Phoenix: A Downtown Desert

In daily life, the concept of “livability” is becoming very important to where we choose to put down our roots. This isn’t a new concept. For a long while, those with the privilege to make a distinct choice about where they want to live have made pros and cons lists for plenty of urban and suburban areas. Where people grow up would seem to influence what type of place they seek later. However livable their hometown was makes an impact on how livable the new place they seek might be. I’m throwing around the word “livable” a lot, as if it is assumed what that means, but it isn’t always obvious. I have made my own index on how to label the livability of cities, so let me start with that:


  • Engagement: Are there things to do? Is the architecture monotonous or stimulating? Is it permeable? What is happening on the human scale or the ground level?
  • Accessibility: This goes hand and hand with engagement, but specifically: Is it walkable or can you ride your bike or take the train where all of the engaging things are? Or does it require a car to get everywhere? Is it exclusive? Are pedestrians prioritized at intersections?
  • Safety: Are there eyes on the street—are there people around? Are there many windows facing pedestrian areas? Can people feel comfortable walking by themselves down the sidewalk? Feelings can’t be explained as well by statistics, but they are just as important.
  • Community: In addition to things to do and places to visit, are people engaged with each other? Is this community a good enough reason for people to feel connected and cared for? Does the infrastructure provide outlets for conversation with moveable chairs, benches that face each other, or intimate spaces?


Having experienced the extreme end of the spectrum that is Copenhagen, DK, where it is a city that has been rated #1 on many livability rankings, it has been a mission of mine to experience cities of the United States and determine for myself if they are also livable. I was able to feel out the vibes of Copenhagen for four months while I studied abroad there, so feeling it out in cities where I would only get to spend a few days required much more intentional observation. I set out to Phoenix, AZ in April 2015 for five days to make a quick and informed judgment about the city’s livability. I was looking for specific ratings of the livability index that I determined based on everything I learned from a class that I took while abroad, called Strategies of Urban Livability taught by the very intelligent and fashionable Bianca Hermansen.


Phoenix is very different than any city I have ever been to, having lived in Chicago, IL, and going to college just outside of Boston, MA. Outside of Boston is an expansive and suburban in a sprawling way that was overwhelming and impossible to cover without a car and time. Two places that I was able to get some concrete observation from were Scottsdale, AZ, a wealthy, posh suburban center just outside of Phoenix and, as well as downtown Phoenix itself. I also visited Tempe, AZ which is where Arizona State University is located. I was there during a weekend, which I was excited to inspect because that is the time of the week where cities really draw out the people. The temperature was around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sky rarely had a cloud in sight. For the dry Arizona climate, this was quite a mild day. During the summer, it can reach 120°F, at which point people almost never leave the air conditioning of their homes, their cars, and shopping malls—as told to me by several residents and Uber drivers eager to tell a tourist about the city. In short, my visit should have been a perfect time to see people actually taking advantage of the spring temperatures.


That being said, it was a ghost town almost everywhere I went. Everywhere except for the Scottsdale mall on a Friday afternoon, and a nightclub enthused plaza surrounding the Charles Korrick Fountain on a Saturday night in downtown Phoenix. Ghost towns aside, let’s take a look at my observations and the ratings of livability chronologically based on my stay.




The facts: According to the Scottsdale, AZ website, the city is “among the nation’s most desirable communities to live in, visit, and do business in”. It was incorporated in 1951 with a slogan: “The West’s Most Western Town”. Today, Scottsdale has a population of 224,800, spans 184.5 square miles, and has an average of 314 sunny days per year.


A quick blurb: The downtown is arranged mostly around strip malls with angled parking. There are many free parking garages and a free trolley that goes in a complete loop around the downtown so you don’t have to worry about where you are parking. The downtown is actually pretty big, so it doesn’t seem walkable, but since the trolley runs every 15 minutes until 6 pm, you have a bit more access. The trolley does seem like a tourists’ transportation method, so the unanswered question is whether or not residents actually use the trolley. The stores and restaurants are posh, though the mall food court is a bit more affordable with basic fast food options. There’s a contemporary art museum, a modern made “wild wild west” strip mall, and a man-made waterfront.


First impressions and opinions: The town is a movie set. It is inauthentic and eerie, despite being cute. Faces were nonexistent here. I could only assume they were hiding in private vehicles.



Observations: My first look at Scottsdale was the mall and the expanse of the parking lot to get to the shops. Alongside the parking lot was an underpass, under what appeared to be a disguised parking garage. The underpass had a through street as well as a one-way valet parking rotunda, which led to a couple bars and restaurants. A Starbucks was positioned at the pedestrian entrance of this underpass with outdoor seating all the way around the freestanding building. Remember, this outdoor seating is mostly underneath the underpass, which has golden mood lighting to disguise the fact that it is indeed a car-centric zone. There was bar seating even further inside the underpass, which featured almost no direct access to sunlight, and no interesting views. It seemed to be an undesirable place for a restaurant.


Inside the mall, I spent time observing the area directly surrounding the food court. In one instance of counting the people at tables, eating or relaxing, there were approximately 63 people within my viewing range. About 27 people were aged 25-35 years old, and about 18 people were aged 40 or older. There were a mix of generations, but few families and few teenagers. 13 of these people were alone, so perhaps these attendees felt as though the mall food court was a place they could just go to be around people. I counted people for 20 minutes who were traversing the escalator based on whether or not they were Caucasian, whether or not they were alone and whether or not they were carrying shopping bags.


Symbols: W-White, SB-Shopping Bags, A-Alone

7 3 8 1 10 12 13 22


Table 1, Shows that the most popular group (29% of the sample) to hang out around the food court of the mall is the Non-White group with friends or family who are not carrying shopping bags. Regardless of race, 70% of the sample was not carrying shopping bags that were hanging out around the food court. This shows that it is an affordable and comfortable place to be, whether or not you are participating in the act of shopping.


About a ten-minute trolley ride away from the mall was the highly manicured “Wild Wild West”. It seemed to be an attempt towards the human scale with very short buildings and store fronts lining the streets. In reality, there were very few people walking along these streets. The percentage of street width devoted to pedestrians was very small to make way for wide bays of angled parking on both sides and unnecessarily large lanes for cars to pass. There was no way to see any pedestrians across the street if any existed. Still, the shaded sidewalks, cobblestone pedestrian crossing lanes, and the cheeky western style signage plus brightly painted stucco were charming and seemed to beg for human attention. Perhaps the day we visited was an exception from the norm as the lack of people goes. Or this, in conjunction with my study at the food court, shows that the population surrounding the area is most comfortable just wandering the mall than wandering the streets.


Engagement: 6

Accessibility: 7

Safety: 5

Community: 3




The facts: Phoenix has been experiencing great growth over the years making it the most populous capital in the United States at around 1.5 million people, according to the City website. On the other hand, the downtown area in which I observed was around 25-37% vacant housing (Central and Washington) according to the 2010 Census data. There may be the population, but it isn’t downtown.


A quick blurb: Downtown Phoenix is arranged with mostly large office buildings, a few commercial shops, the Arizona State University campus and of course, parking lots. There is a new light rail system that has made the downtown area more accessible without a car, but it is questionable whether that has made it any more desirable and accessible to the greater population.


Observations: On a bright Sunday with a temperature of 82 degrees, I sat in the Civic Space Park in downtown Phoenix as a jazz band played and the Janet Echelman net sculpture blew in the light wind. It was about 2:45 in the afternoon when the sun was not at its highest and there were sporadic trees that shaded the grass. This was a perfect Phoenix day for locals, and so 46 people were watching the concert within the half hour that I counted people. Amongst those people, only 8 people sat in the sun, meaning 17% of the sample. Of those 8 people, only half of them stayed at the concert the entire time. For a place so sunny all year long, there was only one triangular shaded tarp where people could take refuge under, and there were minimal other means of shade, like trees. In one area of the park, there was just a giant open space whose grass was clearly burned by sun and rarely sat on, if ever. Aside from the large open space, the park seemed to be planned specifically for a sunny, dry climate with a significant amount of shade and a surprising amount of grass. It also has nice amenities like a bike share, an indoor basement café and the beautiful tornado sculpture in the center.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 4.14.43 PM

By viewing the satellite map courtesy of Google, it is already apparent that there are many parking lots around the park nearly the same size, but it is only apparent on the ground level how little amenities surround the area. Less than 50 yards away there’s a train station, Arizona State University (a Subway, Mexican food, and a green smoothie shop), and Midfirst Bank. Between 50 and 150 yards stands a YMCA, a post office, and a shuttle stop to ASU west campus. Up to 300 yards away are a Westin Hotel and Chase Tower. Generally the area looks deserted and corporate aside from the refuge of the green in the park. Past 300 yards, there are nothing but office buildings and rarely any activity at the human scale. On a Sunday, most restaurants and coffee shops that were closer to a commercial area were closed (including the one in the park) and there was nowhere for me to go. On the walk from Civic Space Park to Washington Street via Central Avenue, which is about 1/3 of a mile, there were no pedestrians at all. I was confronted by two men, one who asked me for money and one who addressed me saying, “Hi beautiful”. As a female pedestrian, I felt very agitated and unsafe despite the fact that is was downtown in the bright beautiful sunshine.


There weren’t any eyes on the street at all until I finally reached the Charles Korrick Fountain. By this time, it is 5:00 pm on a Sunday evening and the sun was still bright. There are 12 restaurants or businesses surrounding the fountain plaza, but only 4 of them were open (CVS Pharmacy, Starbucks, Chipotle, and Pizza Studio). The other establishments included some nightclubs, a Verizon store, and a specialty grocery store. There were 8 children playing in the fountain, 9 parent-figures looking on and 3 other unassociated adults looking on. The plaza was a surprising planned space, which had many step-like stone benches, a charging station (most outlets locked), and sit-able areas of grass. My imagination would lead me to believe that during the week, this place would be bustling with suits and ties. On the other hand, the weekend seemed to leave it eerie despite the fact that there were 11 other adults aside from me who came and went throughout the hour.


My experience throughout this day left me cutting many of my observations short for the sole fact that I didn’t want to be alone and vulnerable in these places. I had three other men approach me in a leering manner during these four hours, and I was eager to feel safe again. Simple observations based on a Sunday leave me to predict that this desolate activity may not happen as much during the week, and, perhaps even because of the nightclubs’ presence, on weekend nights as well. I would never visit downtown Phoenix alone on a weekend again, and there would be little reason to visit anyway due to the lack of consumer activity. The park was a nice refuge, and the jazz series is probably the way they attempt to bring people into downtown, but otherwise, the city left me actively frightened and unimpressed.


Engagement: 4

Accessibility: 3

Safety: 1

Community: 4



Veronica Foster is a senior undergraduate at Tufts University studying the intersection between Cognitive Science and Urban Studies. She is currently doing EEG brainwave research related to different urban environments. Veronica is the Creative Director of the undergraduate urban planning student organization at Tufts and she has worked closely with Tufts’ home City of Somerville in the planning department. She began her livability studies in the inspiring city of Copenhagen, Denmark. The future of urban planning will be greatly integrated with psychology research practices including the cognitive and the social, which Veronica is interested in exploring further.


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3 Comments on “Phoenix: A Downtown Desert”

  1. SAS! January 5, 2017 at 5:16 pm #

    Yeah, compared to new york, look at this, no sunlight…

    would rather live in phoenix! sure, no subway, but, look at ours… so old and outdated.

    they use 1930s technology on B division, buttons to punch track routes to local towers because no one can follow the schedule or automate the signals, sometimes cameras so towers know which train it is, but mainly it is radios, simple third rail grounding rails and circuit rails, insulated joints (sometimes between welded rail blocks)… when will things be updated? who knows…

    still key-by protocols, reminds me of when i was there. lowering the trip so the train doesn’t derail itself in that block, IJ before the arm… Usually, if a train goes through a red light, a switch on the track triggers the train’s brakes. But at many signals, it is possible for a motorman to “key by” the red signal, or go through it at less than five miles an hour, without tripping the brakes. Motormen are supposed to get permission by radio from their dispatchers before making the maneuver. Automatic key-by. For an automatic or approach signal (not on the unresignalled IRT) indicating “stop”, it is possible for the train to creep up very, very slowly, 1 or 2 mph, such that the front wheel of the train passes the track joint electrically separating signal blocks from each other, with still critical distance to spare between the stop and the train’s tripcock. This maneuver, automatic key-by (AK), will drive the stop and hold it clear, and the train can proceed beyond the red signal prepared to stop within vision. Since the mid 1970’s (when exactly?), this has not been permitted without special orders, on account of an accident resulting from abuse of “AK”.


  2. PrayNY January 10, 2018 at 10:04 pm #

    Desert is better than NYC now, all the flooding underground, terrible announcing and communication… so much incompetence. Like everything is half-done. 4 av is “finished” with repairs for years yet still has construction materials everywhere… why? Broken pipes, leaking everywhere. Sham. shame.


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