Robert Melnick, Executive dean, Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability
courtesy Vince Palermo/ASU Robert Melnick, Executive dean, Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability

Where did the idea of Green Phoenix come from?

The plan is first and foremost aspirational. There are practical aspects to it, but it starts at an aspirational level.

It was initiated through discussions between Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon and Arizona State University (ASU) president Michael Crow. One of the things they’ve often discussed is how the university’s core mission of driving the transition to a more sustainable world can be useful to the city of Phoenix.

The core mission at ASU that cuts across all of its colleges and business practices is to be a more sustainable place and educate people on sustainability. We want to find solutions to the challenges. Marry that with a ready and willing large city that has its own challenges and environmental goals along with the federal government stepping in to the act with money to create green jobs and promote environmentalism, and you have a very powerful platform from which to develop a plan like Green Phoenix and execute it.

How did the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) become involved?

From the initial germination of that seed of an idea between the mayor and university president, they turned to me in my capacity as executive dean of GIOS to actually figure out how to pull it off and make Phoenix as green as possible.

What excited me about it was it was a real-world challenge, not just a concept. It involves coming up with a program that’s really going to be on the ground and on the front lines of change in an urban area.

Where did you go from there?

The question on the table was pretty big: How do you make Phoenix the greenest city in America? I added another component: How do you make it a lighthouse and model for other cities so that in greening itself it also is able to espouse and export the best practices to other cities?

I convened a core group of people, mostly ASU faculty but also some research staff, who I felt could help me get a handle on what would become a framework for Green Phoenix. Of course, a zillion ideas came out that reflected people’s interests, passions, and expertise.

We then went through a deliberate process of narrowing those ideas down. They had to meet three criteria. First, were the ideas important? A lot of people are passionate about sustainability, but we needed important, mainstream ideas. Second, were they viable? Give a question like this to a researcher and you may get some crazy, creative, and interesting stuff, but we are working with a city that has practical concerns. It has to map out in the real world. Third, I only wanted ideas, projects, and concepts for which we already had a working relationship with the city. In a sense, this would make it a shovel-ready concept, except to say these things are shovel ready would be a gross and wild exaggeration. The reality was that this would give us a basis from which we could move forward as opposed to blindly introducing Johnny from the faculty and Susie from the city and figuring it out from there.

Out of those discussions, we came up with 17 concepts that ran across a wide range of sustainable challenges, from transportation to land use to renewables to energy efficiency to education. It was no more and no less than a framework.

That is probably what is most misunderstood about the plan. We didn’t come out of the box with 17 specific programs, budgets, and activities. It was a general framework to present to the constituents for input and reaction. They were broad, such as “educate people about sustainability” or “landscape in a way that’s consistent with the desert environment.” From that point forward, we would put these ideas through another funnel. We have 17 concepts, but we have to move them into actionable items. What are the programs or activities that need to be in place to make the ideas real?

Any examples?

We came up with a second-level concept: the Green Rail Corridor. It uses the light rail system as a backbone for a new geography. Instead of using an existing neighborhood or a council district or a set boundary line, we thought we could use the light rail to experiment, implement, and learn, and then radiate out from there. [Editor’s Note: The Green Rail Corridor focuses on greening a 10-mile stretch of the city’s light rail.]

There are four programs that would be put to work within the Green Rail Corridor. First is the idea of solarizing the light rail system itself and installing photovoltaic panels along the system—not to power the train, but to power everything around it such as cooling fans and lights. Second, a landscape program would examine the existing land surrounding the corridor to make sure it uses intelligent planting, creates shade, reduces wastewater, and so forth. Third, a program would look at retrofitting houses and businesses along the corridor to become more energy efficient, educating the people who are living there. Fourth, a program would examine the heat island effect and provide builders with a menu of materials or incentives to use materials that would not increase the heat levels despite the addition of new buildings along the corridor.

These four elements are the basis for the Green Rail Corridor, which in itself is a subset of the larger plan. It is a practical, doable, I-can-tell-you-how-much-it-costs piece of Green Phoenix.

Speaking of cost …

That brings us to money. One of the other most misunderstood things about the program is the idea that there is a Swiss bank account we’ll just pull the money from. The reality is that this program is largely—not wholly, but very largely—dependent on the ability and interest of the federal government to make an investment in Phoenix, in the partnership between the city and the university, and in the corridor and the goal of demonstrating what a green city could be like. In doing so, even if some cities learned nothing from us, you would still have a greener, more energy efficient, less greenhouse gas producing big city. That outcome in itself is very important.

How would you compare the plan to initiatives under way in other cities?

All cities are somewhere on a continuum of commitment to and knowledge of greenness. Cities like San Francisco and Portland have very long histories with sustainability. They made a commitment to green long before it was fashionable or before money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was available. In comparison to them, we have to catch up.

Other cities are just waking up to all of this. I think Phoenix certainly is well above average. It didn’t wake up yesterday to find out there was a green issue; it’s had plans for years. What we’re talking about now is really accelerating those plans in unique ways. On that note, I think that if we can get one or more awards from the federal government, with an emphasis on more, and if local companies get behind it, then I think this plan could propel Phoenix to the head of the class.

Let me leave you with one thought. One of the things that’s really important here is that even if we don’t get a penny to make this program happen, we still will have had an impact because it has captured people’s imaginations. We have them thinking about green not just for green’s sake, but for job creation, quality improvement, and making Phoenix a more attractive place. That genie does not go back into the bottle if we don’t get funded. We have unleashed some very positive powerful forces to move the city in ways it should be moving either way.

To learn more about the Global Institute of Sustainability, visit

In a March 2009 State of the City address, Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon announced Green Phoenix, an ambitious initiative whose goal is to make the state capital not only the greenest city in the state, but also the most sustainable metropolis in the country. Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability is entrusted with translating the plan into action. Executive dean Robert Melnick explains the work under way and the challenges and excitement ahead.