Phoenix LRT: Urbanization in the Desert

By Jason Leach
Published April 20, 2009

I stumbled across an amazing photo tour from Phoenix, Arizona. Yes, Phoenix: the dead city in the desert, as I usually refer to it.

I remember being excited for my first visit to Phoenix five years ago, only to arrive and be perplexed the entire time as to why anyone would move there. It's such a sprawling, suburban city it made Mississuaga look like Manhattan.

However, a few years ago Phoenix decided to construct a light rail line linking their 'downtown' (trust me, there wasn't much of a downtown when I was there) with one of the local universities.

Ridership is higher than projected on the LRT line, and many people have closely watched the experience in Phoenix to see if LRT could actually work in such a car-oriented, suburban city.

So far, the results have been positive. As always seems to be the case with LRT projects is the re-urbanization and rediscovery of urban neighbourhoods and urban living - even in the sprawling desert.

These photos are of a new urban park with a very cool art installation in downtown Phoenix. In one of the photos you can see the LRT gliding by.

There will always be those folks here in Hamilton, and in every city, who say "it can't work here". They've come to love and accept the status quo.

Having been to Phoenix, and now closely following their experience with light rail and all the new residential projects that are being built downtown along the LRT line, I can say confidently that if it can work in Phoenix, it can work anywhere!

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.


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By Squelcher (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2009 at 11:18:35

Oh Waaaaaaah you can compare Hamilton with Phoenix because of all the differences between Hamilton and Phoenix, like size, shape, precipitation rates, tax rates, prevailing architecture, politicial affiliation, ummmm did I forget any excuses? These solutions would never work in Hamilton because of our suburbs our industrial heritage our one way streets our proximity to Toronto our proximity to the lake our escarpment our highways our rivers our waterfalls our combined sewers our bowel movements our politicians our steel companies our university our college our bus network our poverty our affluence our newspaper our tv station our environmentalists our chamber of commerce our short line rail industry our bayfront park our one way streets our two way streets our indifference.

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By Here comes the "but" (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2009 at 11:51:04

Jason, thanks for posting. I know this is off-topic and not really the point of your blog (which is that LRT can work even in places where you wouldn't think it was possible to get people out of their cars), but I just wanted to point out for the record that we probably shouldn't be trying that hard to make a city in the middle of the desert be successful. There's just no way a city in the desert can be environmentally sustainable.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 20, 2009 at 12:04:57

tell me about it. It was quite an eye-opening place to visit. I understand more than ever why folks in our Great Lakes region need to protect our water sources and not allow government or industry start draining the Great Lakes so someone in Phoenix can have a green lawn. It was weird driving around in this desert city. Everything was brown and dry, except front lawns, golf courses etc....

My point was to simply point out that even in a horrendous, car-centric place like Phoenix, LRT is succeeding in getting people out of their cars and back downtown into public places and new housing developments.

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By LRTSupporter (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2009 at 12:33:26

Interesting to note that thus far, the examples of LRT that has worked well (Phoenix, Portland), are mainly configured through the downtown area as contra-flow LRT on one-way roads.

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By David SB (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2009 at 13:54:05

Wow, tons of condescension in both the blog post and the subsequent comments. Why is a desert city intrinsically less sustainable than a coastal city prone to hurricanes or a riverbank city prone to floods? All locations have their challenges, and how we manage those challenges is a testament to our ingenuity. As for alleged plans to drain the Great Lakes to provide for green lawns in Phoenix, I've never heard serious talk of that -- just paranoid delusions on various blogs and discussion forums. Phoenix has a much more secure water supply than most outsiders realize, although there's certainly a lot more that can be done to promote conservation. Despite the unfortunate tone of the discussion here, it's great that our newn light rail system is getting noticed as far away as Ontario. It's a great step forward for our city and will be even better once 37 additional miles of extension lines are built.

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By hunter (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2009 at 15:35:49

yeah, as you can see from David's post, a condescending tone won't win you any friends. i've been following RTH for years and i agree with the vision here. it is practicable and it will work. kudos to all. but the know-it-all condescension is sometimes too much to take. it detracts from the site and weakens the message and the vision. just my two cents. best wishes.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 20, 2009 at 16:01:20

Hey David SB. I presume you live in Phoenix, and I appreciate you logging in to shed some light on your LRT expansion plans. Are those extensions moving forward or just hoped for at this point?

I certainly didn't intend to be condescending, and for what it's worth, there has been very serious talk of southern US firms looking to buy rights to Great Lakes water in the past few years. It's been a mainstream news headline topic here, due to our location in the middle of the Great Lakes.

That aside, as I tried to mention in my blog, I'm pleased with what I'm seeing online in Phoenix. I understand your love for a place since you live there, but I'm sure that if you're completely honest with us, you'd agree that Phoenix is miles better and on a much better path of development now than it had been previously. Every city has it's problems, but you guys have certainly turned a corner and I'm guessing that the upcoming years will show even greater urbanization in Phoenix than we've seen up until now.

Cheers Jason

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By David SB (anonymous) | Posted April 21, 2009 at 00:09:35

Yes, light rail is a huge step forward for Phoenix, but instead of making a dismal place tolerable, as implied in the original post, it has made a good place even better.

As for the extensions, those are funded by Proposition 400, which was approved in 2004 by the voters of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and most of its suburbs. 37 miles are planned, although actual construction will be contingent upon the level of tax revenues coming in over the next 15 years. Additional extensions have been discussed, although no funding sources have been identified yet.

More information (had to omit htt* due to weird anti-spam measures)

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By Fartsy (anonymous) | Posted April 24, 2009 at 14:44:54

Yes an LRT is transformative, but the pics really focus on the effectiveness of large pieces of public art to focus attention on a city's assets.

Imagine something like Phoenix' sculpture hanging over Hamilton's Gore Park. Imagine the projection of visual art on some of Trevor Jones medieval brick walls along King and Main, or the James St. Armouries. Imagine a weekly light show on the upper deck of Jackson Square. Imagine the WOW-factor of some of Phoenix' light displays in Hamilton's city hall forecourt. Imagine the howls of protest, despite their relative affordability, at taxpayer expendiatures for such attractions.

This is highly subjective, and not a knock against the city needing a multi-use civic stadium removed from residential neighbourhoods, but I'm much more likely to find myself in downtown Phoenix to see that sculpture up close than I am to attend Ticat, soccer or the Pan Am games within the next ten years. I long ago learned that actual sporting events are far better appreciated on telly, but I'd put my butt on a bench for a replay of the opening show to the Beijing Olympics.

BTW, anyone but me enjoyed the overhead projections on Las Vegas' historic Freemont St?

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 24, 2009 at 17:19:18

You're bang on fartsy, with the public art ideas. My point in focusing on the LRT aspect is because up until now there's been nothing in 'downtown' Phoenix to do, and there certainly hasn't been masses of people coming to just enjoy the urban environment in downtown Phoenix. This is what can be done once people rediscover their urban core. In Hamilton, we absolutely should do the things you mention.

Steel curved panels that are lit up at night on the outside of Hamilton Place. A huge installation in front of city hall and in Gore Park. The King William art walk has potential assuming it gets creative and bold, and not just a series of murals. James North is the obvious choice for some great public art in the form of bike locks, benches, lights, signage etc....

Hamilton's urban core is so much more urban and busy with people than Phoenix. We need to start doing stuff like this immediately. Heck, develop an Art Park connecting the new PanAm stadium with Bayfront Park. Great views of the water with dynamic art pieces like Millenium Park in Chicago and the Art Park (forget the name) in downtown Seattle.

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By Fartsy (anonymous) | Posted April 27, 2009 at 12:59:13

Since we're dreaming BIG Jason, let's envision a walkway that begins at Sam Lawrence Park's upper plateau, crossing the Jolley Cut to, say, a hotel rooftop, the building descending to Charleton St. (with a geo-thermal water-cooling water feature in keeping with the city's waterfall character) and a pathway along the CP rail line to Ferguson Ave, and the revitalized King St. E. (and the Gore Park & City Hall & Jackson Sq. upper deck features we've mentioned) and then along King William, with the over-arching Freemont St. displays extending north along James to the bayfront. Or at least to the CN rail corridor.

Now this link between the escarpment and the waterfront WOULD make Hamilton a significant tourist centre, I believe. Could the west end of Jackson Square be developed as an urban theme park (multi-story waterslides, virtual rides, arcades and a ferris-wheel) do you think? Maybe a theme, like the history of transportation in North America via St. Lawrence & Mississippi Valleys. Rides through the flora & fauna & landscapes.

If we only had money, huh?

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