A Future-Forward Phoenix

Design strategies for a resilient & thriving city

by Diana Vasquez

As architects and designers, we are constantly recalibrating our approach to urban design with the goal of improving the quality of life and human experience. We believe that the future of our cities should combine socio-economic and ecological considerations that drive regeneration and shape communities where people and natural systems can coexist in balance. In a post-COVID world, we must also consider how the capacity of our natural systems are strained, as well as how racial, social and economic inequities are amplified. As we look to the future of Phoenix, we examine ways our city can become a thriving metro for everyone.

The Concept of 20-Minute Neighborhoods

The pandemic caused many city dwellers, who are no longer tethered to a downtown office, to rethink life in large urban areas in favor of smaller, less dense up-and-coming cities. Through a confluence of lower costs of living, access to nature, diverse amenities and improved overall quality of life, the appeal of up-and-coming cities is increasing, according to findings in Gensler’s City Pulse Survey. A 20-minute city requires a densification of services like healthcare, affordable housing, education, healthy food options, retail and ample green spaces withing walking distance. In car-driven cities like Phoenix, this concept expands to 20-minutes access by car. Understanding the unique character of a desert city and the climate changes over the course of the year are key to delivering solutions that are appropriate and attractive to incoming residents that are discovering the balance of highly dense urban centers and post-urban (neither urban nor suburban) cities like Phoenix.

Strategies for Regenerative Urban Environments 

The COVID pandemic emphasized how a health crisis can quickly and severely impact our world economy. With climate change widely seen as the next crisis, we must ask: How can we create resilient urban environments? Investors, developers and building owners are recognizing the consequences and risks of climate change as they mobilize to address the negative impacts of the built environment. Yet these risks can also present an economic opportunity as the marketplace begins to seek out investment in long-term climate action strategies. 

There has been a renewed discussion of 20-minute neighborhoods as a framework for linking amenities within communities; for this concept to be successful, public and private sector investment strategies need to be implemented to attract development to growing neighborhoods and benefit the community. We have a timely opportunity to deliver tangible and sustainable strategies, especially crucial for large masterplans, mixed-use developments and residential projects. These strategies can range in investment, but all can create a measurable impact as we seek to mitigate the effects of climate change. For example, coupling large-scale dynamic shading with evaporative cooling and proper material selections aid in improving the local thermal comfort and reduce urban heat island effect, all while reducing energy consumption. 

Designing for maximum site water management, like rainwater capture and reuse or open block parking surfaces with stabilized decomposed granite, ease burdens on already stressed municipal stormwater systems. Specifying low-flow fixtures, low- or no-irrigation plantings, or graywater reuse for non-potable systems also reduce project water demands. Lastly, alternative construction systems like timber structures and designing for adaptive reuse that enable space types to evolve with programming needs — including parking structures that can evolve into office or community space with the emergence of alternative transportation systems — are some of the major game changers aiming to reduce the overall carbon footprint of the built environment.

A Template for Livable Desert Cities

Phoenix represents a unique intersection of equity and climate change impacting our cities. Urban areas are a larger part of the global conversation than ever before. For Phoenix to become resilient and be equitable, the city can focus on counterbalancing the perceived negative effects of density by improving access to essential services such as water, affordable housing, education, open space, technology and healthcare. Repurposing existing buildings to new functions will form a significant part of such efforts. It’s possible to make cities healthier places without sacrificing the density that fuels their economies. New approaches to city-making should bring open spaces, watersheds, infrastructure and parks into the heart of how we plan and reshape our cities in the face of climate change and a future global crisis.  

Diana Vasquez is the design director at Gensler. An architect with more than 15 years of experience, Vasquez has delivered projects ranging from branding and interiors to masterplans for corporate campuses and mixed-used developments. As design director, Vasquez pushes the boundaries of design through the integration of new technologies and diverse points of view. As Gensler’s regional race and diversity leader, she champions the firm’s diversity initiatives to create a more equitable world.

Top photo courtesy of Gensler

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