Learning From South Phoenix

A Controversial Project

Looking down from the Central Avenue Bridge that crosses over the Salt River, I see a tiny stream of water lined by tall grasses. It is paralleled on both sides by recently leveled brown dirt. Looking north, the riverbed is lined by industrial parks partitioned by either block or chain link fences. Looking south, a line of bulldozers awaits their work for the day. It is here at this site that a restoration of the river’s natural ecosystem is planned. This will be done by planting tens of thousands of native trees, forming wetland marshes, establishing a lower Sonoran habitat, and attracting more and more species of animals. In addition, pathways will be created for the recreation of the general public. This undertaking has been named the "Rio Salado Project." This project, which outwardly appears to be a beautiful asset to South Phoenix, has become the object of much controversy. There are many pros and cons associated with its creation.

The most obvious pro would be the transformation of the Salt River from an “urban scar” to a lovely park. It will be useful to the community for both recreational and educational purposes. In addition, Beyond the Banks (a plan for the development around the Rio Salado Project) intends to maximize the city’s investment in the restoration. Thirty public review meetings were held so that the community’s input and vision would be reflected. The plans include the screening of land uses, stronger code enforcement, the establishment of an Audubon Nature Center, the construction of a scenic drive, the building of two new neighborhood parks, landscape enhancements on streets, increased police patrols, an increase in youth recreational activities, and the attraction of new businesses and residents. Overall, Beyond the Banks claims that it will make an important contribution to the city by increasing residents, jobs, schools, and neighborhood parks. All of this will be done without using condemnation processes. However, the problem with this plan is that it is simply that: a plan.

Among the many cons of the Rio Salado project is that the optimistic plans of Beyond the Banks can only be recommended, not enforced. Many of the suggested improvements will be contingent on the choices of private companies. In addition, there are many environmental concerns. Environmental activist Steve Brittle, in his article “The Rio Salado Project—the Rest of the Story” (published in the Environmental Justice Explorer), highlights some of these concerns. First, there are a large number of dumps and landfills along the Salt River bed. Restoring the riparian environment by continuously adding water may cause seepage of chemical wastes into the riverbed. Second, the Federal Aviation Administration recommends that wildlife attractants do not exist within 10,000 feet of airport runways. This is because birds can get stuck in plane engines and cause crashes. However, this 10,000-foot advisory impacts a portion of the Rio Salado due to the proximity of Sky Harbor Airport. Third, the Tres Rios Project (another restoration of the river’s ecosystem) has had a severe mosquito problem. It is likely that the Rio Salado Project will face the same predicament. The presence of a great number of mosquitoes is a health risk and will eventually cause people to avoid the area. These are only a few of the many issues raised by the Rio Salado Project undertaking.

Despite the protests of opponents, the Rio Salado and Beyond the Banks projects are underway. This raises the question of “Is this a case of environmental justice?” Activist Steve Brittle would say it is, considering that residents were not presented with both sides of the issue. However, his opinion is not definitive enough. Scholars Pijawka and colleagues (in their article “Environmental Equity in Central Cities: Socioeconomic Dimensions and Planning Strategies”) have highlighted three main concerns of environmental equity: procedural, process, and distributional. Have the proper regulations and environmental protection procedures been followed? Has the process allowed for citizen participation? Is there fair geographical distribution of environmental benefits and burdens? The answers to these questions are truly dependent on who answers them. Proponents of the Rio Salado Project would say “Yes.” Opponents would say “No.” Therefore, the people who truly need to answer these questions, and thereby determine the justice of the issue, are the residents of South Phoenix. They are the ones who will be most affected by the benefits and costs of the entire endeavor.

Go to the Beyond the Banks website for more information.

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