Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Designing the Urban Preserve Boundary: The City of Phoenix Learns Valuable Lessons on How to Develop and Provide Access to Open Lands in Urban Areas

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Designing the Urban Preserve Boundary: The City of Phoenix Learns Valuable Lessons on How to Develop and Provide Access to Open Lands in Urban Areas

Article excerpt

On Oct. 8, 2003, the Phoenix City Council adopted a text amendment to the zoning code creating design guidelines for private development adjacent to the 21,500-acre Sonoran Preserve, an urban desert preserve in Arizona. This was the latest step in a five-year journey led by the park and recreation department. Why would the parks staff invest this kind of time, resources and energy stewarding a change to the zoning ordinance for what could be considered private lands beyond the department's concern? Because the impact of private development decisions on operations, management and ecological health of preserve lands is a major public policy issue that the department needed to address. The department set out to deal with this concept in partnership with the community, Arizona State University, the development interests and the largest land owner in the city's growth area--the Arizona State Land Department.

The city of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department (PRD) has a long history of acquiring and managing open space, and many lessons have been learned along the way. With the goal and challenge of acquiring additional open space, the city has taken the opportunity to revisit how the interface, or the edge, between the preserve and development is handled. It has become clear that current public policy does not influence the design of residential neighborhoods in relation to adjacent parks and preserves.

Phoenix adopted the Sonoran Pre serve Master Plan (SPMP) in 1998 and is fully engaged in the implementation of the plan ( This effort received national attention in 2000 when it was given the American Society of Landscape Architects Presidential Award of Excellence for analysis and planning.

Building on more than 79 years of experience in managing urban preserves and the goals of the SPMP, PRD has initiated a review of the condition of the preserve edge. The edge is defined as the line between preserve or natural open space, and development. The park and recreation board, Phoenix Sonoran Preserve Committee, Planning Commission, several city departments and the local university have been active participants in this new policy initiative.

The city of Phoenix has a population of 1.2 million spread over 500 square miles. Within this low-density development pattern, publicly owned preserves become stranded (Photo at left). Phoenix has been setting aside desert mountain preserves since the 1920s, but as a result of this low-density development pattern, popular trails are difficult to access, typically surrounded and backed onto by single family residential developments. The assumption on the part of developers and homeowners living at the preserve edge has been that public access and increased density will increase crime.

The city's SPMP calls for "an integration of a preservation ethic into the overall urban form." This statement lays the groundwork for a departure from the common interpretation that nature starts where the city ends.

The Sonoran Preserve creates the potential for more than 150 miles of edge. The PRD and preserve activists, pushing for more public access to the preserves, have recently worked with the city to adopt Design Review Guidelines (DRG) mandating a 60 percent public/40 percent private rule for development adjacent to a portion of the new preserve. The DRG ordinance proposes four options to meet this 60 percent requirement: (1) single-loaded streets adjacent to the preserve; (2) cul-de-sacs opening to the preserve; (3) private open space adjacent to the preserve; and, the catchall, (4) creative options.

Existing Preserve Edge

Despite debates about access and use, there is widespread enthusiasm for preserving desert. There is much less agreement, however, about what to do at the edge in terms of responding to urban development. Because Phoenicians are accustomed to low-density, single family, detached homes, many people assume this should be the primary development type along the urban side of the preserve boundary. …

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