27 Comments

Last week my friend Kevin Kellogg, the urban laureate at the Stardust Center, and I needed to find a place that was showing the World Cup semi-final match between the Netherlands and Uruguay.

I was, as usual, officing out of Lux Coffee Bar that morning.  Kevin suggested we watch the match at George & Dragon (G & D), the British pub on Central north of Indian School.  It’s a classic venue to watch the World Cup.

It occurred to me that Lux was close enough to G & D to walk!  I know this should not have been such a revelation, but not having walked the city much, I have almost no notion of how far apart things are in terms of walking distances.  Not being sure if it was a five or a ten minute walk, I decided to bite the bullet anyway and ventured out at around 11:15am.  Keep in mind, it must have easily been over 105 degrees by that time.

It turns out G & D is only a 5-minute, well actually, more like a 3- minute walk away from Lux, in case you ever have to make the trek for yourself.  But be forewarned, the short walk is quite strange as you have to traverse this big empty lot surrounded by yellow bollards along the way.

This is so typical in Phoenix – the empty lots that have poked gigantic holes into our urban fabric.  No wonder people don’t like to walk here.  A 3-minute walk can seem like an eternity when you’re surrounded by hot pavement on one side and just an empty  lot on the other.  It’s true that this stretch is actually more walkable than most in Phoenix due to the line of trees and the ample sidewalk.  But these efforts towards walkability disappear when adjacent to a large empty lot.

Sadly, empty lots and the general lack of interest on the pedestrian scale are a result and also what perpetuate the car culture in Phoenix.  You can walk for miles and miles in other cities such as New York and San Francisco and not realize it because the city is scaled for pedestrians.  There are various items of visual interest, storefronts, parks, benches, right-sized sidewalks and streets that all cater to the speed and scale of a pedestrian.  And there are very few holes in the form of empty lots like the ones we have in Phoenix.  And therefore, it seems natural to walk in those cities rather than to drive.

Here in Phoenix, even in Central Phoenix, the supposed urban core, the opposite is true: it’s more natural to drive than to walk.  Even my short walk to G & D from Lux seemed out of place.  I know you’ve heard me complain about our car culture before and you may be wondering why I keep harping on this subject.  But don’t you think we should keep questioning why walking is such an alien experience in Phoenix?

Photo Credit:  Photo by Taz Loomans

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27 Responses

  1. Donna Reiner says:

    I do suggest that walking is an alien experience in Phoenix not because of the empty lots, but more so because the vast majority of people are lazy! Since you know that I am a walker no matter the weather, distance, or picturesqueness of the jaunt, I believe that people are in too much of a hurry to want to take the time to walk if they can “drive.” Granted, I would much rather see something interesting along the way, that does not stop me from walking. There comes a point when we need to stop making excuses for why people don’t walk. They simply don’t want to. I contend that until we make it too expensive to drive & park in Phoenix, we will never have a walkable city.

  2. bloomingrock says:

    Donna, point taken! I think if more people took the initiative to walk, more things would crop up along the way to support pedestrians, such as pedestrian-oriented retail, restaurants and amenities. But then again, if some of these things were already in place, maybe people would walk more. It’s the chicken and the egg syndrome.

    But I agree with you that because we’re so used to the speed and convenience of driving our cars, walking has become out of the question and that is really too bad. I also agree with you that making driving less convenient (with raising parking rates and gas prices), this would automatically increase walking.

  3. Well said, my friend! This is the reason why I advocate using a bike during your carfree commute as opposed to walking in Phoenix. However, walking is not all that bad, just a little lonely with all the empty lots. I sometimes wonder if these empty lot owners are holding onto the property because they think the real estate market will get better?

  4. bloomingrock says:

    Tony, good question. I don’t know why developers hold on to empty lots. Maybe they are, like you say, hoping for better times to develop them. But meanwhile, the city is suffering.

  5. I have lived and walked in Chicago, San Francisco and New York City – Manhattena and Brooklyn, and alswys felt that having interesting things to look at and observe made the walk most enjoyable.

    So what if we could convert some of the empty lots into urban gardens? If we used native plants we could create a land of vegetation not empty lots and that would help offset the heat islnad affect. Then when the property is developed moving or taking out some plants or a tree or tow won’t be the big of a deal.

  6. bloomingrock says:

    Doreen, that’s an excellent idea on so many levels. All of a sudden those empty lots could become an asset to the community and actually be producing food.

  7. It would be great if there were more in-fill in and around Phoenix. That’s a long-term goal that we should put in front of our city’s elected officials.

    Really, we need to push our politicians to have more car-free experiences. So many of them only experience the city (or any cities that we might learn from) in a car.

    As far as creating urban gardens in empty lots, I know that the Grow House (6th St & Garfield – right next to Conspire Coffeehouse) has been working on mobile urban garden boxes that can be dropped off at empty lots and then easily removed when required to do so.

  8. Leslie Guiley says:

    We keep building entertainment and retail “complexes” instead of interspersing great restaurants and stores throughout the downtown area. People need places to walk to and they don’t want to cross massive parking lots to get to them! There is so much opportunity around the light rail and all those lofts downtown could really help the population density issue. However, the market that desires urban living is still priced out of them even at 50% off the peak level prices. My village planning committee was talking about ideas to make it walkable between the light rail stops on Camelback between 7th and 19th Ave so I walked it. I could not think of one reason I would ever do it again. That problem doesn’t need one solution..it needs several. However, people will walk if given reason to, ArtWalk shows us that.

    • bloomingrock says:

      Agreed Leslie, we just need better urban planning overall. Our city, even our central core, is not meant to be walked but driven and it shows. We need to rethink this and develop more walkable nodes that then could be connected via the light rail.

  9. Leslie Guiley says:

    I will say that living near Christown has proved to be very walkable! I can take my son to the park, the YMCA or the library on foot. We can walk to the bowling alley, the movie theater or to do some shopping at Target or the Christown Mall. The light rail is a 5-10 min walk as well and that opens up all of downtown to us on foot. I have not found anywhere this walkable in all of Phoenix.

  10. Pat Lynch says:

    There are some areas that have reached a “critical mass” of ground-level retail for pedestrians to look at – like Mill Ave from 3rd to 7th in Tempe. A few spots in Phoenix are pedestrian friendly – but Central is such a huge sretch. The best idea I’ve heard is creating outdoor gardens, which invite folks to walk and look. By the way – Biking in downtown Phoenix is great! You can do lots without a car!

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Pat thanks for your comment. I appreciate your enthusiasm about the amenities that are already in place to get out of your car and walk or bike instead. We just need to build on these nodes and create more of them.

  11. Will Novak says:

    To answer the query as to why there are so many dirt lots in CenPho the answer is more or less, land banking. Decades ago when Phoenix grew at rates over 100% per decade Central Phoenix was vastly over zoned for high rises. This lead to huge amounts of tear downs and developers readying their lots for Central Phoenix to turn into a mini Manhattan.

    Unfortunately for a variety of factors; poor local education at all levels, Civic leadership only attracting firms that need campuses (Honeywell, Intel, etc) not towers, not attracting enough companies in general, etc; the sky scraper boom never really happened. Many of the towers we have in Phoenix were originally planned to have two or more towers and we ended up with just one.

    The Collier Center was supposed to have a hotel, CityScape was supposed to have a hotel tower (and might still) plus two condo towers plus apartments above the retail, One Central Park East was supposed to have a Two Central Park east, the Phoenix Financial Center was supposed to have a twin punch card tower, etc, etc. So when even the projects we do get can’t fulfill their plans, we know we’ve way over zoned for high rises.

    Unfortunately, the City can’t just ‘unzone’ these lots for something smaller as they’d greatly decrease the potential value of the lot, ticking off the lots owners.

    A few things can and should be done though:

    First and foremost, no more assessing a lands value by whats actually on it. Our current tax assessment system encourages owners to let their buildings fall into disrepair so they’re assessed at a lower rate and thus taxed less. Eventually the owner can let a building fall apart enough to claim it must be knocked over, then with a dirt lot they pay very little taxes.

    What we need instead (and I believe Montreal has something like this…? Id have to check) is an assessment system based on what ones lot is zoned for. Got a lot zoned for a 50 story building? You’re going to start paying the taxes associated with a 50 story building whether you have on their or not. That alone would encourage developers to you know… develop! Or sell to someone who had the capability to.

    A second important thing that needs to happen, and its really a subset of the first is a law more or less banishing dirt lots. Dirt lots create visual blight, are part of the heat island effect, create dust, collect trash, make neighborhoods unsafe, etc. The City needs to make it a requirement that land bankers plant trees/fields/urban gardens/whatever on their lots.

    A point system could be created so that the better the quality of what the owner installs on the lot his taxes could be lessened. This would be the ‘carrot’ to the ‘stick’ that is the zoning assessment change. Don’t want to pay the taxes on a 50 story tower? How about converting your 2 acre lot into a Mesquite Bosque like what’s in front of the Phoenix Municipal Court building. Like so: http://tinyurl.com/27wksyc

    This all needs to start with the City itself. They own all of that land downtown that in the future will be part of the BioMedical campus. All of those empty lots South of Roosevelt Row and North of the Current Biomedical campus are owned by the city and they’re dirt lots! Thats horrific! Plant some trees you ninnies! If you can’t afford it, call up the Suns, the Diamondbacks, Pepsi, someone!

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Will I love your taxing ideas. Right now it seems the tax system incentivizes empty lots. We need to disincentivize them and like you said, give people bonus points for greening their lot.

  12. Kerry says:

    I wonder if because the streets were built for cars, the blocks are longer here? They have to be in order to allow for cars to follow safely and allow for turns. Walking as much as I do and coming from a place that was laid out and built pre-1930, it seems like Phoenix is just larger in that way, even downtown.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Kerry, I’ll find out what the length of an average Phoenix city block is and how it compares to other cities and get back with you…

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Kerry, here’s a clarification regarding city blocks in Phoenix by Kerry Wilcoxson, a Traffic Engineer with the City of Phoenix:
      “The length of a city block varies depending on where you are in town and where you measure from. In general, the distance between arterial streets like Indian School to Thomas is one mile. The distance between an arterial street like Thomas and a collector street Osborn is 1/2 mile and the distances between two local streets in central city like 10th Street and 9th St or Palm and Monte Vista is 300-600 feet respectively. The distances between local streets varies much more within the city than the distances between arterials and collectors and between arterials and arterials.”

  13. Barry Graham says:

    Although I think it’s a bit more complex than people being lazy, I agree with Ms. Reiner that the only way we’re going to have a walkable city is by making car-driving a very expensive luxury. The money raised that way could also fund more public transport.

    Unfortunately, it would be electoral suicide for anyone to actually propose such an initiative. But as the cost of oil escalates, sanity might be forced upon us despite our aversion to it.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Thanks for your comment Barry. You’re right, in our current car-loving climate, it would be political suicide for any person on the council to make driving an expensive luxury. But perhaps the hope lies in change that happens on the grassroots level, eventually creating a greater demand for walkability and transit. And then making driving an expensive luxury might just be the natural course to follow. It’s the whole chicken and the egg scenario, but I just don’t think we should wait for politicians to lead us in this regard. Most of the time, they’re better followers than leaders anyway.

  14. My wife, Lisa, is from Michagan, but lived in NYC for 11 years, Boston for 3 years, and San Franciso for 3. Walking, she says, was how she got around downtown. It’s how most everyone gets around when you live in cities like those.

    Then she moved to Phoenix. Two weeks later, she met me. I’m a Phoenix native. I hardly walked anywhere if I could avoid it. “Why???” she asked, dumbfounded. Comfort, I would say. Anything over 95 degrees I’ll drive.

    Now that I’ve been around her most excellent instincts for walking whenever possible, I’ve gotten better at walking when I feel I want to drive. I see now why I *really* drove instead of walked short distances like Lux to George & Dragon: because I was lazy; because I wanted to be there NOW; because I wanted to listen to music in my car and be entertained on the trip.

    Today, I walk a heck of a lot more thanks to people like my wife, Taz’s post here, and anyone who’s ever lived somewhere that walking was as natural as breathing…which sounds like a cliche’, until you realize it IS natural. As children, we walk everywhere. We unlearn walking. We’re taught to drive a car short distances.

    Here’s a GREAT idea that is an Official Arizona Legacy Centennial project, was featured at the kickoff in February, and which I would love to see pick up momentum. Have a look around the whole site, but I’d start here:

    http://canalscape.org/video/

  15. O says:

    Hi there – This comment is way late to the party, but I wanted to say it’s really heartening to find someone who shares the same sentiments I do about walking in fair town. I’m from SF originally, and have lived in Phoenix for over 5 years (and just moved back here after 1.5 years in NY); by far the most depressing thing about being back here isn’t that Phoenix isn’t the “bustling cultural metropolis” that NY or SF are. For me, it’s simply been the sheer lack of walking. I really had no idea how much I missed the simple act of walking (and the psycho-somatic effects of constantly moving, or the lack thereof) until maybe the third consecutive day I got into my car to do just about anything. Being without a car while I was living out east was actually extremely liberating. It made me discover the city and its surrounding suburbs in ways that I never would have had I been driving.

    That all said, I’ve walked all over Phoenix as much as I could out of the time that I’ve lived here (usually driving to a particular spot and then hoofing it), exploring odds and ends of different neighborhoods with my camera. Granted, I’d get stopped by cops time and time again, because the fact that I’m walking down a sidewalk with a camera is already deemed a suspicious activity, but I still enjoying doing this, though, especially in the older, more historic (and many times more decayed) parts of town. Something about being out there and living and experience the city (cheesy sentiment, I know).

    For a lot of folks here, though, I don’t think there are many complaints about Phoenix being a car-centric city. It comes part and parcel with living here. The inner Phoenix core is definitely changing, but for every positive development (First and Third Fridays, Downtown Public Market, etc) you have something that in the end does nothing to enhance the urban walkable core (Cityscape, please step to the front of the line). There’s still a lot of good potential for much of downtown to become a walking city, though, and I hold hope for more positive things to come. All the more why I appreciate coming across your post.

    Cheers! (and keep walking!)

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Thanks for your comment O…I admire that you still try to walk in Phoenix, I know how hard this is to actually do. The idea of Phoenix becoming a walking city, even the inner core, seems like a distant dream right now, but you’re right, Downtown has taken great strides (no pun intended) in becoming more walkable. We still have a ways to go though…

  16. Lisa Parks says:

    O – I lived in NYC for many years and SF as well (see my husband’s post above yours) and I know exactly how you feel. I always felt so inspired and energized walking around New York. I got plenty of exercise while doing it and didn’t miss having a car one bit. It would have been a hindrance.

    Now living in Phoenix, I feel there is something really depressing about walking around a city where you don’t pass by a lot of pedestrians or any flower shops or even sidewalk cafes really (which is so odd considering our beautiful weather).
    I do love my little pockets of inspiration though and visit them as often as I can. I’ve also enjoyed seeing the changes and progress in Phoenix during the six years that I’ve lived here. It seems that there are more communities being formed in neighborhoods, which makes them more walkable as restaurants, shops and coffee places pop up.

    I recently took the walk score test (walkscore.com) for my neighborhood and got a score of 74, which I was informed was considered very walkable. A couple of weeks ago I decided to put it to the test since the car was in the shop and I needed to get home from a job I was working on nearby. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience because it was dingy and noisy, but at the same time, it was nice to take in my neighborhood slowly rather than whizzing by in 3-1/2 minutes. I can’t say I will spend much time walking around here again though because the places that are within walking distance are things like Walmart and Taco Bell. There is also quite a bit of crime in the vicinity.

    I won’t stop walking though and plan to do some exploring along the canals this weekend. But for now I need to hop in a car and make the drive to IKEA.

  17. Lisa Parks says:

    Oh, and I meant to share this link about how to make cities livable (and encourage walking and public transportation).

    http://www.planetizen.com/node/44299

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