Blog Archives

ASU report examines new ideas for Phoenix parks, public landscapes

[Source: Arizona State University] — Flying into Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, you become powerfully aware of a suburban landscape dominated by housing subdivisions, by single-family houses with large yards and private pools.  You will also see, interspersed throughout the vast expanse of residential tracts, a scattering of public parks and preserves.  But what role do these public landscapes play in a city with so many private landscapes, with such abundant opportunities for personalized leisure?

This question is at the center of the latest of Lab Report, an annual journal published by the Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory (PURL), a think tank and research center within the College of Design at Arizona State University.  In a series of articles on projects in the United States and Mexico, leading practitioners and academics argue that postwar cities, like Phoenix, test the relevance of the traditional city park, and would benefit from new approaches in which landscapes are defined not only as places but also as large-scale metropolitan systems…

In “Connected Oasis,” Christiana Moss describes a proposal developed by the architectural firm Studio Ma, working as part of the design team for the Downtown Phoenix Urban Form Project, to create a “green grid” that would interweave through downtown Phoenix a network of linear parks, plazas, and courtyards with the goal of making the streets shady and comfortable year-round.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.  To download a copy of the report, click here.]

Downtown Phoenix Urban Form Project topic of Sept. 30 RadiatePhx meeting

[Source: RadiatePhx] — Persons intersested in downtown Phoenix growth, development, and activity are invited to the special one year anniversary edition of RadiatePhx.  This month is a discussion of the Downtown Phoenix Urban Form Project as it enters the final stages of developing the Downtown Phoenix Form-Based Code.  Guest speakers are City of Phoenix Planning Department staff who have invested much time and energy into developing a plan that will affect development for years to come.

The Urban Form Project is a collaborative process to shape future growth and to help realize the Downtown Strategic vision for a livelier, more integrated, and sustainable downtown.  For more information, click here.  Event logistics below:

Can landscaping make Phoenix “walkable?”

[Source: Richard Nilsen, Arizona Republic] — The skyline may be interesting, but it is not where we live.  “We should not care about the skyline but the streetscape,” says Nancy Levinson, head of the Phoenix Urban Research Lab at Arizona State University.  “The skyline of Manhattan is something you appreciate in New Jersey.  In the thick of Manhattan, you’re excited about the streetscape. The skyline is something you see from a specific angle.  Many great cities don’t have a great skyline.”

And it is that street-level view that is lagging most in Phoenix.  “All good cities share a common quality,” Phoenix architect Eddie Jones says.  “They are walkable.”

Phoenix doesn’t make the grade.  “Downtown Phoenix is not a pleasant environment,” says Dean Brennan, a planner with the Urban Form Project, a city initiative to guide development. “People don’t come to downtown Phoenix to walk around — not like they do in downtown Tempe.  In Phoenix, we talk about shade.  That seems obvious.  But when a building is designed, you’d think shade would be a critical element of that design, but it’s not.  Shade isn’t provided.  Maybe some trees or a canopy, but it’s an afterthought.”

The question is: If the temperature is 105 degrees even in the shade, will landscaping be enough to turn Phoenix into a “walkable” city?  [Note: To read this article and online comments, click here.]

Got creativity? Help “spice up” Downtown Phoenix Plan

Let the creative juices flow... or something like that.

Okay, we all know about plans and what happens to many plans (i.e., they just sit on a shelf collecting dust).  Well, the City of Phoenix Planning Department wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to its Downtown Phoenix Plan, adopted by the Phoenix City Council on July 2.

The Plan is a policy document that will provide direction as the City continues work on the Form-Based Code and begins to prepare the detailed Connected Oasis Plan.  As a continuation of the Urban Form Project, Planning Department staff is conducting a series of public meetings in each of the Downtown Character Areas to prepare a detailed character analysis of each area.  That analysis will be used to prepare specific Form-Based Code development standards for each Character Area.  As the draft detailed analysis Character Area Plans are completed, they will be added to the department’s website.

The Plan format has not been finalized and the format may change.  If you have suggestions for the format design, “user-friendliness,” and method of dissemination — let’s get creative people! — pass your ideas along to Dean Brennan, Principal Planner, Phoenix Planning Department, by e-mail or phone at 602-262-4499.

Phoenix gets real (Republic editorial)

[Source: Arizona Republic, July 9, 2008] — Want to build a cool project in downtown Phoenix?  Start applying for zoning variances.  You’ll need as many as 18 to carry out an appealing urban, people-friendly plan — even though it is exactly the type of development the city is so eager to attract. 

We have a huge disconnect.  The city zoning code doesn’t distinguish between suburban neighborhoods and the central-city core.  The rules are basically the same for both areas: setbacks, lot coverage, parking requirements, building standards, and on and on.

Phoenix has made enormous strides in energizing downtown, with big-league sports, a growing university, an expanding convention center, new hotel rooms, art galleries, entertainment, and the start of a residential core.  Yet city regulations and policies throw a steady stream of monkey wrenches into the works.  Now Phoenix is finally moving to create a set of planning tools that fits downtown goals instead of subverting them.

Last week, the City Council adopted the Downtown Phoenix Plan.  It’s a follow-up to the Downtown Strategic Vision of 2004.  An overarching theme is the “connected oasis“: a series of attractive public places and pedestrian corridors that link the activity centers downtown.  It’s a way to bring out the character of this hot, arid place while also making it more livable.  The plan is designed to be a bridge to reality.  It lays out the regulations and public projects required to fulfill the vision.  Among the big steps that will take us over the bridge:

  • Adopt a new kind of zoning, a “form-based code.”  The current zoning code — known as “Euclidean,” after a town in a court case — emphasizes separating uses.  Residential, commercial, and industrial developments are kept apart.  At a more detailed level, the focus is on such basics as building height.  A form-based code takes a broader look, considering the relationship between buildings and the public realm, including sidewalks.  Maintaining the character of a neighborhood is important.  Mixed uses and creative reuses of old buildings are allowed, even encouraged.  Pedestrian comfort and safety are emphasized.  The city has been floating a draft form-based code, and many of the elements are in the plan.  The proposals include a process to allow building elements to project into the public right-of-way.  That could allow, for instance, overhangs that shade the sidewalk.  The private sector does this type of holistic planning in creating master-planned communities.  The difference is that Phoenix must work within existing development instead of starting with a clean slate.
  • Figure out creative funding mechanisms.  With a tight city budget and a wobbly economy, it’s a tough time to talk about spending.  But there are critical needs, including green space and shade structures, that will require extra dollars.  The success of downtown hinges on these relatively small investments, and skimping would be foolishly shortsighted.
  • Give us shade, shade, shade.  We’ve had lots of lip service and little action.  While Phoenix has started planting trees along parts of Central Avenue and other streets, the specimens are pretty scrawny.  Structures to provide shade are still so rare that the nearly two-decade-old Arizona Center is still held up as an example.  In one promising move, the city is doing an inventory of shade needs on downtown streets.  For future development, the plan shows how well-designed building heights and placement can shade streets and promote air movement, relieving some of the “urban heat island” effect.
  • Have the city set an example.  Downtown just won’t work if it isn’t a comfortable pedestrian environment, and Phoenix has done a less-than-stellar job on some of the projects it controls.  All city departments must be on the same wavelength about what works and how to maintain it.  No more trimming trees so severely that they provide little shield against the sun.
  • Get local input.  Phoenix has done a lot of outreach so far.  That’s particularly important for the next stage: identifying the characteristics of each neighborhood and then developing the standards to reinforce it.  Good participation in stakeholder meetings is essential.
  • Build the momentum to get things done.  The plan is full of ideas for using materials best suited to our environment, adding green space, offsetting the climate challenges, and reinforcing the downtown identity.  Carrying them out will take long-term commitment, resources, and enthusiasm. Support must come from all sides: government, business, non-profits, interest groups, and the community.

The first test will be getting the new form-based code approved by the end of the year.  The Phoenix downtown plan touches on themes that are vitally important in the rest of the city and in other communities throughout Arizona.  They should watch it carefully, cheer it on, and adopt all the relevant points.  To check out the Phoenix plan, go to

Downtown Phoenix may see more shade, parks

Urban Form Project

[Source: Jahna Berry, Arizona Republic, July 2, 2008] — Today, Phoenix is expected to take an important step toward bringing more shade, better-looking buildings and pedestrian-friendly spots to downtown. The City Council will likely approve today a key part of that sweeping effort, which is called the Urban Form project. The final part could go before city leaders at the end of the year. Downtown Phoenix relies on tourism and foot traffic, even during the steamy summer months, so the changes are also an economic issue, city leaders have said. “I think it really is a sea change,” said the city’s planner, Dean Brennan.

“What this… whole process has done is focus a lot of attention on downtown and the important role that the downtown plays in helping to create a sustainable community, helping to create a great community and a great city.”

Phoenix previously agreed to pay $855,000 to a team of consultants who worked on the plan with city planners. Downtown Phoenix Partnership, a business group, contributed $45,000.

Council members will vote today on the first part of the project, the Downtown Plan, which is a vision for future parking, growth and neighborhoods. It includes the Connected Oasis, a blueprint for increasing downtown shade, parks and foot traffic. The second part, an overhaul of downtown zoning rules, will go to the council this winter. If approved, it will simplify the city’s complex zoning code and will help city leaders implement the Downtown Plan’s goals, city officials say.

The proposals impact properties that cover 1,500 acres. The area roughly is bound by Seventh Avenue, Buckeye Road, Seventh Street and McDowell Road.

Give your feedback on the City’s Downtown Phoenix Plan

The City of Phoenix Planning Department staff re-write of the Downtown Phoenix Plan is available online.  This document was given to the Planning Commission on May 14 and represents a major re-write of the Public Review draft presented to the Planning Commission in January by the project consultant.  City staff has “tweaked” the text, replaced a number of the images, and continues to add more images and maps.

Your questions, comments, and opinions are welcome!  Give your feedback before June 9, 2008 to Dean Brennan, Principal Planner, Planning Department, City of Phoenix, at 602-262-4499 or e-mail.

Staff continues to work on the Form-Based Code and is now conducting meetings with stakeholders in each of the Character Areas identified in the Plan.  The Code will go to the Planning Commission and City Council this fall.

Learn more about Urban Form at public meetings

Urban Form Project graphic

The City of Phoenix Planning Department will hold a series of public meetings to provide an update and gain feedback on the Downtown Urban Form Project and Downtown Form Based Code proposal.  You are welcome to attend one or more of the following:

  • March 18, 6 p.m., SoDo Phoenix Business & Civic Association, Coach & Willie’s, 412 S. 3rd St.
  • March 19, 6 p.m., Roosevelt Action Alliance, Irish Cultural Center at Margaret T. Hance Park (north of Roosevelt on east side of N. Central)

Downtown Voices statement on redesigned ASU College of Nursing

Downtown Voices Coalition has been involved in the ASU College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation variance issue since the first hearing in January 2008.  The Coalition, its steering committee, and the organizations it represents can now lend support for the requested variances based on improvements made to the building’s exterior and movement towards subscribing to Urban Form Project design guidelines.

The Coalition hopes that a public art element can be incorporated into the design of the exterior, although we understand the issue of “add-on” art.  Further, the Coalition hopes that the City of Phoenix and ASU will seek citizen and stakeholder comment in the early stages of projects to garner public support and acceptance and improve the eventual outcome.

Steve Weiss, Chair, Downtown Voices Coalition

ASU planning students getting involved in downtown issues

ASU college students are getting out of the classroom and into the “real world” of urban planning issues by attending public meetings, helping local non-profit organizations and neighborhood associations, and encouraging others to “get involved.”  One surge in interest came as a result of ASU School of Planning students hearing that City of Phoenix officials, SmithGroup Architects, and ASU staff were asking for variances to the proposed ASU College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation contrary to their public pronouncements about shade, sustainability, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, and support for Urban Form design concepts.

Students attended a key January 23rd meeting called by the City of Phoenix to resolve issues brought forward by groups such as Downtown Phoenix Partnership and Downtown Voices Coalition.  They vow to continue to stay on top of this and other downtown planning issues by attending future public meetings, voicing their opinions, and communicating news and events via their “Planners@ASU” listserv newsletter.

According to Katherine Kittrell, ASU School of Planning student, “Planners@ASU” provides the framework for communication and interaction within an intellectual climate for the exchange of ideas and ideals, for lively scholarly fellowship, and for stimulation of interest in professional planning as an evolutionary and revolutionary engagement.