Transitioning to a Sustainable Economy: Tucson’s Future?

posted Thursday, May 6, 2010        

Sustainable Tucson is republishing the following call to the community which we originally presented in February 2008. The message is not only more relevant today but portends some of the events which have already happened since then. As we prepare to participate in the upcoming Imagine Greater Tucson process this coming Fall, let’s focus on the key challenge we all face: transitioning to a sustainable economy.

Transitioning to a Sustainable Economy: Tucson’s Future?

What is the greatest challenge we now face in Southern Arizona?

This question becomes more important as we join together this year in community conversations about our future. Increasingly, people are realizing the main challenge is not growth, but rather sustaining and improving our quality of life including our economy. Managing growth is necessary, but only part of what is required for success.

Our mounting problems are largely the result of over-dependence on population growth to keep our economy thriving. In addition to our attractive climate, desert landscape, and friendly, diverse culture, people migrate here for the affordable lifestyle. Until recently, we offered many low-cost advantages – cheap water, cheap energy, cheap labor, cheap capital, and cheap land. We also subsidized the expansion of public infrastructure and services to serve growth, mostly out of general revenues. As long as these favorable, artificial conditions for growth prevailed, people continued to move here. Only one year in our history – 1990 – did out-migration outpace population in-flux. And that was a year when our economy last hit bottom.

Our region’s long-term average population growth rate has been a little over 2% per year. The annual growth rate for Arizona as a whole has been more than 3%, resulting in doubling population and the required built environment every two decades. Job creation has generally kept up with population, yielding low unemployment rates, mainly because population growth has been the driver of job growth. Even though public systems and services were under-funded, this growth dynamic benefited most of us as long as the base kept growing.

But what happens when the conditions underpinning growth change? This is the situation we find ourselves in today – a drying, warming Southwest with looming water shortages; the end of cheap oil, natural gas, and coal; unprecedented price rises for food imports; people refusing to subsidize urban sprawl; increasing limitations on jurisdictions to maintain and expand infrastructure and services; a super competitive global economy driven by advances in science and technology; new accounting and costing proposals including measuring and limiting carbon impacts – and in the face of these growing uncertainties – questions about the declining health of the American economy and its financial systems. What does sustainability mean for us here as we confront these major, converging challenges of the 21st century?

Instead of debating the infinite pros and cons of growth, maybe we should focus on what really matters most to us – how are we going to successfully transition to an economy which sustains our quality of life into the future but doesn’t require unsustainable growth to keep it thriving?

The Arizona Department of Commerce initiated an important study several years ago to answer this question. However, that prospectus was mostly neglected and to date, remains little known. The bottom-line finding is that we are well-positioned to sustain our economy by developing a Sustainable Systems Industry based on already existing strengths in engineering, optics, biosciences, environmental design, earth sciences, and natural resources. Our sustainability challenges can all be converted into opportunities for centers of excellence in economic development. These sustainable systems and technologies would include resource-efficient products, services, and practices in the areas of water, energy, food, health, transportation, and housing. And perhaps most important, these industries would supply both the local economy and rapidly growing export markets – all responding to the new demands for higher performance standards.

Development leaders in both Tucson and Phoenix are already discussing the growth limitations of each city – the prospects of “population build-out” in the future. Some say our region should grow to 2 million, some say we can sustain another half million people, but others ask: How will we sustain even the current million people without fundamental economic innovation and investment in our deficient public infrastructure and services to support a new economy? Regardless of scenario, population growth will go away as the driver of the economy.

More immediately, growth is certain to slowdown naturally as development subsidies are reduced and demand for new development declines. Growth patterns will be better managed as we direct development and re-development pressures toward more compact, mixed use, transit-oriented urban form. The big questions that remain are: Will we respond to these sustainability challenges in time to ensure that our quality of life becomes sustained and not further eroded? Will we build a new economy based on the opportunities of sustainability? Or will we witness these converging challenges become the first step of long-term economic decline?

In his inspiring 2008 State of the City address, Mayor Bob Walkup called upon people and groups in the community to join together in building a new sustainable economy. This should be Goal One if we are to build economic resilience and attract sufficient investment within the next five years. Surely, we need clarity about where we are and where we’re headed. And we need a way to common ground, common vision and full community participation.

– Sustainable Tucson, February, 2008

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