Leslie’s Vacation Verde: Tucson

Since returning from my Russian green building exchange (where my colleagues and I spent nearly all our time observing, discussing, tweeting, and blogging about the sustainable successes and challenges we found in the cities we visited), my senses have remained on auto-detect: constantly scanning their surroundings, looking for hints of sustainable living. So when I recently trekked to Tucson, Arizona with my husband’s family, I couldn’t help but notice a couple of cool things that I wanted to share.

Home to the University of Arizona (which offers a leading sustainable design program) and sometimes referred to as The Old Pueblo, Tucson is nestled in the Sonoran Desert and surrounded by the beautiful Santa Catalina, Tortolita, Santa Rita, Rincon, and Tucson Mountains. (If you’re in Tucson and have a chance to hike Mt. Lemmon or walk through Sabino Canyon, do it!) According to Visit Tucson, the city’s sustainable successes include a designation as one of 13 “Solar Cities” in the U.S., ranking at #6 in the country for clean air and low year-round particle pollution, very low CO2 emissions, and hundreds of miles of bike paths (more on biking below). Meanwhile, here are some things I noticed firsthand on my most recent visit.

Alternative Transportation

Pic 5 Tucson

Our Brompton bikes parked outside the donut shop.

Tucson has miles and miles of flat road. That, combined with relatively mild weather (at the end of May it was 100 degrees, but it was a decidedly dry heat) make biking quite easy. My sister-in-law, Kelsi (since I mentioned Kelsi, I must brag that she happens to be a LEED Accredited, CMU-trained architect!) and her boyfriend, Todd, are avid cyclists. They bike to and from work and Todd even brings their dog, Metro, everywhere he goes in a bike basket. Todd owns the Metro Gnome Music Shop (shameless plug) and when he discovered the super-cool and compact Brompton bike line, he just had to have one…and then became a distributor. Now he sells these London-made bikes and accessories and people come from near and far to get their hands on them.

Todd was kind enough to take the whole family on a bike ride to a local donut shop (my kind of bike ride) so we could all test out the Bromptons we’d heard so much about. I was really, really impressed. The bikes fold into themselves (easily enough that even I could pop mine in and out), so they would be quite easy to bring on the bus or even store in your office or cubicle if you don’t have another bike storage option. My bike rode really smoothly and I couldn’t tell much of a difference in comfort between this bike and my typical mountain bike (though Tucson roads are pretty smooth anyway, so there were no pot hole issues). Tucson’s main thoroughfare is a big, six-lane road that has some designated bike lanes but is definitely intimidating to novice street cyclists like me and some others in our group. Todd seamlessly led us through several back neighborhood streets with light traffic, over some crosswalks on the main road, and down some wide sidewalks that could fit both walkers and bikers. All in all, it was quite easy to get around town by bike even if we weren’t comfortable on the main streets. Best of all, I got a truly yummy donut out of the deal.

Outdoor Water Use

Kelsi and Todd's cistern.

Kelsi and Todd’s cistern.

When Janel and I teach our LEED Green Associate exam prep courses, a common example we use to explain Regional Priority Credits (LEED projects that achieve these automatically gain extra points) is the difference between Pennsylvania and Arizona: that is, our regional resources and challenges inform different priorities for reducing the impacts of our buildings. While in Tucson, those differences were hard to ignore. Pittsburgh gets almost 35 inches of rainfall per year, overloading our sewer systems and therefore making stormwater design a Regional Priority Credit for our region – at least in LEED v2009. Tucson gets just under 12 inches of rainfall per year, stream beds often run dry, and indeed after a quick search I verified that outdoor water use reduction is a Regional Priority Credit for that city – along with renewable energy production, optimize energy performance, high priority site, building life-cycle impact reduction, and heat island reduction. Sure enough, while in the car one day, I heard this local NPR story explaining that water use doubles in Tucson during summer months and reminding people not to over-irrigate their plants (although the story did mention that 70% of individual homes’ water use in Tucson was indoor, with toilets being the biggest culprits).

Bonnie and Hal's cistern.

Bonnie and Hal’s cistern.

How do Tucsonians reduce outdoor water use? From what I could tell, they use a lot of xeriscaping, rain collection, and drip irrigation systems when needed. You’ll rarely find a green yard in Tucson, as most homeowners embrace native plants like cacti, succulents, and olive trees (so pretty!). Kelsi and Todd do have a vegetable garden in their back yard and for that they mainly use a small cistern with a hose hook-up. Our hosts, Bonnie and Hal, also have two really large cisterns – one connected to their main house and one connected to the pool house where we stayed. Fruit trees seem relatively popular (my son, Oliver, loved picking lemons!) and they use a lot more water. From what I could tell, drip irrigation systems are used for the trees and anything else that needs water. I did notice something interesting at a local playground: some of the trees had small ditches dug around them, holding water. I wondered if this was a method for allowing the trees to soak up water over time, thus reducing the frequency or amount of water needed?

The curious tree puddle. A method of smart irrigation?

The curious tree puddle. A method of smart irrigation?

It seems that many Tucson homes have their own swimming pools and who could blame them? It is really sunny and really hot. I certainly indulged in one while I was there. Of course, pools require tons of water and chemicals to clean, but there are some alternative methods that can help reduce their impact. (For example, we learned recently that the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh has employed an innovative moss filtration system…cool!) I couldn’t find any pool distributors or maintenance companies in Tucson that explicitly used these alternate methods, but I did find some good examples in The Guardian, Good Housekeeping, and InHabitat.

These were my main observations while in Tucson, but I was also surrounded by family members and friends who demonstrated sustainable living every day. Kelsi and Todd compost and grow some of their own food. Bonnie and Hal belong to a CSA. Devin’s cousin, Kate, writes for Edible Baja Arizona (another shameless plug), a magazine exploring the region’s local food scene and sustainable agriculture. Devin’s uncle raises bees and makes his own honey. The family homes we visited were constructed with some passive methods to take advantage of the Tucson sun (complete with concrete floors and window overhangs). And everywhere I looked on this particular visit, I seemed to find something I wanted to share with my colleagues and GBA friends back home. I hope you learned something new!

Are you headed on summer vacation? If you’re using sustainable travel and lodging methods and/or notice something cool and green while on your next adventure, tell us about it! Email lesliem@gbapgh.org or tag us on Twitter @go_gba.

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