Phoenix Is Pulling Off An Urban Miracle: Transforming Into A Walkable City

The city that had long been the poster child of sprawl is putting its gears in reverse. With a new light rail line and a plan to make the city’s core denser and more desirable, it’s on the path to success.

For decades, Phoenix was the poster child for sprawl: Before the housing crash, developers were building 60,000 new homes a year in the desert at the edges of the city. But when the market fell apart and some of those new neighborhoods turned into instant ghost towns, the city learned its lesson and committed to moving in the other direction–walkable neighborhoods connected by public transit.


The transformation started with a new light rail line that connects far-flung communities, and now the areas around each stop will be developed into denser, urban places where people actually want to spend time outside.

“By building a new mode of transportation, the city stated its desire to live differently,” says Galina Tachieva, a sustainable planning partner at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, a consultancy that is helping the city figure out how to reverse sprawl.

After working through a series of community workshops, the design team mocked up a series of before-and-after shots showing how city streets will change–with narrower roads, bike lanes, sidewalk cafes, and new parks replacing vast swaths of concrete.

The new neighborhoods will be built over the next couple of decades, backed by a new walkable zoning code that will fight any chance of future sprawl. “Maybe some of these solutions look radical and quite ambitious, but they’re possible because the most expensive element is already in–the light rail,” says Tachieva.

With narrower streets, buildings will naturally start to shade the sidewalk. The plan also calls for trees and other plants along streets; despite the fact that Phoenix is in the middle of the desert, it’s located on top of aquifers and also has a hidden system of canals underground that were originally built by the prehistoric Hohokam tribe. The architects believe that it’s possible to manage water sustainably by carefully choosing locations and low-water plants.

“Instead of watering and supporting suburban lawns and golf courses in sprawl outside the city, it’s so much better to create this urban oasis for people to come to,” Tachieva says.


All of the features are intended to get more people on the street and outside of cars. Though some have argued that no one will want to walk in a city that regularly reaches temperatures above 100 degrees, Tachieva says she has already seen it happen.

“We saw with our own eyes that people actually walk when there are interesting things to see and there is action,” she explains. “When there are landmarks landmarks and destinations, people walk. We’ve seen this all around the world, from the coldest places in the north to the warmest places.”

“The city process led to a vision of a different place–much more urban, well connected, walkable, and human scale,” Tachieva adds. “We believe this is the city of the future, whether it’s in a cold climate or the desert. The city that will survive in the 21st century is a city which relies on simpler methods of mobility and transportation than just cars.”


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.