Spotlight on Casa Grande, Arizona

My recent travels have taken me to Casa Grande, Arizona. It’s a small town between Phoenix and Tucson. It started as a mining town on a railroad line and only recently exploded as a place for snowbirds, like my grandma, to spend the winter. While there is a lot of new suburban-style development, there is still a traditional core that has some interesting strengths, and a few weaknesses to develop.

The first thing I noticed was that there are some great bulb-outs in the core of Casa Grande, but what stood out about them is that they are now at sidewalk level, but at street level. I’m not sure why this is. My best guess is that by doing this is might have been cheaper than to build it up to sidewalk level, or that it might have been better for drainage reasons. Although Casa Grande is in the middle of the desert, it is subject to Arizona’s regular monsoons which cause a lot of quick, heavy rain. There were a variety of these bulb-outs, from mid-block trees to full pocket parks. There were also a few more traditional bulb-outs with benches and trash cans.

There was an area called “The Alley” that was painted up in an interesting way. It seemed that it was an area that could be used for art events, although it was pretty dead while I was there.

Something I noticed after a while was that all of the stores had large awnings covering the entire sidewalk. This is important, especially considering the low density of trees, to create shade and cool down the desert. With summer temperatures as high as 120 degrees, unless there is shade you will never get pedestrians.

Another thing I thought was interesting was that some of the street trees were actually fruit-bearing lime trees. I wondered why the city chose to use these trees when they would come with the additional cleanup duty. I also wondered how they did such a good job, because the sidewalk below the trees seemed spotless.

One issue with Casa Grande’s traditional core is that it is virtually all retail. The residents of Casa Grande could drive there and then walk, but they can drive to the suburban strip locations as well. It would be good for them to create some small, affordable units, aimed at artists or even some more active empty nesters. There’s even a grocery store downtown already, so it would be pretty easy to live there.

Where the traditional town center meets the suburban arterial lies Peart Park. This is a pretty nice traditional town park. It has a number of both active and passive uses, as well as the all-important shade. I think it’s especially important to have parks in desert climates because you need an oasis from the heat, and if you’re going to be blowing a lot of water on something, better it be a public park than a whole bunch of private lawns. That being said, there were some issues. For instance, there was a path on the south side of the park that was exposed to the sun. If they planted a row of trees on the south side of the park, it would make it a more comfortable place to be.

Casa Grande is home to some interesting civic buildings. The city hall terminates a vista and has a nice, green plaza in the front of it. If anything, it could be improved by a lot more trees. The main approach has only a few, and if they were replaced with two rows of palms and a bunch more around the edges, a la the Nevada Statehouse, it would have a much more stately approach and the shade it would need to make it a desirable place to spend time. Heritage Hall is a great example of early Spanish colonial architecture, and it is flanked by a plaza made up of native plants, which shows that you don’t necessarily have to have grass to make a comfortable place.

Casa Grande is a booming little town with some good retail, parks, and public buildings. The recent development has not been going in the same direction, unfortunately, but hopefully some future development can be brought back to its more urban roots.


San Francisco Better Streets Plan

I recently read through the San Francisco Better Streets Plan (BSP), a comprehensive guide to making streets more walkable and pedestrian friendly in San Francisco. It helps you figure out what kind of a street you’re working with, gives recommendations on what you can do to make it better, and even gets into the specifics of how far apart trees should be, what the slope of access ramps should be, etc. Although designed for a major city, I think that, with a few adjustments (for instance, not every community has to worry about tree species that are resistant to salt spray), and with the exception of truly rural communities, this plan could be applied practically anywhere, and I wanted to show how.

“Why not do some streets in San Francisco?” my wife suggested. Too straight forward. “How about Philadelphia?” Still not enough of a challenge. No, I wanted to pick a place that is as unlike San Francisco as I could think of. And that place that I chose was Spanish Fork, Utah.

Spanish Fork skyline. From

I worked for Spanish Fork for about three years while I was in undergrad, and got to know the city pretty well. It’s population is about 35,000, and growing quickly. Up until about twenty years ago it was a very small town, but as suburban growth supporting Provo and further Salt Lake City continued to expand, it was sucked into this sphere, and many of the newer residents work outside of the city. Spanish Fork is probably best known for its annual rodeo and for their championship high school baseball team and general baseball culture. I wanted to take a look at three streets in Spanish Fork and see what the BSP would recommend for them: 800 East, 300 East, and Main Street (see slideshow below).

800 East is not a particularly wide road by Utah standards, but it carries a high volume of traffic as well as transit. Local residents complained about the speed of cars going by, and the city restripped the road to narrow the lanes with some success. Interventions from the BSP could help calm traffic as well as make it more pleasant to walk along. Based on the aforementioned criteria, 800 East meets the BSP’s definition of a residential throughway. The first step I took was to widen the sidewalks based on chapter 4 of the plan. Next, for each street type, the plan lists standard improvements, which for residential throughways include crosswalks, street trees, and bulb-outs. Each street type also has case by case additions, and the ones I felt were most appropriate were an extended bus bulb-out and a high visibility crosswalk.

300 East is a simple local street, except it’s a million feet wide (okay, so more like 86 from curb to curb, but still, wide). The only explanation I ever received for why it is so wide is that it lines up with University Avenue in Provo and at one point it was thought that they would connect, but they never did and 300 East is still a sleepy residential road. With all that width, I thought it would be fun to turn it into what the BSP calls a parkway. This required some more sidewalk widening, and the standard improvements were again street trees (larger this time, to form a canopy), a crosswalk, and bulb-outs. For the case by case additions, the high visibility crosswalk comes back, but the main feature is a wide landscaped median with a shared-use trail and benches. A curb opposite the crosswalk from the median creates a pedestrian refuge.

Main Street has the double function of being a local-serving shopping area as well as being a major arterial connecting much of Spanish Fork and its neighboring communities to the south to I-15 and bigger cities northward. The street is bumper to bumper much of the day, and when it isn’t, the wide expanse encourages speeding over the already high 35 mile an hour limit. This double function makes creating a boulevard a simple choice. First, the lanes would have to be realigned and the side medians installed, and the existing sidewalks and planters actually pushed back a bit. Then the standard improvements include bulb-outs, street trees (although the existing spacing of the street trees is less frequent than the BSP would recommend, Main Street has a unique series of planters with two trees each that are maintained by volunteers, and I thought it would be good to keep that element; new trees are provided in side medians), and street furnishings, including benches, garbage cans, and cafe seating. The case by case additions I chose to include are raised crosswalks in front of the side lanes, another high visibility crosswalk, and a different paving texture on side lanes to give it more of a shared feel.

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The San Francisco Better Streets Plan is a great document that I hope will have a positive impact on their city, and could be used as a model by other cities to improve their streets as well.

Junction design the Dutch – cycle friendly – way – YouTube

I really like videos like this that create simple video examples of how to address urban design problems. This video talks about how to set up an intersection so that a driver doesn’t have to cross a bike path blind to turn right. My only question is, so where’s the parking? if Jan Gehl got his way, the bike lane would be closer to the sidewalk with the parking closer to the travel lanes and a buffer between, so that cyclists don’t get doored. This is great: but then how do you work in bulb-outs for the pedestrians? A lot of good questions about how to design a truly multi-use intersection.

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