Best of Phoenix

Best of Phoenix 2015: Landscape Architect Rebecca Fish Ewan Teaches Seminars on Walking in the Desert

For more of the best people, places and things to do in Phoenix, check out our 2015 Best of Phoenix awards. 

I have forgiven my husband, Joe Ewan, for lying about the summer heat when he talked me into moving out here from the lovely, foggy Bay Area. He said people get used to the heat after a while. How long is a while, really? I tried for a few years to get used to the heat and then noticed everyone else just leaves town in the summer. Migrating to cooler climates when temperatures reach the triple digits has been a practice here for hundreds of years. He could have told me that, but Joe was born here. The desert is in his bones. He doesn't feel the heat in the same way coastal wimps like me do. He's spent his life committed to the desert. He was a principal author of the City of Phoenix Sonoran Preserve Master Plan and we spent many months in the desert counting plants together as part of the research that informed this desert/open space plan. We have also co-authored articles for Landscape Architecture Magazine that highlight local desert landscape architecture projects.

Last spring, I taught a seminar on the walkable landscape that focused on the experience of walking in the desert city environment. It's essential to appreciate the benefits of local open space. This can be a challenge in cities. Over 80 percent of the nation's population lives in urban areas. Every year studies come out that show people are happier and healthier when they live near green spaces. A recent study indicated that walking near trees is beneficial to the human mind and body. Walking is certainly better for you than driving in a car, yet urban walking, especially in younger cities like Phoenix, has declined since the car became the standard mode of transport.

In the seminar, we used Instagram as a tool for evaluating walkability. Digital technology gets a lot of flak for taking young people away from reality, so I wanted to use it to engage them in connecting to their environment. For the major group project, throughout the semester, students posted images of local places where they walked, and used hashtags ranging from zero to four to rate the experience. They really got into it and posted over 650 images that we then used to begin to ferret out what elements in the landscape are common to highly rated places.

Something I cherish about this desert metropolis is that my husband and I were able to buy a house here. I moved 11 times as a kid, and I love that the comparatively low cost of living here enabled me to own a home for my kids to grow up in. And I can walk to work! These realities of my life are connected to place. While I may grumble when stuck in traffic and bemoan the sprawling urban landscape, I still love that this vast metropolis provided the opportunities for my family to make a home here. I'd probably still be renting my 400-square-foot apartment in Berkeley, if I hadn't decided to move to Arizona. How can I not love this place? — as told to Robrt L. Pela

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela