Innovation and the Future of Urbanization: A TSR interview with Dr. Karen Seto (Part Two)

As you may have read, we at The Sustainability Review recently had the good fortune of speaking with Dr. Karen Seto, Associate Professor of the Urban Environment at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies, on her research related to urbanization in China and India. In our first piece, we discussed the implications, drivers and challenges of global scale urbanization in China and India. In this edited portion of our conversation, we look to the future and discuss the obstacles to and opportunities for urban sustainability.

Challenges and Dynamics of Urbanization: A TSR interview with Dr. Karen Seto (Part One)

We at The Sustainability Review recently had the good fortune of speaking with Dr. Karen Seto, Associate Professor of the Urban Environment at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies, on her research related to urbanization in China and India. According to her official bio, Dr. Seto’s research focuses on four themes touching on human land-use transformation: its nature, impacts, implications, and potential future manifestations. In this first part of our edited transcript, we discuss aspects and drivers of urbanization in China and India. In the second part (forthcoming in Features), we look to the future and discuss challenges and opportunities for urban sustainability.

Innovation + City = Prosperity

By Rider Foley For thousands of years thriving cities have fostered inventors and creators from which wealth is generated (1). Yet, in some cases, once prosperous cities have receded into the annals of history by turning inwards, threatened by change (2). There are lessons here to be learned for Phoenix.

Metropolitan Phoenix emerged from innovations in large dam construction that both generated electricity and provided a consistent supply of water to the desert landscape (3). Initially, the young city’s broad boulevards gave wide berth for horse drawn carriages to turnabout. This feature, coupled with the one-mile by one-mile grid of agricultural plots gave rise to a quilt-like pattern of uniform construction practices making inexpensive homes available to many newcomers (4). Combined, these innovations generated prosperity for land owning farmers, land developers and production-oriented home builders (5).

In the last thirty years, the construction industry drove cyclical booms and busts with higher highs and lower lows than almost every other city in America (6). The urban fringe was pushed outward, forcing citizens to cover more miles in their daily journeys to and from the suburbs. Phoenix’s economy followed the construction industry’s lead causing the enrichment of some and cyclical elation and suffering for all others (7). In 2006, 244,000 people worked within the construction sector, that dropped to 115,000 in the last quarter of 2011, across Arizona (8). In Maricopa County this translated into the lowest unemployment rate of 3.6% in the summer of 2006 and the highest unemployment rate of 10.3% in 2009 (9).

There are a number of ways to respond to a recurring problem. One is to ignore the lows and focus efforts on climbing back up to the peak. If you were here in the early 1990’s, you might remember a similar story of collapse in the construction sector written in the city’s history. By allowing the construction industry to boom and expand further afield to the exurbs of Maricopa, Buckeye and Surprise the crash in 2006 was steeper and more painful than the first time around.

So, will Phoenicians get back on the construction industry’s bucking-bronco ride? Sure, some may jump back on for a quick thrill, risking another painfully abrupt crash. For the rest of us I want to discuss an alternative, an alternative to the complete reliance on residential construction as the single most powerful factor in the economic sustainability of Phoenix.

To foster sustainable economy we need to assess the resources available upon which we can build. To take a lesson from history, we must not turn inwards and isolate our community from diverse and innovative ideas, inventions and creations. A wealth of smart, talented people in Phoenix need to be educated and supported in their entrepreneurial efforts. How do we do this? There are 39.5 million square feet of empty commercial space—16.8% of the total commercial/industry space—in metro Phoenix (10). Our cities must partner with private landowners to incubate small entrepreneurs. An example of this proposal can be found in the incubator space for small businesses in Chandler created from the skeletal remains of an old Motorola facility. Yes, it cost $5.7 million in renovations, but it drew talented and creative people to that city (11). Chandler is not alone, Scottsdale partnered with ASU at SkySong, offering mentoring, coaching and space for talented entrepreneurs to grow (12). Chandler and Scottsdale are not competing along the 101 corridor; metropolitan Phoenix is competing with San Diego, Boston, London, Shanghai, Mumbai, the world.

In Phoenix’s financial center, our bankers, lenders, venture capitalists and angel investors need to avert their longing gaze from the siren’s song of real estate investment. They must open themselves to the opportunities inherent in supporting the creatives, the innovators, the entrepreneurs that are fighting to have their ideas heard. A small investment would further an entrepreneur’s efforts, providing them the space to expand, and hire additional talent to produce, refine and ultimately sell their creations.

These resources (space, government commitment and funding) are dispersed throughout metro Phoenix and need to be marshaled for economic growth. I propose that we focus on developing the existing community assets to encourage the birth and growth of small businesses and in turn, redesign our future economic model. We can try to attract corporate divisions to Phoenix. Those types of efforts should not stop. But our emphasis should be on demonstrable support for local entrepreneurs. The future challenges for the Greater Phoenix Economic Council (and their municipal counterparts in economic development) might be to keep our local companies here, rather than working so hard to bring in another distribution center. Retaining local companies, already embedded in the social, cultural and talented pool of local employees, might just be an easier task than always seeking to lure in large corporations.

One society here already faded into the Valley’s desert sands: the Hohokam (13). Communities often turn insular, closed to new ideas or unable to adapt to stress, when faced with internal or external pressures, and fade into history (14). Phoenix could vanish once again.

The world has changed. Your neighboring cities are not the competition; they are a source of future prosperity. Investing in our regional community will enable the most creative citizens to overcome today’s challenges, while taking the lessons learned from the past, and building our capacity to invent the future.

Contributor Biography

Rider W. Foley, a Graduate Student at the School of Sustainability and Research Assistant at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University


1. Kotkin, J. 2005. The city: a global history. Random House Inc. New York, New York.

2. Kennedy, P. 1987. The rise and fall of the great powers. Random House Inc. New York, New York.

3. Dutton, A.A. 2002. Arizona now and then. Westcliffe Publishers. Boulder, CO.

4. Gober, P. and Trapido-Lurie, B. 2006. Metropolitan Phoenix: place making and community in the desert. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia, PA.

5. Gammage Jr., G. 1999. Phoenix in perspective: reflections on developing the desert. Herberger Center for Design Excellence. Tempe, AZ.

6. The Economist. 2005. The south-western economy: dreams in the desert. Published Nov. 24.

7. Henig, C. 2010. Real-estate boom-bust: lessons learned. Phoenix Business Journal. Published March 26.

8. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2011. Databases, tables, and calculators by subject. Retrieved from:

9. Arizona Department of Administration. 2011. Arizona’s workforce employment rate – employment & population statistics. Retrieved from:

10. Colliers International. 2011. Q3 2011 Industrial: Phoenix research and forecast report. Retrieved from:

11. Scott, L. 2011. Chandler business incubator is nearly full at 95%. Arizona Republic. Published May 7.

12. Casacchia, C. 2008. SkySong Arizona State University Scottsdale Innovation Center celebrates first building opening. Phoenix Business Journal. March 27.

13. Redman, C. 1999. Human impact on ancient environments. University of Arizona Press. Tucson, AZ.

14. Tainter, J.A. 1988. The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge University Press. NY, NY

Digital Farm Collective

By Matthew Moore The Digital Farm Collective is an international initiative to record and share footage, philosophies and scientific data on the growth of produce. Using time-lapse films, interviews with farmers and agricultural data, artist Matthew Moore hopes to contribute to a more sustainable global food system by sharing and preserving the growing practices of produce farmers from all over the world.

Moore is a fourth generation farmer whose land and agricultural practice are quickly being overcome by suburbia. He was inspired by his personal experiences and interactions with other farmers to create the "Digital Farm Collective." Using time-lapse photography, Moore began filming everything he grows and inviting other farmers to do the same. The arranged short films show a single production cycle of each plant or tree. These films, along with interviews with farmers and measurements of the conditions in which the plants are grown, will be compiled to create an international database, or living library, to engage, educate and reconnect people with their food by sharing the stories of the plants and of the farmers and families that grow them.

The website,, will be the repository for all of the footage and data that are garnered from efforts to document cultivated plants from around the world. Each selected farmer is sent a time-lapse video package to record the lifecycles of selected crops from seed to harvest as well as a system that monitors the environmental conditions under which each plant is grown. Their personal growing history and philosophies are also recorded in order to retain and share the cultural knowledge of farmers from around the world. In a time of shifting growing regions and movement away from individualized farming practices, the images and information gathered will serve as important sources for consumer engagement and education, curriculum development and scientific research, and as a social network of involved growers and farming professionals.

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Contributor's Biography:

Matthew Moore was born in 1976 in San Jose, California. He lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona. He received a B.A. in studio art and art history from Santa Clara University, California, in 1998 and a M.F.A. in sculpture from San Francisco State University in 2003. His work has been shown around the country, including at the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, California (2009), the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota (2008), and MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts (2005). He has been featured in international publications including Metropolis Magazine, Dwell and Architecture Magazine, as well as Mark Magazine and Dazed and Confused of Europe.

Repurpose the Street: Mission Greenbelt & Related Projects

By Amber Hasselbring In her first solo exhibition at SF Arts Commission Gallery in 2007, Hasselbring launched the Mission Greenbelt project, an ongoing public artwork inspired by the city’s Sidewalk Landscaping Permit, made available in 2006. The permit process allows residents to replace portions of sidewalk concrete with gardens. The Mission Greenbelt project’s goal was to build contiguous habitat gardens in SF’s Mission District, connecting Dolores Park (19th & Dolores) to Franklin Square Park (16th & Bryant). The interactive SFAC Gallery exhibition featured mixed media artworks (see image: mission greenbelt puzzle), bilingual sidewalk landscaping permit applications, a temporary CA native garden, as well as events including a campaign kick-off celebration, workshops, public school visits, plant sales and tours of the proposed Mission Greenbelt route.

Over the past five years, the Mission Greenbelt project has partnered with others to build gardens in SF sidewalks, backyards, park edges and parking spaces (see image: park(ing) day 2008) throughout the Mission, SOMA, Central Market, Bernal Heights and Noe Valley neighborhoods. These Mission Greenbelt gardens, with plentiful pollen and nectar resources, provide forage and habitat for pollinators and songbirds. The Mission Greenbelt project also fosters participation, from garden design, building and maintenance, to public enjoyment and the creation of new artwork in the form of signage, temporary graffiti, outdoor music, dance and performance.

In a Mission Greenbelt-related project, Seeding Lower 24th St., Hasselbring sowed wildflower seeds in tree basins along this busy commercial corridor. For the project, Hasselbring solicited businesses along Lower 24th St. to contribute five to 20 dollars to purchase soil and seed. Then, with borrowed tools and help from volunteers, she amended existing soil and planted hand-collected CA native wildflower seeds. The following spring, Hasselbring photographed the results, which numbered very few wildflower starts (see image collage: seeding lower 24th st.).

In fall 2010, Hasselbring partnered with Michael Zheng’s LiVE WORK art space to install an outdoor bee habitat garden. Hasselbring designed the garden with aggregations of flowering plants, with bloom times from April through October to attract an assortment of wild bees (see image: bumblebee gathering pollen). The garden also incorporated patches of bare soil in full sun to anticipate the arrival of ground nesting bumblebees Apidae or sweat bees Halictidae. For more information on building your own urban bee garden, visit

Most recently, Hasselbring participated in projects along SF’s Market Street corridor in partnership with the SF Arts Commission, Studio for Urban Projects, and SPUR (SF Planning + Urban Research Association). During the flight of the western tiger swallowtail butterfly Papilio rutulus, Hasselbring designed a street-level billboard illustrating the butterfly’s life cycle and relationship to the London Plane trees Platanus × acerifolia (see image: swallowtails and sycamores). These trees, when planted along both sides of Market St. after the completion of the Bay Area Rapid Transit tunnel system, produced an annual flush of large yellow and black butterflies from early July through late October. Hasselbring then worked with Lisa Lee Benjamin, Bay Natives Nursery, Natures Acres Nursery, Moose Curtis, Tim Armstrong and volunteers to Reclaim Market St. at Civic Center. This work, entitled Thin Green Line, began in the fountain where leaf and flower patterns emerged out of the algae, continued as a narrow sod lawn surrounded by CA native plants, and marched out to Market St. with moss packed into cracks in the brickwork (see image collage: reclaim market street: thin green line).

And there’s more to come:

• This spring, if you’re in SF, please join Hasselbring for a bike tour of private Pacific chorus frog Pseudacris regilla ponds followed by a frog pond building workshop (April 15, 2012). For more information, visit

• Hasselbring and Lisa Lee Benjamin are working as lead artists with a team on a project that will fill the SFMOMA windows along Minna and Natoma Streets at 3rd St. with an insect habitat. This work called Urban Hedgerow will be installed from January – July 2013. For more information and updates, visit and

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Contributor’s biography

Amber Hasselbring is a San Francisco-based artist making work about ecological relationships. Her work samples surrounding ecosystems to design public art, sidewalk gardens, backyards, and open spaces to establish contiguous habitat for pollinators and songbirds. Since moving to SF in 2005, Hasselbring has produced collaborative, project-based works that involve participation by invited and circumstantial audiences. The goal of her work is to incite curiosity in urban dwellers by helping them discover the natural world just outside their doorstep.


Moving to Atlanta from Detroit in 2006, I was immediately struck by the pace of growth in the area. I knew I had to make work that addressed this issue, but I also wanted to avoid rehashing the architectural imagery of new home construction that often defines urban sprawl. Instead, the images in this series were created using motion sensor cameras placed in two cities lying approximately 20 miles northeast of Atlanta: Suwanee, which has seen its population nearly double from 8,725 to 15,355 in the last ten years (1) and Buford, now home to the largest shopping mall in Georgia and the 14th largest in the United States. It is an area very much on the frontlines of urban sprawl in America (2). Recently, I have focused the work on a 44-acre property in Suwanee that has been put up for sale. I was in shock when the property first went up for sale because I knew it to be a dense ecosystem of Georgia wildlife and also one of the last sizable chunks of land in the area. After receiving permission from the owner, I started placing two to three cameras in the forest at a time to document the animals living there before the property sells. The placement of the cameras was entirely intuitive. While I originally paid great attention to tracks in the forest, hoping to get quicker results, I now place the cameras randomly, paying more attention to the aesthetics of the scene. I often feel as though I am setting the stage for an event that I will not be present to see.

The cameras themselves are essentially camouflaged, waterproof casings with a motion sensor and a 35mm instamatic film camera inside. The images they produce, although sharp, are distinct from more advanced systems used by wildlife photographers to capture rare and endangered animals. This difference is important because, aside from liking the snapshot quality of the images they produce, I am also employing the same tools that hunters use to survey areas for game. Like the hunter, the camera functions as an intruder in the forest. The flash illuminates the night, revealing the creatures we know are there but rarely see. In this way, the photographs allow the viewer to form a relationship with the animals with which we share our own backyards and give an identity to the real victims of urban sprawl.


(1) "City of Suwanee Facts & Figures," accessed June 10, 2011,

(2) FAO, More people than ever are victims of hunger, 2009, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Press Release, June 2009.

Contributor's Biography

Matthew Moore received an MFA degree in 2009 from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia where he was awarded the Ernest G. Welch Graduate Photography Award in 2007 and the Chandler Award in 2006. He received a BFA degree in 2000 from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. After completing his BFA Matthew moved to the Czech Republic for two years. Since that time, he has returned there frequently to exhibit work and lecture, most recently at Prague College and Univerzita J. E. Purkyne. In 2002, Matthew became a regular contributor to Hour Detroit Magazine, and his 2004 documentary "A Tale of Two Cities" won a silver medal for Best Photo Essay from the City and Regional Magazine Association. Other editorial clients include Detroit Home Magazine, XXL and Mass Appeal. In addition to his editorial work, Matthew has also taught photography at several institutions and universities including Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan and Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. He currently lives in Baltimore where he is an instructor of photography and coordinator of the photography program at Anne Arundel Community College. For more of his work, please visit

Creating a Sustainable Desert Metropolis

Artists have long appreciated the desert for its otherworldly landscape. Painter Georgia O'Keefe devoted much of her late career to capturing the distinct elements of the American Southwest, and architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright felt a strong connection to the desert – a place, he said, which inspired its own singular style of architecture. Environmental artist Joan Baron is no different in her appreciation of the desert's unique attributes and the creative opportunities they present. Such opportunities are the subject of Baron's ongoing urban landscape installation, The Edible Landscape Project – a unique rental property for those who crave the hands-on approach to their food source.

The Homeowner

In 1980, Baron bought and renovated a house on the same street as her property with the goal of creating a functional desert living space far different than your typical track house. The rental home offers her tenants a completely edible landscape and the opportunity to collaborate with her art and environmental sensibilities in a garden setting.

Baron bounces ideas off her tenants to try to answer the question that drives her art: what is it that sustains us?

"Respecting the land and what it can provide for us, living in purpose, growing one’s food and spending time outdoors with nature all contribute to best practices for sustained happiness and well-being," Baron says. "This is the making of a sustainable desert metropolis."

The Tenants

Midwest transplants, Melissa and Ben Beresford left their native Chicago to begin their respective graduate programs in Tempe. Disappointed by the sterile apartment landscape of the Phoenix metro area, they took a chance on a less traditional rental agreement when they found Baron’s project.

"We liked the emphasis on sustainability, and we both come from a family of gardeners, so it was perfect," says Melissa, who added that she and Ben had limited knowledge of how to garden in a climate with six growing seasons. Shortly after moving in, they started reaping the benefits.

Both successful harvests and failed attempts have taught them a great deal.

The Lessons

Baron and her tenants have learned the importance of strategically planning and planting for the best sun orientation. Fruit trees can handle more sun exposure, so south-side planting tends to work best. Plants that need a bit more shade can still be planted on the south side as long as some shading is provided.

They have learned that raised plant beds allow for companion planting—spatial relationships that are mutually beneficial—such as tomatoes with pole beans and kale, broccoli and cauliflower with garlic and dill.

"Mint and chives help to repel bugs and aphids, while spinach provides a living mulch for garlic," Baron says. "Marigold and oregano provide overall protection."

Raised beds also offer an element of flexibility. They can be custom designed to fit a space, and in the summer months if the raised beds need more shading, shade screen tents can be added. The beds also make it practical to use locally produced mulch and soil as well as fish oil and other nutrients.

"The beds allow me to provide my own soil mix rather than rely on the hard-dirt soil found on most properties," Baron says.

Finally, they have learned to focus their gardening energy on lesser known foods rather than the ubiquitous types of produce they can get cheaply from their local grocer.

"I encourage people to try different varieties of greens, such as microgreens or different varieties of basils or mints," Baron says. "When you go into a grocery store you will find one basic choice for your basil."

The Edible Landscape currently produces three varieties of plums, Anna apples, Desert Gold peaches, figs, pomegranates, Valencia oranges, Meyer lemons, Mexican limes, kumquats, blood oranges, Swiss chard, kale, arugula, society garlic, six varieties of peppers, artichokes, Armenian cucumbers, rosemary, oregano, sage, fennel, dill, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, okra, lavender, thyme, mint and lettuces.

"Joan taught us about some of the native medicinal plants of the desert," Ben says. "We have creosote growing along with senna, agaves, aloe, globe mallow calendula and Navajo tea." Cresote, a prevalent desert shrub, helps cure sore throats and congestion, while senna, in small quantities, can help treat digestive problems.

Re-imagining Desert Space

Growing food makes up only half of the equation, Baron says. The other half is how to use space and materials efficiently—a key idea to developing a sustainable desert metropolis.

"The Edible Landscape Project is a look at a different kind of system," Baron says.

For example, Baron collects the desert's most precious resource with a rain gutter that guides rainwater into a 400-gallon cistern she created from a section of metal culvert. She also stripped the driveway of concrete to reduce heat island and improve water absorption. She created more opportunities for natural cooling by planting five mesquite trees that are now fully grown and provide up to 40 feet of shade in the front garden. Using limbs of the native ocotillo, Baron constructed a living fence to help create a communal space for the tenants in the front garden as opposed to the back. Baron sees the frequent non-use of homes’ front space as a lost opportunity.

"We live in a backyard culture, and often the front spaces are dismissed and not considered as viable active areas," Baron says. "The ocotillo provides a lovely sculptural element to the landscape of the front space. It’s private yet welcoming."

Baron also planted a row of hollyhocks and sunflowers in the back alleyway of her studio. The gardening tactic has community implications as well: to make a shared space, solely reserved for the discarding of trash, more welcoming to the community that shares it.

If the focus of the Edible Landscape Project is how to live more sustainably in the desert, then its underlying theme is community stewardship. Baron and her tenants break the mold of the traditional owner-renter relationship, in that they must work together to care for the property and make the project grow—literally. The sense of community the project cultivates is what ultimately leads to further success.

When it comes to creating a sustainable desert metropolis, Baron reminds us that we’re all stewards, and we can all share in the bounties of nature.

Contributor's Biography:

Britt Lewis is a graduate student in the Department of English at Arizona State University, where she is studying ecocriticism.