making roles are better educated, have traveled outside of Arizona, and understand that facts are facts and are not a matter of belief. They also know, as demonstrated by their incredibly creative actions, that we really do have to do something to address the reality of global warming in order for us, our children and theirs, to thrive in the Sonoran desert.

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