New Urbanism in Phoenix

I am an ardent believer in New Urbanism and I am someone who loves the state of Arizona (for the most part). As an activist and someone who wants to make a difference for the future of metropolitan Phoenix, I have to wonder if it's even worth it to try in a place such as this.

Is Phoenix too far gone or is there something, as a non-practioner supporter of New Urbanism, I can do to affect real change? I'm interested in hearing your suggestions and opinions on this subject.


Metropolitan Phoenix

What is it about Phoenix that makes you so pessimistic? I changed planes there the other day and the sprawl from the air looked hideous, but I would have to know it from the ground to form an opinion.
I consider myself an activist, and wondered for a long time what place an activist has in this movement,which is founded, informed and implemented by professionals. In my own area of interest, Camden, New Jersey,I have found that most, if not all practioners of NU, and Smart Growth officials and think tanks too, will not agitate aggresively for NU / SG projects where they are not invited or welcome, since it risks hurting their income or funding. Professional, business and career relationships are all intertwined with public officials, planning boards and agencies that NU implementers must rely on.
For a non-professional who has incorporated NU into your life philosophy I am sure you feel compelled to proselytize and introduce NU to the uninitiated whenever you get a chance. ( I know I do.) The more people that know about NU the better the chances of good things happening in your area. Also, if I were you, I would walk around areas where you can visualize infill development or TOD etc. and then practice polite and effective communication techniques, write opinion pieces and send them to the local papers, write local and state officials, think tanks etc. Ask to meet with them if you can.
If you are not sure about your communication and presentation abilities, shell out 2 or 3 hundred bucks if you can and meet with a well recommended career consultant. ( I did and I think it was worth every penny, especially since I am a "Blue Collar" worker and the assurance of her "seal of approval" along with some good practical advice built my confidence.)
I wrote my Congressman, Rob Andrews, over a year ago on development issues in Camden, and three weeks ago his top Judiciary assistant called me from D.C on a Saturday and asked me for my input on some relative legislation he was considering.
Understand your state and municpal land use laws. If you feel strongly enough that a development in Phoenix is not only violating The Charter but also violating a law, consider a lawsuit to stop it.
Selling NU is like selling anything else. The ratio of "Not Interested Right Now's" to " I'll Buy It's" is very high, but in the case of NU, a higher and higher percentage of the prospects "get It' and are buying into it every year ( as any sensible person would.)
I find most Planners, Architects and others who have a financial stake in NU to be timid agitators, because much, if not most of their bread and butter comes from non-NU projects as well. So in the end, they give the client what he wants to pay for, and not what it is in their hearts that they want to sell.
You and I however, have nothing to lose, so we can be as bold and creative as we think we have to be. Our only real concern is agitating for NU in the most effective and sensible way possible. I am hoping that in this coming Congress CNU will give us some guidance on that.


Developed by a Michigan organization but useful for anyone anywhere.

A sea of beige rooftops as far as the eye can see.

Thanks, Michael. That is all great information for me to mull over. I guess I need to see my role as one in which I can work to make it easier for good developers and sensible planners to incorporate NU ideas into their business and planning efforts.

As far as your first question, however, I can only say that Phoenix seems to epotimize the bad examples used in nearly all the New Urbanist publications I have come across. With a few exceptions, Phoenix is a sea of single story/single family, beige & terra cotta houses, accessed by feeder streets, walled in for their saftey and property values, and sufficiently separated from their stores and places of employment to protect their peace and tranquility. Few can get to school without a school bus, and even fewer can efficiently get to most places without a car.

With a few exceptions, transit is a nasty four letter word to most, and the idea that longer, wider, and more prevelant freeways is the answer to efficient traffic congestion is as ingrained into the psyche of our local leaders as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie...and you know how the rest goes.

There are a few bright spots (ie the new light rail system under construction) and I know there are some brilliant and talented people in important positions. However, when I see how this place has developed and how it is planned to grow in the next five to ten years, I can't help but wonder if NU thinking could possibly make a dent here anytime in the foreseeable future? I admit that I may be thinking about it too simply, but I would like someone to tell me why I'm wrong and what is being done or can be done about it.

Your suggestions definitely give me something to think about. Thanks again.


New Urbanism in Phoenix

Generally speaking areas like Phoenix have been the last bastion of "rugged individualism" and not too long ago considered the "wild west" where people went to do their own thing.

Among other things, this took the form of a life-style that encouraged sprawl. Interestingly about twenty years ago, during the tenure of Rick Counts, Planning Director for the City of Phoenix, a plan was devised to direct the future growth of the City into "Urban Villages." These were designed with a core and radiating out into a mix of land uses. Ideally each Village would have distinct edges created by open space or some other distinctive land use. At that time there was projected to be about 10 of these villages and each one would strive to create mixed-use development to allow a resident access to most everything (employment, recreation, cultural activities, housing and etc.) within their respective villages. This village concept still exists (at least on paper) with the Village Planning Committees that are part of the approval process for development within the designated villages.

These include the "Paradise Valley Village," "Deer Valley Village" and etc. Perhaps you and others should re-focus on the original intent of this program?
Ken W Volz
Consultant LLC


Ken, thanks for your comments. I have been living in Phoenix for he past 12 years and from what I have seen of the Village concept there is little evidence of anything close to the original intent.... outside of the light post signs indicating which 'village' you are driving through.

It is an interesting thought, however, that I should contemplate. I have also thought about that same concept, but applied to the traditional centers of each of the towns that make up the Phoenix suburbs. Like other cities, most of these suburbs were once more isolated and self-contained.

Baby steps is certainly a process that must be applied here....but man! How long will it take to make a real impact??? I'm thinking longer than I'll be on this planet.

As an aside, I would love to see New Urbanists lobby the governments of the central Pinal County area (between Phoenix and Tucson) about implementing NU ideas there. These once rural, agricultural communities are expected to contain nearly a million people in the next 25 years. They have already contracted the Morrison Institute at ASU to do a report on growth strategies, but while they have a pretty realistic outlook, they are not touching on NU ideas to any great extent. It would be great to see the honorable John Norquist (he used to be my mayor) put the NU buzz in the ears of the local leaders.

Scott, I am new to the


I am new to the concept of NU and rapidly trying to get up to speed. However, I have lived in Phoenix my entire life and I share the same frustration you do. Although we are making progress (the light rail and revitalization of downtown)it feels like we are ten years behind the times. I am curious to see how some of the new high performance residential towers buildings in Tempe, Scottsdale, and Phoenix do. They promote a urban lifestyle. I think that if those sorts of projects start to take off and do well it will start to change peoples ideas about how they chose to live their lives here. I am very open to some of the other post's ideas of writing letters to our Legislature I guess I just don't know who I would address or how I can get more involved. Please let me know.


Who to address and how to get more involved? Well...that's the big question and one I'm trying to answer or get answered. I have heard from other activists like ourselves, but I have yet to hear from the professionals and practicitioners. I'm interested in their comments and suggestions for what we can do to make it easier for new urbanist developments to be approved and built. Phoenix offers some interesting obstacles to new urbanist projects and I still wonder if its possible to affect change here to any significant degree. Sometimes I feel like I'm at the butt end of the Titanic, trying to steer it away from icebergs with a canoe paddle!!

I do think that we have to approach it first from the municipal level and simultaneously at the regional level. Baby steps? Maybe?


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