by Martha Morris

The 2016 American Planning Association national conference recently drew thousands of urban planning practitioners and students into busy downtown Phoenix and its desert landscape. Cactus murals, plaques identifying the horizon’s mountain peaks, and even the warm tones and patterns inside the Sky Harbor Airport invoked an appreciation of the desert. It’s not art alone, however; Phoenix has been recording a steadily decreasing per capita use of water, acknowledging a reality that no desert city can ignore—particularly one that cares for its environment.

Braden Kay, a senior sustainability scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU, pointed to urban agriculture programs like PHX Renews and the Roosevelt Growhouse along with recent zoning ordinances like the Walkable Urban Code as steps toward bringing more food production, green infrastructure, and pedestrian friendly development into Phoenix. However, while citizens generally prioritize shade to buffer Arizona’s extreme summer heat, livability is not always given top priority by current engineering practices.

Livability and interconnectedness for both human and non-human community members have a long-standing DIY champion in Phoenix: Greg Peterson, founder and director of Urban Farm, has inspired numerous urban gardens around the city through popular tours and other educational outreach programs at his permaculture homestead. Greg spoke about the importance of continuing efforts in Phoenix to replace outdated resource management practices with an ethic of honoring nature.

From left: Greg Peterson (Urban Farm), Dr. Tim Beatley (UVA), Ashley Knudsen (ASU student), and Meagan Ehlenz (ASU faculty)

Ashley Knudsen, an ASU School of Sustainability student who recently completed a project creating a series of biophilic indicators for desert cities, emphasized the need to create accessible and safe urban nature experiences. The desert habitat can be better appreciated if people are provided with appropriate precautions about the environment. Architecture, such as the LEED certified ASU Biodesign Institute buildings, can demonstrate biophilic design that makes sense in a desert setting.

Human societies like the Hohokam adapted to conditions in the Salt River Valley well before the modern city arrived, added ASU professor Dale Larsen. Current Phoenix residents who also embrace the surrounding desert seek out the spacious mountain preserves and restored wetland habitats like the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area. Educational programs teach an appreciation of the desert but also need to emphasize its stewardship and the costs required to maintain these recreation and restoration areas.

These are all signs of a growing commitment in Phoenix to working with life in a limited landscape. The city seems to take pride in the intrinsic symbolism of its name, and hopefully the rising phoenix will motivate continued efforts. We can observe the process of renewal in many parts of the natural world, but perhaps no time more clearly than a flowering springtime in the desert.