With zero gas, zero oil changes and zero CO2 emissions, the 2016 Focus Electric delivers an electrifying ride

Phoenix By Design

2016 Ford Focus Electric spotlights four key players helping to fight the city’s sprawl—and shape its sustainable future

By Reed Jackson
Photographs by Tom Fowlks

Standing in front of the Hole-in-the-Rock, a red rock formation in Phoenix named for its doughnut shape, I peer through a window framed by million-year-old sandstone to view a city that seemingly goes on forever. Winding up the back roads of Papago Park to get here in my 2016 Ford Focus Electric with its surprisingly powerful 107-kW electric motor, I had taken in bits and pieces of the area’s infamous sprawl, but now I get the whole picture: Miles of development stretch as far as my eyes can see, giving teeth to cautionary tales about building too far into the desert.

Once I venture back into the city’s core, however, I begin to see things—a bicycle renting pod, EV charging stations, a solar panel–covered roof in the distance–that hint of change. The Valley of the Sun, now the fifth largest city in the country—yet the lowest of the top 10 in terms of population density—is trying to refocus itself inward to help create a more sustainable future. Thankfully, the city’s individualism and relatively newfound status as a metropolis allow it to work on the fly. I’m here to witness its reinvention firsthand in the Focus Electric, a similarly forward-thinking EV that can run on renewable energy and no gas. I will soon learn that efficiency is something many Phoenicians have prided themselves on—but are just now beginning to put into action.

The Architect

The colorful display of SmartGauge® with EcoGuide monitors my driving productivity as I head toward White Stone Studios, a modern living complex located on the outskirts of downtown, which, coincidentally, also emphasizes efficiency in every manner possible. Architect Benjamin Hall, who funded, designed, built and now manages the building, took inspiration from a 300-square-foot apartment he stayed in while studying in Copenhagen. “I got accustomed to small living, which was definitely the opposite of attitudes here.” Hall got the idea for the project after moving to the neighborhood six years ago and discovering that, like many other blocks in Phoenix, it was riddled with vacant lots. He decided to build a project on one that would be ultra-sleek and efficient, using the area’s harsh desert climate to its advantage through clever design strategies, like white concrete block that delays heat transfer during the day to warm units at night passively. Add in the fact that everything inside the apartments is beautifully handcrafted by Hall, and it’s no wonder that there’s a long waiting list to rent one. “I was hoping more young professionals would come here and inject their spirit,” Hall says, “and it’s worked.”

The Mayor

No one is more willing to admit that Phoenix didn’t always view sustainability as a top priority than Mayor Greg Stanton. He starts by referencing a 2011 book that deemed Phoenix “the least sustainable city on the planet.” Stanton uses it as a source for motivation. “Let’s take the weakest thing about this city and turn it into something beautiful,” he says. Stanton has implemented a number of plans, including an immense transportation initiative to expand its light rail, bus and bike services, to promote cleaner air usage. He also advocates the use of EVs and construction of charging infrastructure. The city’s immense sprawl requires many stations, so Stanton is dealing with the issue by pushing for more inward construction projects, like a 15-acre community garden in the middle of downtown. These initiatives have been effective: Last year, Phoenix was named one of the greenest cities in the country by the US Conference of Mayors because of its sustainable initiatives. “You don’t think of Phoenix as a progressive city,” Stanton says, “but we’re taking some massive steps in the right direction.”

The Power People

SRP's Kelly Barr (left) and Kathy Knoop (right)

When I talk to Kelly Barr and Kathy Knoop of Salt River Project, a public power utility that provides power and water for over a million customers in Arizona, Knoop adds some historical perspective: “I think people have an innate sense of sustainability here.” By “here” she means the Sonoran Desert, where local Native American tribes thrived for more than a thousand years by setting up an advanced canal system, which SRP still manages today. SRP is continuing to demonstrate its commitment to environmental leadership through a number of sustainable measures, including its successful EV program. As we talk inside SRP’s headquarters, the Focus Electric is quietly charging at one of the many stations outside. These are primarily for the utility’s 37 EVs, most of which are Fords. Knoop, SRP electric transportation coordinator, and Barr, senior director of environmental management, also educate customers on the benefits of using EVs through an online electric vehicle economy calculator and provide large companies with rebates to build charging stations in their parking lots for their customers and employees. “Phoenix is made up of a wide range of individuals; but we all share a dedication to sustainability,” Barr says.

The Job Generator

It’s estimated that up to 40% of Phoenix is vacant lots, and nowhere is that more evident than on Van Buren Street, a rough stretch leading into downtown. I use SYNC® 3* with Navigation System for directions after the blocks begin to look similar. According to the city, Van Buren will soon undergo a transformation into a thriving corridor. Private and nonprofit sectors are joining forces, with people like David Adame, president and CEO of Chicanos Por La Causa, a longstanding community development corporation, spearheading projects. That includes the redevelopment of an old pickle factory into a small business incubator. Inside, you still get a whiff of vinegar from the circular vat where the pickles were made. “This project is reusing something meaningful from the past,” Adame says. CPLC hopes to fill the place with an innovative makerspace for the community, sharing work areas with local businesses while preserving as much of the original structure as possible. Adame, who grew up nearby, believes this is indicative of the city’s new identity. “The whole idea is about creating a new history,” he says. As I leave in the Focus Electric and drive toward the core of Phoenix, I can see its future on the horizon.

*Available feature. Don’t drive while distracted. Use voice-operated systems when possible; don’t use handheld devices while driving. Some features may be locked out while the vehicle is in gear. Not all features are compatible with all phones. Message and data rates may apply.

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