'Canalscape' could become Phoenix legacy

[Source: Arizona Republic, March 26, 2008 – Author: Nan Ellin] – Amsterdam has 47 miles of canals. Venice 125. And Phoenix has … 181! Yet, Amsterdam and Venice are widely known and lauded for their stunning canal-oriented cityscapes, while Phoenix has largely turned its back on this tremendous asset. Sure, we use the canal banks for recreation and have been engaged in canal bank enhancements—public art, benches, landscaping, and shade structures—for years. But we have failed to leverage the opportunity to create special places alongside the canal banks that combine live, work, and play.

I’m not suggesting we urbanize the length of our canals. Indeed, we must preserve the vast majority of these scenic canals as they are. It is curious, however, that the places where our modern street grid intersects the canals, are largely neglected. The odd-shaped lots, yielded by the overlap of the two systems, has discouraged development in a city accustomed to right angled-lots. As we speed over the canals in our cars, we may see them from the corner of our eyes, or not notice them at all.

I propose we assist these ugly ducklings grow into beautiful swans with “Canalscape,” distributed cores and corridors located where canals meet major streets. This mixed-use “urban infill” would provide highly desirable places to gather by the water as well as an alternative to sprawl. Unlike Amsterdam and Venice, much smaller cities with urbanized canals throughout, Phoenix’s trademark would be Canalscape, reflecting its unique quality of being a “network” city as well as a region that creatively intersperses urban living into a breathtaking desert landscape.

Each neighborhood would determine the size and character of their canalscape. It might feature cafes, restaurants, and boutiques on the ground level with offices and condos above. It could offer a community center, library, post office, affordable housing, and apartments. Perhaps a grocery, health club, bike shop, and school, with Assisted Living for seniors. These small urban hubs might be one storey or more. They could blend with its surroundings or stand out. They might include public art by local school children or established artists. They could demonstrate green building practices, including photovoltaic panels that generate energy for local use, sustainable water features that recycle water from the canals, and more. The possibilities are endless and communities would gather to make these decisions during a half-day workshop facilitated by municipalities.

The only requirement would be that ground floor uses are public and oriented to the canal as well as the street. Southbridge, a project developed by visionary developer Fred Unger along the southern bank of the Arizona Canal in Scottsdale, offers an excellent example of such mixed-use canal and street-oriented urban development. While this project is situated in the middle of an existing downtown, however, I’m suggesting we apply this model to neglected parcels of our urban fabric throughout the region wherever canals meet streets.

The benefits are many. While providing desired amenities to neighborhoods, the Phoenix metropolitan region would become known worldwide for its unique network of vital hubs along canals. Since each of these hubs would have its distinct character, people may have their “own” neighborhood canalscape, but would also enjoy visiting others around town. By offering comfortable and beautiful places next to the water, this initiative will contribute to provide a sense of place, sense of history, sense of identity, and sense of community. The orientation towards the canal would bring people in contact with it more regularly, cultivating respect for our heritage as well as our precious water supply, ultimately the most effective way to nurture stewardship. For the thousands who use the canal banks daily for recreation, there will finally be a place to stop for something to drink, a bite to eat, or to use the restrooms.

In addition, Canalscape would contribute to urban regeneration and economic revitalization. The support provided by municipalities for this kind of development (e.g. incentives, zoning overlays, shared parking) could offer an effective and much-needed stimulus to our currently sluggish economy.

Rather than neglect the leftover parcels that depart from the repetitive grid, I say we honor these moments where modern and ancient civilizations meet, realizing the long-term regional development framework envisioned 2 decades ago by SRP, ASU, the Junior League, and seven Valley cities in a Metropolitan Canal Study. Rather than turn our backs to the canals, perhaps we could celebrate the 100th birthday of our state in 2012 by enhancing what gave birth to our region and provides our lifeblood.

We might identify a location to demonstrate Canalscape for the Arizona Centennial, with a plan to develop 100 more sites over the next 100 years. These vibrant hubs along the canals would enhance our lives in so many ways and leave a valued legacy to future generations of an authentic and sustainable desert urbanism.