Life After Phoenix, a Retrospective
I haven’t mentioned downtown Phoenix for a while. This is mainly because I’ve been busy re-discovering Vancouver and haven’t had much time to reflect on my old stomping ground. However, last week, I received an email from an old acquaintance that I haven’t been able to ignore.
One of my biggest frustrations living in Phoenix was the sheer number of empty lots and vacant building in the downtown core. No matter how much we tried to make a foothold in the desolation, we were simply overwhelmed by the scale of our task; if not outright rejected.
Based on a ‘back of the napkin’ tally, over 40% of Phoenix’s core is either vacant or a surface parking lot. This is more than most Rust Belt cities, including Detroit. Indeed the entire city of Detroit could fit into just the vacant lots in Phoenix! Yet while the decay of the Rust Belt is a national tragedy, the decay of downtown Phoenix is business as usual.
Making matters worse, the picture below was once a neighbourhood filled with historic—if rundown—homes. But instead of promoting their restoration and rehabilitation, the city cleared the area. The are was first cleared to make room for a fool hardy idea attract a NFL football stadium. The stadium eventually ended up in suburban Glendale. More recently, they have promised a ‘Bio-science Campus that has failed to gain much traction. In the meantime, downtown Phoenix is left with one of the biggest urban scars in North America.
Just south of this picture sits yet another parking lot. It was recently created by the City of Phoenix and Arizona State University on the site of a vintage mid-century hotel. Despite a concerted effort—and even a lawsuit—the powers than be decided that Phoenix needed yet more parking, leaving community members literally stewing on the dusty asphalt.
In cities like Detroit, people are taking advantage of the depressed real estate prices to incubate small businesses. In Phoenix—the epicenter of the real estate industrial complex—property owners, including the city, are sitting on their lots. They are waiting for the real estate market to rebound enough to cover their investment. They’d be better of waiting for Godot. if there is any hope for downtown Phoenix to rise again, they need to cut their losses and move on.
I hate to see downtown Phoenix criticized. Especially because so many people are working diligently to make it their oasis in a urban desert. But sometimes a city needs a slap in the face to wake up and realize their dire straights. Perhaps this dubious distinction from The Fiscal Times is it:
9 Worst Recession Ghost Towns in America: Downtown Phoenix, AZ
Before the housing market crash, an acre in downtown Phoenix was selling for about $90 a square foot. Today, it sells for $9 a square foot. Empty dirt lots checker the area, where developers once dreamed of high-rise condos and office buildings, and many businesses have closed their doors.
Residents hope building will happen again once the market recovers, but in the meantime neighborhood organizers push for temporary fixes to the eyesore, like planting sunflowers and projecting movies onto the side of existing buildings.
In 1999, Michael Levine (co-host of the 2010 Jane’s Walk Phoenix) purchased “a few” signs from the Arizona State surplus yard. 12 years later he has put them to work, in time for the Arizona Centennial in 2012.
Here’s a fun video from my good friend Stacey Champion promoting her organization, Rogue Green. RG is a series of monthly social/networking events in downtown Phoenix for eco-minded ’rogues,’ along with side projects and events when the rogue mood strikes. For my non-Phoenix readers, here is evidence that the city does indeed have dedicated urbanites and greens, despite stereotypes to the contrary!
Stacey and Rogue Green are in the running for a Pepsi Challenge grant of $10k from the Pepsi Refresh project. If she wins the grant will go towards a years worth of sustainability programming/events for downtown Phoenix. If you like what you saw, please vote every day throughout the month of July for Stacey and Rogue Green!
For a daily extra vote, Text* 107309 to Pepsi (73774) to vote from your mobile!
Want to know how far you can travel without a car in under 15 minutes? Check out Mapnificent.
Stefan Wehrmeyer, a Berlin-based software architect developed this tool that uses public transit data to help users decide on where to live, work or meet up. Mapnificent has great potential for urbanists, urbanites and urban planners alike. First, you chose your starting point. Magnificent will then show you all the places that you can reach without a car within a specified amount of time.
From a post by Andrew Price at Good Magazine:
Mapnificent is a Google Maps application that provides a brilliant new way of looking at your local geography. Rather than letting you specify a start point and end point and then giving you directions and travel time, as most map applications normally do, Mapnificent allows you to specify a starting location and then see all the places you can reach by public transportation within a certain amount of time. This lets you pick an apartment, restaurant, or bar based on the amount of travel time you can tolerate.
Mapnificent uses data from the GTFS Data Exchange. It overlays this information on a Google map to visualize the reach of public transport in your city. Here’s a short video that explains it well:
In other words, Magnificent is a step towards making our mobility visible. This has all sorts of powerful implications.
While I have long been a fan of the concept of Walkscore—and more recently TransitScore—I must admit I rarely visit the site. Sure it’s nice to know whether your neighborhood scores a 62 (my home in Phoenix ) or a 92 (my current suite in Vancouver). But once you know what an address is, there isn’t much reason to return to the site. Moreover Walkscore doesn’t connect your location to the rest of the city. It does little good to know the Walkscore of your home when you are trying to get to your office.
This is one of the main advantages of Mapnificent. It tells users their ability to actually get to someplace in a set amount of time. This feature has numerous trip planning uses, such as where to meet a client for a meeting. But more importantly it has deep decision-making implications, such as determining where to live or work. It could also make the ‘drive/don’t drive’ decision easier. I see even greater potential if/when Mapnificent comes out with a mobile app.
Jarrett at HumanTransit sees a deeper potential for Magnificent, calling it revolutionary:
When you city is facing a series of possible alternative transit projects, what if every citizen could use a tool like Mapnificent to see the exactly impact of each alternative on their mobility, and that of people and destinations they care about.
We will always have selfish present-minded citizens… Until we help people see the way a proposed project will change their lives for the better, sensible transit projects will continue losing these debates.
Mapnificent is still in a public beta; it is currently programmed with a limited number of US and Canadian metro areas. My new city of Vancouver is included. But my old city of Phoenix is not—at least yet. My friend Sean Sweat (aka PhxDowntowner) is promoting a campaign to get Phoenix added to the Mapnificent roster. You can show your support for bringing the app to Phoenix in the Magnificent user voice forum. If you are living in or around Phoenix, I would also contact David Boggs at Valley Metro (602.534.1800) and Debbie Cotton at the City of Phoenix Public Transit Department (602.495.0418). Please ask them to ask that they make their GTFS data available to Mapnificent.
On April 22nd, I had the honor of speaking at the inaugural TEDxScottsdale. My presentation was entitled ‘Cities ARE People‘ and I talked about my journey through the urban desert that is Phoenix, AZ.
The event was extra special for me as it was my last presentation in Phoenix before I moved to Vancouver and it was somewhat of a ‘live’ resume‘ of my community building work in the city.
Hope you enjoy it!
As the sun sets on my time in Phoenix, I’d like to thank all my local readers for your support, and I hope you’ll continue to check in from time to time. So long and thanks for all the fish (tacos).
Time-lapse of downtown Phoenix as the sun sets and the traffic is heavy. Shot by Efrain Robles on a Sony EX1.
On April 21st, I had the honor of speaking at TEDxScottsdale.
I have included my speaking notes pertaining below. A video will also be available in the next few weeks.
TEDxScottsdale Speaking Notes
My Journey through the Urban Desert
Lost in the Urban Desert
I’m not an architect or an urban planner. Indeed I wasn’t even an urbanist until a few years ago—I didn’t even know there was such a thing.
Until moving to Phoenix, I thought that urbanism was the status quo. Sure I knew that suburbs existed—I even grew up in one—but there had always been a central core to escape to.
Lost in the Urban Desert – II
Upon arriving here, I didn’t have a car; I didn’t even have a driver’s license.
I spent my first months here doing a lot of walking, a lot of transit, and a lot of cycling.
In doing so I got a crash course in how cities worked, or rather didn’t work.
I also began to discover oases in this urban desert. Isolated and small to be sure, but it was a start.
- There were places like the Downtown Phoenix farmers market and local coffee shops;
- There were events like First Friday Art Walks and networking groups like Radiate Phoenix;
- There were advocacy organizations like Downtown Voices Coalition and Local First Arizona;
- There is an extensive network of over 200 neighborhood organizations in Phoenix alone.
Encouraged by these discoveries:
- I began attending meetings and events.
- I started volunteering my time and energy with a few groups.
- I started attending City Hall Hearings
Before I knew it, I was finding my way through the urban desert.
But something was still missing.
Finding My Way
About this time, social media was really taking off. Blogging had gained critical mass, Facebook was gaining steam and Twitter had just been launched.
I began poking around these sites and finding like minds both in Phoenix and around the world.
I started visited blogs to see how urbanists in other cities were using the power of social media to build community in their own neighborhoods.
Through Twitter and Facebook I learned of even more community events and groups in Phoenix.
Encouraged by these further discoveries, I decided it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself.
It was time to start creating the type of community I wanted to be part of.
My first step was my blog, which started as a way to curate and discuss what I was finding through my research as well as what I was observing online.
I also started writing for other online magazines and websites. This allowed me to meet even more people doing cool and interesting things around town.
As a result, I started getting asked to attend and organize with other events. I even was asked to speak at a few of them!
The urban oases were multiplying.
Soon, attending events and writing about what was going on wasn’t enough. Something was still missing.
I wanted to give back in a tangible way.
I wanted to create my own community in the urban desert.
Jane’s Walk I
As part of my research for my blog, I came across an event called Jane’s Walk.
The walks are held in memory of Jane Jacobs.
Jane was an activist and author who championed the interests and knowledge of local residents over a centralized approach to city building.
She passed away in 2006, but her legacy lives on.
I had long been a fan of her writing, and her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was one of the books I turned to when trying to find my way.
I also had the privilege of meeting Jane during a couple of her book tours before she passed away.
Jane’s Walk II
Jane’s Walks are a series of free walking tours held on the first weekend of May each year.
They celebrates the ideas and legacy of urbanist Jane Jacobs by getting people out exploring their neighbourhoods and meeting their neighbours.
Jane’s Walks are led by local residents—people like you and me—who want to celebrate their neighborhoods and talk about what matters to them in the places they live and work.
These neighborhood-walking tours started in Toronto in 2007 and quickly expanded to cities around the world; but it hadn’t reached Phoenix yet.
I decided that bringing a Jane’s Walk to Phoenix would be a perfect opportunity to not only honor one of my heroes, but also to begin creating a community in Phoenix.
Jane’s Walk III
Little did I know that I would get so much more out of it.
Through hosting Jane’s Walks in 2009 and 2010 and organizing several more this year, I’ve learned that people want and need opportunities to get to not only know the places they live and work, but also to meet and interact with their fellow residents.
Through the simple act of walking together, we begin to learn about each other’s lives and their connections the neighborhood.
It is through such conversations that shared understanding and a sense of belonging are nurtured and a sense of places is created.
Ultimately these conversations become the stories that are part of a strong and resourceful community.
Park(ing) Day I
Soon after the success of the first Jane’s Walk in 2009, I learned about another annual event—Park(ing) Day.
Park(ing) Day held in September each year.
Here, residents pay for a metered parking spot, but instead of parking our car on it, they create a park.
By temporarily transforming a parking spot into a PARK(ing) space we are attempting to expand our public space and improving the livability of our cities—at least until the meter runs out.
It’s a way to remind ourselves—and our fellow residents who walk by—how important it is to have some space to sit, relax and connect.
But most importantly, it is an opportunity to create community, engage the public and begin a dialogue.
Best yet it is practically free. For the cost of what many of us already have on our patio, we can create community.
Park(ing) Day II
But unlike with Jane’s Walk, I had a lot harder time making it happen.
Perhaps it was the rogue (although perfectly legal) element of it, but—unlike Jane’s Walk—I couldn’t convince any of my friends to help
I had all but given up until about two weeks from the event; I received a message from somebody in Phoenix asking if I was still interested in doing something.
I told her my story and my difficulties.
Her response was basically So What? Lets just do it, and even if it is just the two of us, it will be something to build on.
And it was!
Park(ing) Day III
While Park(ing) Day hasn’t had the public resonance of Jane’s Walk. It has been on of the most meaningful events I have been involved in here.
Perhaps it’s the roguish act of playing Frisbee on the side of a street, or sitting in a lounge chair where a SUV usually parks, but Park(ing) Day has created deeper friendships that I could have ever imagined.
I have met some of my closest and dearest friends though this event. And not only are they great friends, they are also amongst the most active in their neighborhood and in many cases have gone on to hold their own community events.
Together, we have helped create a passionate, active urban tribe in downtown Phoenix.
This puts the truth to the adage that “the harder the effort, the greater the reward.”
It also confirms that even a small handful of people can have a big impact—even if it isn’t that one you had originally envisioned.
Best yet it is practically free. For the cost of what many of us already have on your patio, you too can help create community.
After holding these two annual events, I knew I was on to something. However, two events a year wasn’t enough for me to build the type of community I was looking for. I needed something more regular.
Hence Places, Spaces and Faces.
Places, Spaces & Faces I
We rarely get this opportunity to get together with people who aren’t on our usual roster of friends and family.
It’s rare to share our time, much less our home-cooked food with a stranger we’ve just met
Yet, this is what happens at the Places, Spaces and Faces Community Dinner each month.
It started just over a year ago and has been held on the third Saturday of every month.
Sometimes there’s a speaker and a topic of discussion.
Other times it’s simply an opportunity to get together and share food and stories in a special place.
Places, Spaces & Faces II
PSF is not an exclusive club. It’s open to the public. There are no membership or admission fees, other than a potluck dish.
Rather, it’s a way to get together with our fellow residents and share some things with them: our time, our food, our stories, and most importantly, ourselves.
There is no ulterior motive to this gathering. They are NOT for business networking, nor fund-raising, nor meeting dates, although any or all of these things happen there on occasion. J
The purpose of it is purely to come together as a community.
To be with—and talk to—one another.
Places, Spaces & Faces III
I can’t take credit for creating this event—that goes to my friend and fellow urbanist, Taz Loomans.
But PSF is something that I’ve felt was special since the beginning. It highlights another aspect of creating community in the urban desert.
This simple premise of getting together with interesting people in interesting places has proven to be a powerful formula for all sorts of friendships, ideas, and connections.
There’s something meaningful about sitting down over a meal. It forms a unique bond between people.
Perhaps more importantly it forms these bonds in special places, tying us no only closer to each other, but the neighborhoods in which we live, furthering our sense of place.
What I’ve Learned
Through these events, and numerous others that I’ve created, assisted or simply attended in Phoenix, I’ve not only been able to find my way through this urban desert we call home.
In the process, I’ve learned a lot about urbanism, sustainability—and most importantly—community.
- I’ve learned that we are all responsible for the success of the places we live.
- I’ve learned that we can’t have a good city, sustainable neighborhoods, vibrant places to live, play and work if we don’t have a strong sense of community.
- But most importantly—in the spirit of TED—I’ve learned my ‘Idea Worth Spreading.’
Cities are People
That idea is “Cities ARE people.”
Community events like the ones I’ve mentioned help forge people together and instill in them the idea that WE are the city.
If we feel that we are separate from our city, we will continue to be ‘victims’ of all the things that aren’t working, instead of becoming a part of the solution.
We need to stop waiting for someone else start the initiatives that we want to see.
If we truly desire urban sustainability, we need to become “co-creators” of the type of cities we want to live in.
By retaking control of our communities and making our own changes—no matter how small—we can be the leading edge of a sustainable urbanism.
Soon, the few oases we have in this urban desert, will not only multiply, but also begin to weave with each other into a vibrant city.
Many of the things I’ve talked about are a mindset change, and cost nothing other than time.
The major investment is a shift in thinking from the prevailing YO-YO ethic (“you’re on your own”) to a WITT mindset (“we’re in this together”).
Once we consider ourselves a community, and stewards of not only one another’s well being, but also the well being of our city, anything is possible.
Alas, like all good things in life, they come to an end. I will be leaving Phoenix next week to return to Canada–Vancouver to be exact.
Since I’ve announced that I’d be leaving Phoenix, I’ve had several people tell me that there will be a big hole in the community without me.
While I an honored—and humbled‑ by this, I’m also a little bit frustrated. One of my main goals in Phoenix has been to empower others to act.
If TED is about Ideas it is also about Wishes. It is my TED wish, or more accurately my TEDx wish that each one of you take a small step to build your community.
Remember, it doesn’t need to take much money, or even time to create community, even in the urban desert.
It can be as small as simply getting to know the person sitting beside you tonight, attending a neighborhood meeting, or participating in this year’s Jane’s Walk, Park(ing) Day or the next Place’s Spaces and Faces.
Many of you will find that this first step will encourage participation in others and, perhaps even starting your own.
If you all take this small step, soon any hole that may be felt by my departure will turn in to a mountain of community.
This will make Phoenix a better place and my time here will have been worth it.
Last Tuesday, I posted some photos and a video of the work business partners Michael Levine and Angela Paladino are doing to painstakingly restore the 1905 Phoenix Seed & Feed Capitol Warehouse in downtown Phoenix.
Here’s a video of the complete restoration of the facade of Phoenix’s oldest warehouse:
Three days, 6574 frames and a little history uncovered.
A popular refrain in Phoenix is that the city has no history. This is false of course, as it’s been around for 130 years and has accumulated many great stories during this time. The problem is that much of our historic building have either been demolished (many for no other reason than parking) or painted—or even [shudder] stuccoed—over.
This is why it is great to have passionate property owners like Michael Levine in our community. He and his business partner, Angela Paladino, are painstakingly removing layers of paint from the oldest remaining (and one of the most storied) warehouse in downtown Phoenix, the 1905 Phoenix Seed & Feed Capitol Warehouse. Underneath over a century of use and abuse, the building’s original sign(s) are emerging thanks to a very sensitive method of stripping away the layers of paint that is being used instead of sand-blasting.
Michael is amazed at how well what he believes may be the oldest remaining sign in Phoenix has held up.
The warehouse building, located at 411 S. 2nd St., was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984; acquired by Michael in 2003; and added to the Phoenix Historic Property Register in 2004. It was also featured in the 2010 Jane’s Walk Phoenix.
You can see more pictures of the building and the paint stripping process on Michael’s Facebook page.
Here is a time lapse video of the first past of paint stripping:
Through his Yurbanism brand, Yuri Artibise explores the ‘Y’ of urbanism by sharing ways to make our cities more livable, community-oriented places one block at a time.
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