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Lab report examines new ideas for parks, public landscapes

October 24, 2008

Flying into Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, you become powerfully aware of a suburban landscape dominated by housing subdivisions, by single-family houses with large yards and private pools. You will also see, interspersed throughout the vast expanse of residential tracts, a scattering of public parks and preserves. But what role do these public landscapes play in a city with so many private landscapes, with such abundant opportunities for personalized leisure?

This question is at the center of the latest of Lab Report, an annual journal published by the Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory (PURL), a think tank and research center within the College of Design at Arizona State University. In a series of articles on projects in the United States and Mexico, leading practitioners and academics argue that postwar cities, like Phoenix, test the relevance of the traditional city park, and would benefit from new approaches in which landscapes are defined not only as places but also as large-scale metropolitan systems.

“Why drive to the park when you’ve got a backyard patio, a private pool?” asks Catherine Spellman, Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at ASU and author of the volume’s opening feature “Great City, Great Park.” Spellman’s article summarizes the design research of an interdisciplinary PURL-sponsored studio that looked at the past and future of Papago Park—the one of the largest and most important public parks in metropolitan Phoenix.

Spellman’s article and those that follow describe ambitious projects that push landscape thinking beyond the bounds and programs of traditional parks—projects that explore the potential for landscape urbanism, or “landscape suburbanism,” to be an agent of civic transformation.

“When we think about urban landscapes, we tend to think of the traditional city park situated within dense, compact cities,” said Chris Reed, founding principle of StoSS Landscape Urbanism and landscape architecture lecturer at University of Pennsylvania. “The Phoenix model of non-density is actually much more prevalent and is not conducive to the same density-driven public landscapes seen in New York or Chicago. This is an important topic that is not being discussed.”

Three articles examine public spaces outside Arizona. In “Doing More with Less,” Syracuse University associate professor Julia Czerniak describes the Connective Corridor, a competition-winning project that deploys metropolitan-scale landscape strategies to revitalize Syracuse, New York—a Rust Belt city that has been thinning out for decades. In “Unsprawling Atlanta,” architect and urban designer Ryan Gravel traces the history of the Atlanta Beltline, an ambitious proposal to transform abandoned rail corridors and brownfield sites into a 22-mile transit greenway that originated as Gravel’s urban design thesis at Georgia Tech and is today a two-billion-dollar public initiative. And in “The Edge in the Center,” ASU landscape architecture professor Gabriel Díaz Montemayor delineates his response to the rapid growth of the informal city. His project in Chihuahua, Mexico, comprises a series of subtle but cumulatively powerful interventions—including a network of small public-private green spaces and paths—that would define the urban/nature edge.

Two articles propose solutions for Phoenix, one at the edge, the other in the center. In “Sun City and the Suburban Desert,” Nataly Gattegno describes the work of a University of Virginia design studio that proposed new ways of developing desert communities. The goal, says Gattegno, is “to reconcile what would seem to be two antithetical conditions that define contemporary Phoenix: extreme climate and extreme sprawl.” In “Connected Oasis,” Christiana Moss describes a proposal developed by the architectural firm Studio Ma, working as part of the design team for the Downtown Phoenix Urban Form Project, to create a “green grid” that would interweave through downtown Phoenix a network of linear parks, plazas and courtyards with the goal of making the streets shady and comfortable year-round.

Rounding out Lab Report are articles by Ralph Stern and Nicole Huber, and Lucy Lippard, drawn from “Sites of Transition,” a photography exhibition and symposium coordinated by PURL this past spring. For more information on Lab Report or to purchase a copy, please visit


About Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory: The Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory (PURL) is an extension of the College of Design at Arizona State University. Part think tank, part project center, PURL pursues a multifaceted agenda comprising funded design and research, publications, lectures, exhibitions, conferences and workshops for mid-career professionals and high-school students. PURL’s mission is at once deeply local and broadly applicable: to inspire creative thinking and concrete action that will empower metropolitan Phoenix to grow in ways that are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable; and to advance intellectual and professional discourse on the future of contemporary urbanism. For more information visit