Change of Course

We need to embrace our desert culture - not shun it - if Phoenix is to become great.

The desert and river are all gone now, and with them we have eradicated any trace of our "authentic sense of place."

We have created a harsh, disjointed city and Anywhereville suburbs. Along with the cookie-cutter development, we have nurtured a mindset that is at war with the desert, relegating one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world the throw-away line: "It's just the desert."

How can we create an authentic sense of place when we hate our desert environment, when we divert every last drop of water from our river into sterile canals that fuel the rampant urban sprawl?

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon foresees a grand downtown Phoenix.
Jackie Mercandetti
Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon foresees a grand downtown Phoenix.

What we must do now is reconnect with, and resurrect, a significant portion of the native landscape. Let it serve as the heart and soul of our urban center. This bold step will help spur the creation of an urban core that is truly one of the unique places in the world.

There's only one Sonoran Desert.

This isn't a pipe dream.

The first crucial step is already evolving with the Rio Salado Project stretching five miles in the Salt River bed from west of Sky Harbor Airport through south central Phoenix. The $100 million project financed primarily by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers features a low-flow stream that is nourishing an emerging riparian forest and mesquite stands across 550 acres, less than a mile and a half from downtown Phoenix.

"The Rio Salado is probably the untapped gem in terms of Phoenix and what it could represent in the future," Gordon told me last week.

And now is the time for civic leaders to take a giant leap forward and connect downtown to Rio Salado with a bold, daring and, need I say, an expensive investment.

Now is the time for Phoenix to build its version of New York's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. These 19th-century investments have become the heart and soul of two of the greatest cities in the world.

If Phoenix wants to join the elite, it must act like the elite.

Here's one idea. Let's build the greatest 21st-century civic space in the world featuring a Sonoran Desert landscape interspersed with manmade and natural shade, water, arboretums, performing arts venues, sculpture, skate and bike parks, equestrian trails and picnic areas that stretches from downtown to the Rio Salado -- the ultimate goal being to eventually connect with the nation's largest municipal park at South Mountain.

We could make the centerpiece of this park a landmark cultural center dedicated to understanding and promoting the native cultures that have long lived in the Americas.

The city's draft report suggests that Phoenix and ASU create a "grand public space" that integrates the university and the downtown in ways that are unique to the area. The report points to Chicago's $475 million, 24.5-acre Millennium Park that opened to rave reviews in July as a prime example of a culturally significant civic space.

I say Phoenix is selling itself far short, even if it were to build its version of Millennium Park. This is a huge, sprawling city that needs a powerful anchor -- one that would come with a revitalized downtown featuring high technology and education merging into a grand Sonoran Desert park that stretches for more than a mile to the banks of the emerging riparian wonderland of Rio Salado.

The city already is attempting to acquire a vast tract of an old neighborhood devastated by airport noise between Seventh and 16th streets, Buckeye Road and Interstate 17. Rather than turning this over to industrial warehouse developers as is currently planned, the city could use this area as the heart of the Valley's great Sonoran Desert park.

Creating an authentic sense of place on a grand scale that integrates the desert and river into daily life is what will cause Phoenix to be regarded fondly throughout the world, not to mention loved by those of us who actually live here.

E-mail, or call 602-229-8445.

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