Planting the Seeds of Transformation

ARTICLE | Oct 10, 2011

Green infrastructure is often an undervalued component of a community’s’ infrastructure. This is especially true for Arizona where landscapes are very different from most other places around the country.  However, this is starting to change thanks to the leadership of several cities in the Phoenix – Metro area, in particular Phoenix, Glendale, Mesa and Peoria. These communities understand the benefits that can be gained by investing in green infrastructure and are taking strides to maximize their investment by streamlining regulations, developing and following best practices and forming new partnerships.

Green infrastructure is a solution multiplier, which can help cities solve many of their most challenging economic, social and environmental challenges. Green infrastructure is a facet of sustainable development that incorporates natural systems – trees, landscapes and water- to assist or replace gray infrastructure - buildings, roads, utilities and parking lots - to provide shade, reduce sewer overflows, capture polluted runoff, reduce the urban heat-island, enhance bio diversity as well as increase the air quality, beauty and livability of cities and neighborhoods. How do communities begin to cultivate a healthy integrated system of green spaces? 

Creating a Vision   

The City of Phoenix has a rich history of open space preservation, environmental leadership and the largest municipal park in the nation, South Mountain Park. However, for many years the city’s urban forest has been in decline. Urban trees have been unable to reach their full potential and provide their maximum return on investment due to poor landscape design, improper placement and planting of trees, and inadequate maintenance and irrigation practices. Recognizing the astonishing value that trees can provide - when the right tree is planted in the right place - the City of Phoenix management created the Tree and Shade Task Force that was charged to find a solution. Under the leadership of the Parks and Recreation Department, the Task Force developed the Tree and Shade Master Plan, which was unanimously adopted by the City Council in 2010. 

This plan launched a long-range green infrastructure initiative, Shade Phoenix 2030, which promotes growing a healthier, more livable and prosperous Phoenix through the strategic investment in the urban forest.  This was a tremendous accomplishment that established trees and shade as a critical component of the city’s infrastructure that must be considered at every stage of planning and development. 

The Tree and Shade Master Plan takes a holistic approach to the declining urban forest by taking a three step process to improve the forest’s health: raise awareness and develop partnerships; protect, preserve and increase trees and shade by inventorying trees and assessing their current health; and review and revise regulations to remove obstacles to growing healthy trees and building shade structures. By viewing trees differently, as a “solutions multiplier,” they help solve multiple problems simultaneously and provide numerous benefits including cleaner air, reducing stormwater runoff, providing important shade in a desert environment and decreasing energy costs. 

Educating Cities

In March of 2011, the first Regional Tree & Shade Summit was held in downtown Phoenix to educate and promote green infrastructure amongst the 25 local municipalities, Maricopa County and tribal communities in the region.  The cities of Phoenix, Mesa and Glendale, in partnership with Arizona State University’s (ASU) Sustainable Cities Network (SCN), hosted the event, highlighting tools, strategies and best practices on how to cultivate green infrastructure in the arid southwest.  The Summit strategically built on the success of the City of Phoenix’s internal Tree and Shade Summit and highlighted the City’s newly adopted Shade Phoenix 2030 initiative.  Over 225 attendees from the public, private and non-profit sectors participated, actively learning about best practices, collaborative opportunities and engaging in presentations from prominent local and national experts on urban forestry, tree inventories, setting tree canopy goals, low impact development (LID) techniques, sustainable landscape design and management, and developing and strengthening community involvement and partnerships.  The Summit brought together communities and professionals to garner support for future efforts.

The Summit was successful in making critical connections between various agencies, for example, the strong collaboration was formed between ASU’s SCN, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) Region 9 and the City of Phoenix. As a result, Phoenix was selected as a demonstration site for the Greening America’s Capitals program, which is a partnership between the US EPA, US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and US Department of Transportation (DOT). This partnership will provide the city with design assistance to develop a sustainable vision of Lower Grand Avenue, which is a historic business district adjacent to downtown. Best practices garnered from this community design process will be shared with other local communities through SCN, creating a more regional impact.  Projects and collaborative efforts such as these will greatly enhance Phoenix’s landscape and local communities in many different ways, increasing water and air quality, walkability, and overall community livability.

Cultivating Local Solutions and Successes

Communities across the state are beginning to incorporate green infrastructure practices and techniques in to new and existing projects.  These range from properly planting native trees and plants to redesigning street and landscapes, incorporating LID techniques and green roof installations. The City of Peoria, for example, recently completed a pedestrian-oriented project in Old Town Peoria which helped to improve walkability and the overall environmental sustainability of the area.   With the goal of creating a more pedestrian-friendly environment and reducing the urban heat island effect associated with asphalt pavement, the roadway was reduced by nearly 28% and replaced with large planting areas and decorative sidewalks.  Several shade trellises, solar-powered LED lighting, and decorative benches were installed as part of the project, dramatically increasing the curb appeal and walkability along the street.  In addition, to the green infrastructure elements, the City will achieve energy savings and long-term maintenance cost savings with the use of the new 65 watt LED lights.On the following column, view the City of Peoria – 84th Avenue between Monroe Street & Peoria Avenue in Old Town Peoria (Arizona) pedestrian upgrade.

Another example includes the City of Glendale’s 12.7 acre Park-and-Ride facility located at Glendale Avenue and 99th Avenue.  Through the use of green engineering and low impact development techniques, the original 22 acre vacant parcel was turned into a state of the art park-and-ride facility accommodating over 388 vehicle spaces and bus/local transit service. A feature that makes this project unique include the use of native, drought resistant landscape designed to capture rainwater runoff, creating a cooling effect to passenger platform surfaces.  Special pervious concrete covers the parking areas, “soaking up” water and facilitating faster drainage.  The low density material contributes to cooler surface temperatures, helping to alleviate the urban heat island effect. View the City of Glendale Park-and-Ride at Glendale Avenue & 99th Avenue (Arizona) below.

Building on the successes of local cities like Phoenix, Glendale and Peoria, SCN will convene a Green Infrastructure Workgroup beginning in late August 2011 to continue building on the information and discussions begun at the Regional Tree and Shade Summit.   The Workgroup will meet regularly with interested participants from the Summit, working to increase awareness of green infrastructure practices and the importance of expanding the urban forest, preserving open space, fostering regional collaboration, and identifying priorities and projects for local communities.  For more information on SCN’s Green Infrastructure Workgroup efforts, please visit or contact Anne Reichman at §

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