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Mayor Kate Gallego Makes Plans for a Sustainable Future

In Phoenix, she rallied for expanding the city's eco-friendly light-rail system

phoenix mayor kate gallego shows off a roof fitted with solar panels

Gregg Segal

En español | Three months after her election, Mayor Kate Gallego took to a stage at the Sheraton Grand hotel in Phoenix last June and made a case for the environment.

In what is a potentially dangerous condition for older residents, this city will experience about 145 days a year with a heat index above 105 by 2050, according to projections by Climate Central, a nonprofit media organization that analyzes scientific research. Phoenix has been described as the least sustainable city in America and is ranked by the American Lung Association as among the worst places for ozone pollution.

In her sweeping State of the City address, Gallego called for creating a statewide drought contingency plan, revitalizing the Salt River — which runs through the city's downtown — and overall, preparing for a hotter and drier future.

The speech also served as a rallying cry to oppose a ballot referendum that would defund an expansion of the city's light-rail system, a form of transit that Gallego saw as critical to a greener future.

Kate Gallego

Mayor, Phoenix, Arizona

• Problem: Rising temperatures pose health threats, and that can put older residents especially at risk.

• Solution: Develop cooling corridors and expand the eco-friendly light rail system.

• Results: Cooling corridors makes the outdoors more bearable, and voters kept the light-rail project on track.

"We're at a crossroads,” says Gallego, a 38-year-old Democrat. “We get to decide what kind of city we want to become. I really want to push us to being a sustainable city."

While many cities have storm-readiness plans, Phoenix continues to improve its heat-readiness plan. It includes planting trees to create cooling corridors where people could walk along shaded pathways to transit and shops, making the heat more manageable for older people and other vulnerable populations.

Gallego had worked for a local public utility and sat on the city's environmental commission before pursuing public office. As a member of the city council, she chaired the council's sustainability committee when it passed a measure to reduce carbon pollution by 80 percent by 2050.

"She was certainly known as a strong environmental advocate on the council,” says Mark Hartman, the city's chief sustainability officer.

But a big fight was brewing over light rail, an eco-friendly transit system. An opposition group, backed by Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy organization funded by the industrialists David and Charles Koch, had gotten a referendum on the ballot to defund its expansion. With such deep-pocketed opposition, Gallego enlisted the support of groups that had opposed her candidacy, such as the firefighters union. She tapped two council members who had supported her opponent to lead the campaign against the referendum. “She really is all about being inclusive, making sure that we don't leave anyone behind,” says city Councilwoman Debra Stark, who cochaired the campaign.

After weeks spent knocking on residents’ doors, speaking with the press and holding community meetings, the referendum was defeated in every district.

Now Gallego is looking to her next challenge: calling on communities along the Salt River to restore 58 miles of waterway that the region has struggled to revitalize for decades. In Phoenix, that could mean a restored riverfront with parks, walking and bike paths, and development. Gallego says a sustainable future “is something we need to prioritize for the city."

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