Canal Vision

"Jana's View" Phoenix Magazine, October 2009

Canal Vision

An ASU professor’s plan to create scenic villages around our unsightly canals could make Phoenix the Venice of the West.

PHOENIX – AMERICA’S LARGEST DESERT CITY – has more canals than the world’s most famous canal cities, Venice and Amsterdam.

No, I’m not nuts: This “oasis” we call Phoenix is also America’s “canal city,” but you’d probably never know that even if you’ve lived here for a long time. I didn’t know it until earlier this year when I huddled up with Arizona State University professor Nan Ellin to talk about her favorite project.

“We have way more canals than Venice or Amsterdam – they’re part of our DNA,” she says.

Venice’s 125 miles of canals and Amsterdam’s 47 miles of canals make these cities European icons and postcard darlings. Meanwhile, Phoenix has a whopping 181 miles of canals that most people ignore.

Until I spoke with Ellin, I could have told you Phoenix was founded on the remains of the ancient Hohokam Indian civilization that first populated this Valley of the Sun thousands of years ago. I could have told you we still use the canal system they first laid out to irrigate their crops. And I could have told you that since I first came here in the early 1970s, nobody has paid much attention to these irrigation ditches. The only people who really appreciate them are bikers or hikers. Sure, there have been a few benches put up, along with some public art and some shade structures, but really, the canals are not a big deal.

For Ellin, that means I’m a poor student of the urban landscape here and have been ignorant of one of its potentially greatest treasures.

“We’ve turned our backs on the canals all these years, but imagine if we turned to face them,” she says. “Imagine canal villages where we have cafés and shops, libraries and post offices, public spaces. These are neighborhood projects and should be mixed-use so you could live, work and play right there.” In short, she’s intent on turning our “ugly ducklings” into beautiful swans.

The more she talks, the more it seems not only possible but downright doable. Especially because she has the entire university behind her, including the endorsement of ASU President Michael Crow, and they’re helping her lead the way in one of the greatest improvements Phoenix has ever seen.

Ellin isn’t talking about developing the length of the canals – she’s talking about creating “canal villages” where the canals intersect with major roads. Did you know there was a canal at 24th Street and Thomas Road? How about 16th Street and Indian School Road, 40th Street and Camelback Road, or Seventh Avenue around Campbell? There are actually hundreds of potential sites, the biggest of which is at 44th and Washington streets near the Pueblo Grande Museum. It winds around to Van Buren and 40th streets near Gateway Community College, where there also sits a stop along the light rail.

“These aren’t cookie-cutter projects,” she stresses. “Each neighborhood has to figure out what it wants. Here’s how we do it: Instead of saying, ‘We have a problem with this canal back there,’ we asked the people, ‘What do you love about your neighborhood and what would you like to add?’”

Ellin believes the canals are untapped treasures, so she’s teaching a class at ASU about the villages, and it’s attracting students from a wide variety of disciplines. Last semester, she had 40 students from 14 different colleges, including planning, sustainable growth, public administration, public policy, urban studies, journalism, architecture, geography and film.

Students have done so much work on this idea that they’re mounting a Canalscape Exhibition at the ASU Art Museum from November 7 to December 1. The exhibit will feature What Was: Archival Images of Canals from their Earliest Days; What Is: Current Images of Our Canals as They Exist Today; and What Could Be: A Range of Proposals for Dozens of Sites Throughout Phoenix.

The exhibit also includes the reveal of a “demonstration project” on November 12 at 40th Street and Camelback Road, which will show what the area around that canal could look like.

Ellin says the groundwork for this demonstration project has already been laid. She’s met with Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who represents the area, and other community leaders, who she says have been “very supportive.”

All this coincides with a Greenbuild conference ASU is sponsoring in early November, where Ellin, along with Ph.D. student Braden Kay and Salt River Project representative Bruce Hallin, will present the Canalscape concept to the public. She and her students also are creating a catalogue sponsored by Salt River Project, and the Arizona Humanities Council has awarded a grant for the exhibition. She stresses she’s also getting lots of help from the private sector, as well as the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. Complete information on the exhibit and conference is available at canalscape.asu.edu.

Ellin sees the canal villages as both a private and public project between individual landowners, developers and city officials, who could offer tax breaks or finance public parking for the projects.

“Our big stumbling block is perception,” Ellin says. “People called them ‘ditches,’ and most maps of Phoenix don’t even show the canals.” She’s heard it all before: The canals are an eyesore, they’re smelly and messy, they’re in the way, they’re used for irrigation by the Salt River Project – and SRP isn’t interested in anything that will hamper its use of the canal.

She says the same kind of complaints were voiced in San Antonio before it transformed its river into the now famous River Walk, where tourists spend much of their time shopping and sightseeing. The same things were said about the river in Providence, Rhode Island, where its Waterfire project is now a centerpiece. That’s one reason she wanted a public display, to help alter perceptions and open people’s minds.

“We need to go from the improbable to the impossible to the inevitable,” Ellin says.

She’s spent a good hunk of this year getting others on board. In February, she sponsored a symposium at the Downtown ASU campus. More than 200 people showed up for an all-day discussion of the canals and their potential.

Meanwhile, the American Institute of Architects has sponsored a design competition for the canalside projects, which attracted about 40 entries. Entries were due at the end of July, but winners had not yet been chosen at press time.

All of this seems like a lot of frantic activity in a short period of time, and it is. (Ellin likes to joke, “It takes a long time for something to happen suddenly.”) The first time Phoenix paid any real attention to the canals – other than when they have overflowed during floods – was in 1987. That’s when the city, through planner Joy Mee, created design guidelines for the canals. And the last time anyone seriously thought about our canals was a couple years later when the Junior League of Phoenix sponsored its Metro Canal Alliance. They focused on beautifying and enhancing the canals, which is how we at least got the trees, benches and shade structures.

One sentence in that report 20 years ago says: “One day we might have buildings on the canals.”

“That was the first indication the canals were more than just water delivery eyesores,” Ellin notes.

Today, Ellin is the director of the Planning Program in the School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning at ASU. She’s the author of Postmodern Urbanism and the editor of Architecture of Fear, and in 2006 she published Integral Urbanism, which examines her “3 Cs” of cities: connection, communication, celebration. “As we are a part of nature,” she writes, “so are our habitats including our cities. Over the last century, however, urban development has treated the city as a machine for efficiently sheltering and protecting and for moving people, money and goods.”

But she doesn’t see a city as just a machine. “Integral urbanism preserves buildings, neighborhoods and natural landscapes that we value; rehabilitates, reclaims, restores or renovates what is under-performing and adds what we do not have yet but would like.”

I bet she was thinking of our canals when she wrote that.

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