If parking is the antithesis of walkability, as I wrote about last week, then empty lots are at the very least a bane to walkability. And everyone I know who talks about our city, from doomsayers like Andrew Ross, the author of the new book Bird on Fire: Lessons for the Least Sustainable City in the World to Phoenix mayoral candidates Greg Stanton and Wes Gullett, knows that our empty lots are a pox to the health of the city.
But this post isn’t a woe-is-Phoenix story. It’s a story about hope, a story about the Valley of the Sunflowers.
In the seminar I attended last week called Building Sustainable Communities, one thing was made clear. And that is, as Shannon Scutari from the Sustainable Communties Working Group said, “the sun doesn’t make us interesting.” Forever now, we’ve relied on our sunny weather to attract people to come to Phoenix. This may have worked in the past, when values were different, when people tended to work 9 to 5 jobs for the majority of their lives and then looked to retire in a sunny place.
But now values have changed and younger generations seek to live in places that they find interesting with other people who are interesting, regardless of climate. You don’t have to look much further than Seattle or Portland for evidence of that.
What does this mean for Phoenix? It means we need to make our city interesting and not just rely on our climate to attract and keep new people. Enter Valley of the Sunflowers, a small but powerful project that seeks to prove that we’re more than just the Valley of the Sun.
The Valley of the Sunflowers is a project of the A.R.T.S. initiative that was launched by the Roosevelt Row CDC last year. It stands for the Adaptive Reuse of Temporary Space and aims at negotiating temporary, pedestrian-scale, people-attracting, placemaking uses for some of our empty lots. The people behind the A.R.T.S. initiative recognize that the empty lots in Phoenix are owned by developers and sometimes by the City and are being land-banked to be developed into grand things, such as skyscrapers and other lofty building-types.
But that’s the problem.
Developers and the City have been sitting on these lots for years, sometimes decades, until ‘conditions improve’. Well, said the Roosevelt Row CDC, we’re tired of waiting. And they’ve negotiated with a handful of empty lot owners now to let them use their land for temporary uses, such as markets, art performances, and art installations.
A.R.T.S.’s most recent and innovative project is the Valley of the Sunflowers where the group worked with the City of Phoenix, who owned this particular lot in Downtown Phoenix, the Intel Corporation, the BioScience High School and neighborhood residents to cultivate the land and grow sunflowers on it. Not only will the sunflowers add beauty, color and vibrancy to the area, but the seeds will be used to produce biofuel for a bio-diesel car that’s being built at the BioScience High School next door.
I’ve heard some grumblings about the fact that growing sunflowers may not be the most practical or the most effective and long-lasting thing to do on an empty lot. But to these naysayers I say, hey, it’s an experiment! It’s a move in the right direction. It’s the attempt of a neighborhood organization to take its neighborhood back. It’s not the complete and final solution to our empty lot problem, but it certainly is an interesting one.
Photo Credit: Photo from the Valley of the Sunflowers facebook page.