Kate Gallego became only the second elected female mayor of Phoenix when she won office in 2019. At 38 she is the youngest such figure in any major US city. Arizona’s state capital is the US’s fifth largest city; it faces challenges from urban sprawl to climate change. With a degree in environmental studies and more than four years on the city council behind her, Gallego is focusing on the city’s sustainability, boosting mass transit and creating a more diversified economy.
In August residents rejected a ballot proposition that would have axed funding for light-rail transit. Why is it so important for Phoenix?
Light rail has been key in letting us grow up, instead of out. That density is important. It allows people to spend less on transport and more on education, medical care or investing in a small business. We have loved seeing the growth in investment along the light rail [line]. We also have a lot of young people who don’t always want to be stuck in a car so it’s helped us attract a more creative workforce and retain more of our graduates.
Phoenix is a desert city facing climate change. How are you ensuring that it remains a viable place to live?
Climate change is a huge challenge for those of us who live in the desert. The Salt River is key to our growth and Phoenix is built on canals. The canal system is a huge asset so I’m trying to make sure we invest in that infrastructure. I’m also working on redeveloping our riverfront. Our voters have approved a long-term plan to become the most sustainable desert city in the world. We’ll have to innovate and experiment to get there but I am hopeful that great design, building materials and water strategies will come out of this community.
What is it like being the youngest big-city mayor in the US?
I come from a generation where people like to work with those who are very different from them. So we’re aware of a wide variety of perspectives. I also think that it’s good to have young parents in government: it helps to think about what you’re leaving for the next generation – and that’s something we could do more often in politics.
What do Sweden, Norway, Australia and New Zealand have in common? They’ve all had cities and towns unexpectedly ravaged by wildfires in recent years, forcing them to consider how to mitigate new threats on the fringe of their urban areas. Control methods vary, from clearing understories in Australia to planting fire-resistant greenery in New Zealand, but the strategy remains the same: surround your city with vegetation to slow the fire’s progression.
“Fire, like water, has a habit of running across a landscape in a very particular way,” says David Bowman, a professor and wildfire expert from the University of Tasmania. As a pyrogeographer, Bowman studies the relationship between wildfires, landscapes and communities and says that cities should take the lead on creating swathes of uninterrupted greenery. Perhaps our best firefighters might not be at the fire station but in city hall.