Last fall, a team of Sustainable Cities Honors Students from Arizona State University participated in group research projects examining biophilic characteristics in and around Phoenix. Each team had a site or neighborhood within the city that they examined for characteristics such as environmental stewardship, community engagement, knowledge and proximity to nature, and prevalence of fauna on vacant lots. They used various research methods from surveys to interviews to GIS calculations, and then presented their work in a final presentation. Our team in Virginia was lucky enough to be Skyped in on the presentations, and so we were also able to learn more about Phoenix through their hard work and thoughtful research methods.
Below, is an interview of the Honor’s students created for this blog. In the future, we also plan to highlight a more comprehensive overview of each team’s work, so stay tuned!
1. Introduce yourselves!
Hello-dy! I am Sky Eigen. I am a freshman majoring in Sustainability (B.S.) at Arizona
State University. I have lived all over the U.S., as well as parts of Central America and the
Caribbean; although, I have been living in the Phoenix area for the past five years. My goal is
to become a “world-saver,” and I find research extremely enticing and engaging, so when I was
presented with the opportunity to participate in this project, I was excited to start on the path to
becoming…well, a “world-saver.” Haha.
Howdy!! I am Bridget Harding. I am a Sustainability major at Arizona State University. I’ve
lived in the northern Phoenix suburbs my whole life, but I have recently had the chance to
get to know the downtown area of Phoenix better. I’ve become interested in the idea of urban
gardening, whether it be for food for the community, or even if it is for the purpose of educating
Arizonans about the native species! My favorite desert flower is the firecracker penstemon!
Hello, my name is Emily Alvarez. This is my third year at Arizona State University and am
majoring in Urban Planning (B.S.P) with a minor in Sustainability. I have been working in an arid
ecology research lab at ASU since my freshman year and was beyond excited when I got the
opportunity to study two things that I love in one project- plants and cities! My goal is to become
a city planner who helps preserve nature by incorporating it into cities to create sustainable,
green living spaces.
2. Which site did your groups focus on for the Phoenix-metro area location, for the
“desert city” aspect of the project? What were the goals for those projects?
S – My group focused on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, and even a bit of the surrounding
area (when attempting to determine how “biophilic” it is). Our goal was to find out how people
interacted with nature while in the preserve, so we asked them how frequently they visited the
preserve, how they found out about it, what they generally did when they were there–and other
questions along that line.
B – The group I took part of focused mainly on vacant lots in the downtown area. We narrowed
our focus down to a seven by seven block area within the Roosevelt Row Arts District–one
of the most culturally exuberant areas in Phoenix today. Hidden among Roosevelt’s local
businesses and residents is a lot known as the Sunflower lot that is a part of the Valley of the
Sunflower Project. This project gave our group inspiration to think of innovative ways we could
transform vacant, dirt lots into some way to better the community.
E – My group was faced with a unique challenge- we were asked to compile a video showing
the diverse landscapes of Phoenix. Being a Phoenix native, I knew how great a task this would
be. With some help from an ASU faculty member, we chose four points along a transect that cut
from northern Phoenix (Tatum and Dynamite) to southern Phoenix (Broadway and 19th Ave).
This ensured a diverse sampling of the greater Phoenix area.
3. How did you approach the research project? How did you decide to collect said
S – We initially planned to speak with the volunteers, asking about their stewardship at the
McDowell Sonoran Preserve. However, our project goal changed, to be focused, instead,
on people who visit the Preserve, how they connect to nature, and the like. So, we set about
making a survey to collect the research. I attended the GIS workshop that Bridget mentions
below me–I even signed out the equipment, but because we ended up surveying visitors from
two different trailheads, we decided to do without the program. I think there was a lot of potential
with it, though, and I suggest that next semester’s crop check it out! They could go to multiple
trailheads, with the device, and see where different types of visitors tend to be, i.e., the runners
are usually “these” trailheads, the hikers go “here,” the equestrians tend to stick to “these” trail–
information like that.
B – One tool I found most useful was GIS, or Geographic Information System. Using GIS, our
team mapped all of the vacant lots in the area. We recorded around 27 lots! We had many other
ideas for possible research, such as doing a geothermal map of the area to see how vacant lots
affect the temperature of the area (we wanted to know if the lots were making Phoenix even
hotter). We had another idea which was to test the pH levels of the soil on the lots.
E – At first we were stumped. How were we going to condense all of the diversity Phoenix
posses into a five minute video? Our project guide, Dorothy Trippel got in contact with an ASU
researcher to provide us with some data what would aid us in choosing our final shooting
locations. Based on average family income, density, area per square mile and population size,
we chose four locations that would lend us the most diverse locations. The four intersections we
chose were Tatum/Dynamite, Northern/16th Street, McDowell/7th Ave, and lastly, Broadway/
4. Was the data-collection experience successful?
S – Yes! We chose a Saturday morning (that seemed like a day when many folks trekked to the
preserve–perhaps because they don’t work then, or that is a day their friends could all meet
together) and we were able to get over fifty surveys filled out, from two different trailheads, and
a variety of different visitors. We even got quite a few people from out of state–even out of the
country! We did attempt to go another day, a Friday morning, but there were very few people, so
we dedicated that day to picture and video-capturing.
B -A majority of the lots we wanted to test on, however, were property of the City of Phoenix and
we were restricted by regulations on the property…so our research was unfortunately limited to
just GIS. The GIS did show some shocking evidence that there are quite a number of vacant
lots. The maps also showed how the lots are basically just dirt with little to no fauna (maybe a
non-native palm tree here or there).
E – We chose a day all of us could meet and drove along the transect, successfully capturing
images of our locations. We wound up with about 45 minutes of footage and had to condense
that into only five.
5. What were some challenges you faced throughout the project?
S – Initially, we weren’t quite sure what I main goal of our project was, what the instructors
wanted it to be. We were able to create a –the visitors–and were able to plan our project,
accordingly. We had a few team communication problems, in the very beginning, but we were
able to remedy that, quickly, and get back to work. Using “Google Docs” were especially helpful,
because we were able to work “together,” while not actually having to work around our busy
schedules to meet in person every time.
B – Our team faced quite a few challenges. We lost connection with our only contact downtown,
in the beginning stages of the project. This posed a challenge, however were figured we could
move on and take different approach to the area.
E – There was really only one problem that we ran into and that was our initial problem of
choosing our locations. After we got that done it was pretty much just smooth sailing, so to
speak. We had a bit of a hiccup toward the end when we all could not find a time to meet, but
we quickly overcame that by delegating tasks to each member that we would compile at the
6. What aspects of doing a project focusing on biophilia do you feel you got the most out
S – Learning about this revolutionary concept in the first place is, I think, supremely beneficial.
The notion that we have been constructing our cities–our lives–”incorrectly,” selfishly, without
regard for the other beings in this world, is radical. As humans, it really has been “all about us.”
This takes awareness–“conscious living,” as Thich Nhat Hanh say–to a totally different level–
a higher echelon, so to speak. That such a movement is taking place, that I am able, in some
small way, to be apart of it…is incredible. I first came to Arizona, thinking I was going to some
wretched desert, without grass, without snow, without GREEN. I mean, people have gravel
as lawns–something I have never witnessed before moving here. And, although I came to
experience living in my first suburb, which had grassy lawns, (man-made) lakes, plants (forced
to take root in a foreign area)…something always felt artificial. It’s time to change that–we can
have agriculture here, we can have a greener city, we can have a sustainable city–a biophilic
city–but we have to truly want it. We have to progress, move forward, make change–and I think
B – Personally, I wondered how could a downtown, urban area in one of the driest cities in the
United States have any potential to be biophilic? Would that mean planting cacti every five
feet? Well, what I realized was that there currently is little trace of nature downtown. However,
there is a movement, a quiet one, but one nonetheless, for starting up urban gardens. To
me, this idea seemed ingenious because as Phoenix is expanding, our agriculture is being
pushed farther and farther into the desert. If we have ways to take that agriculture and place it
right in the center of Phoenix, that would solve issues like the increasing number of miles the
food is traveling, it would provide jobs, and it would provide opportunity to develop a sense of
E – As a team, we were all just interested in how biophilia and biophilic design can vary between
the different regions of Phoenix. Personally, I was excited to do research on biophilia in general.
I love nature and I love cities, so getting to do this type of research in the city I grew up in was a
7. What were a few creative ideas you or your team developed in order to improve the
biophilia of the sites?
S – While the preserve, itself, has many biophilic qualities (in terms of design), its accessibility
is lacking. Without a car, it would be very difficult to get to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve,
because public transit only goes so far, and the site is a bit on the edge of Scottsdale. This was
a “biggie,” for us. As a college student, I, personally, don’t own a car (nor do I own a license…).
Luckily, one of our members did, or at least had access to one, when we went out to collect
data. Maybe, having a special shuttle from the closest bus stop–or just having the public
transportation system expanding to that area–would definitely help.
B – Our team felt that urban gardening was the best solution. There are many different way to
approaching this though, since most of the lots are privately owned by the City of Phoenix or
other business owners. First, we learned that some people literally just go to the lots and begin
to garden, sans permission. This idea is radical, but it may be the best way to have the silent
movement transform into one that everyone knows about. Second, we learned that some urban
gardeners in Phoenix lease the land from the owners and garden there until the owners decide
to develop the land. This takes cooperation and willingness, however, this is the most ethical
way to go.
E – A lot of the buildings we saw were build pre- 2000. Our group thought it necessary to retrofit
the buildings so that they could become more sustainable and incorporate biophilic design.
8. Do you have any tips for next semester’s/future students working on this research
project–or even just research projects in general?
S – First of all, make a plan. Plan out the whole semester–in person. I believe this is vital, in
order to achieve the best possible outcome. Of course, it can be kept a bit flexible, depending
on certain situations, but having something to keep everyone in check–in-the-know–is
important. Second, make sure to communicate, and don’t be afraid to lay down the facts
and take charge in order to “get ‘er done,” if need be. Third, make a Google Doc, in the very
beginning. It is super helpful, and gets everyone involved. Fourth…check out the GIS idea!
I think it would be a fantastic addition to this project. Fifth, go for a hike! Enjoy yourself–the
preserve has some great trails, and it is really beautiful. I could go on, but some things need to
be experienced. And remember, “go with the flow” (to a point, of course).
B – My biggest piece of advice for next semester’s Team Vacant Lots, focus on the people and
the community. Many parts of Phoenix’s downtown area lack community, but Roosevelt Row
is a unique gem that has the potential to act as a trendsetter. So, focus on the people who live
around the lots and experience the lots, get a taste of the locally grown food, and see what the
residents have to say.
E – As a group we only focused on visuals. So, it would interesting for the next group to get out
of the car and speak with people who live in the different areas of Phoenix.
9. How has your vision of the city changed over the course of your project?
S – Coincidentally, I got a job working for a local, organic farm/farmer’s market vendor/micro-
grocery in Downtown Phoenix–on Roosevelt (where Bridget’s group was studying), so that
experience coupled with learning about the preserve opened my eyes to many avenues
of the Greater Phoenix area that I didn’t even know existed. Granted, I still favor a green,
mountainous, tree-dense, four-seasons climate, but Arizona has a growing vibe that I really like.
The “sustainable scene” is growing, and I am extremely excited for that.
B – My vision of Phoenix has definitely changed. Back in high school, in northern Phoenix,
I knew nothing of downtown. To me, it was an annoying place to drive through during my
drivers test. That was it. Now that I have been out on the lightrail, the wonderful and new public
transportation Phoenix now has, I have been to the First Fridays put on by the Roosevelt Row
community, and I have become an official volunteer at the Japanese Friendship Garden right
in the Roosevelt Row area. Downtown Phoenix has so much potential, not only space-wise,
with all of the vacant lots begging to be used as a garden, but among the people, as well. The
community is pushing a “Buy Local” campaign with biweekly local farmers market right in the
center of the tall buildings and bustling traffic. The potential for biophilia in downtown is just
E – It’s funny to be asked about how my “vision” of Phoenix has changed because the whole
point of my group’s project was to get a vision of the city. Growing up and going to school only
a street or two down from Tatum and Dynamite, my vision of it was not changed throughout this
project. Since I’ve lived here for almost 21 years, I knew that Phoenix was packed with diversity.
However, my vision of this city has changed in regards to how I feel about it. Before, I just thought I lived in a huge city filled with all sorts of people and places. After looking at Phoenix through the lense of biophilia, I see that it is much more than that. Phoenix is a desert city with many diverse landscapes that all tie into how we live our lives day to day. Northern Phoenix is inhabited much differently than southern Phoenix.