This beautiful scene in central Phoenix is from 1917. It makes you want to step into the picture and stroll. Not bad for a small, isolated city in a brand new state. More about that later. Alas, today the same location is a blighted vacant lot south of two once-graceful houses that have been turned into the Old Spaghetti Factory, the lawns replaced by asphalt.
I write because of an article in one of the online nooks of Fast Company headlined, "Phoenix is Pulling Off an Urban Miracle: Transforming into a Walkable City." Read and decide for yourself. On Facebook, someone said it came off like a press release. The kindest interpretation is that it represents an aspiration. To make it real, a little history might help.
Although Phoenix's growth is closely connected to the automobile age, the city was actually once highly walkable.
Let's define our terms. By "walkable," I don't mean you can drive your car to a canal bank or a desert "preserve" and hike. Not even the enchantingly shady, last time I checked, Murphy's Bridle Path. I mean the arrangements I enjoy in Seattle, where almost everything — shopping, restaurants, grocery stores, culture, health care, transportation hubs — is a quick walk or bus/bike ride away. One doesn't need a car.
Prior to the mid-1950s, when sprawl took off and never looked back, Phoenix offered such a "lifestyle." For anyone who grew up in the actual town prior to World War II, it was taken for granted.
Downtown (railroad tracks to Fillmore, Seventh Avenue to Seventh Street) was dense with shops, restaurants, hotels, craftsmen — every few steps and another door beckoned — as well as churches, hospitals, schools, Union Station and government. Outside of farm work, the "employment center" was downtown.
The "additions" that grew slowly out of the original townsite always had grocers, drug stores, barbers, shoe repair, liquor stores, etc. within walking distance of residents. Many were on or close to the Phoenix Street Railway (above) that ran from 1887 to 1948. Shade trees and grass were abundant. So, too, were awnings or buildings designed with overhangs. The town was relatively dense. Sure, automobiles were popular but not mandatory.
When I was a boy, some of this remained and the destruction of sprawl hadn't become so extensive. For example, the area around Kenilworth School north of downtown (the old Simms, Latham and Kenilworth additions) had a Rexall drug store and a barber (the formidable Otis Kenilworth) operating in the Gold Spot building at Roosevelt and Third Avenue. A.J. Bayless grocery was five blocks away at Central and Moreland. And there was the remnant of a commercial building around Third and Moreland, room for four or five shops, but by then holding Junior Achievement.
Go half a mile east and Roosevelt was still a solid row of storefronts, all selling practical goods and services. Go northwest and McDowell had cleaners, liquor store, barber, Circle K, My Florist, shoe repair shop and Ryan Evans Drugs at Seventh Avenue. More such retail was at Central. The bus or a bicycle could take you downtown or to Park Central for more shopping. We walked or bicycled to school, of course. Encanto Park was five blocks from my house.
But my most important point is that all this was embedded in the residential neighborhoods and close by.
Much of this was laid out in the golden age of good civic design. Thus, streets and sidewalks were straight, not curvilinear, cul de sacs or gated off. Grace notes included "parking lawns" separating the sidewalk from the street, the entryways seen in the photo above and the lovely parkways along Moreland and Portland streets. Even the broad avenues were no wider than four lanes, and these were few. Did I mention shade?
So I don't mean to sun on anybody's parade. It's great to have aspirations. But almost all of this old city is gone, destroyed by a combination of mass-production sprawl built entirely around the automobile, suburban zoning that radically separated residential from other uses and the malpractice that destroyed so much of the fabric of the pre-1940 city. Even Park Central is long gone as a shopping center. I have friends who think nothing of driving five miles to find stores. In Seattle, I go five blocks or less.
Many of today's planners don't even know good design — or they can't get it past moronic rules that seem to prohibit shade trees and encourage rocks everywhere. Sidewalks weave across hydrogen-bomb-blasted expanses. Berms and "natural desert" separate this from the six- and eight-lane "streets." Big-boxes, malls and shopping strips, sitting upon gigantic parking lagoons, are reachable by car. If you want to consider this "walkable," find a different word.
Real walkability is a daunting challenge, not least because the real-estate boyz are all about continuing the race to the fringes. Thus, relatively little transit-oriented development has happened along the light-rail line (WBIYB). Much less is it done in a way that integrates and makes organic the features that were once a given in Phoenix. In Phoenix. Thus, the former Willo Walk (now Tapestry on Central) has, at most, one occupant in its ground-level shop space (I don't really care about the excuses). There are plenty of restaurants — probably too many — in the core, but a surprising few are reachable easily from light rail. The practical businesses are even fewer.
Perhaps Tempe has a better shot with Mill Avenue. But most of residential Tempe is south of Apache and mostly not walkable to many things. Mesa, ringed by "master planned communities" is faces an even more daunting challenge.
Yes, Changing Hands has opened on light rail. Yay!
But back to creating a real walkable Phoenix.
First, forget most of the metropolitan area. It is beyond redemption.
Second, success will come where assets are concentrated and near real neighborhoods. Matt's Big Breakfast is great. It's not close to anything. If you are Lawrence of Arabia and enjoy walking long blocks through the heat, congratulations. But for most people remember the rule of "every few steps, a new door to tempt you." And facing the street, not a mall.
Third, do discover the best design practices of the City Beautiful Movement and today — and apply them.
Fourth, Phoenix still must find a way to lure major capital and jobs to the central core. Without this, the restaurant cannibalization will continue and all idealism will be held back by the reality of lack of cash.
Fifth, shade trees. They are a worthy investment, even more so to dampen the heat island and deprive the sprawlmeisters of water.
Read more about urban best practices on Rogue's City Desk page.