Let’s stop dissing deserts!

In response to a recent post about “transit deserts” on The Market Urbanism Report’s Facebook page, I made the following comment:

“I think we need to rethink using the term ‘desert’ to describe an area lacking something. Deserts can be gloriously beautiful, rich, and vibrant ecosystems. How about ‘transit vacuums’ instead?”

Ever since the term “food desert” became popularized, it seems that “desert” is the term du jour for describing anything that’s lacking. Personally, I find this to be a grossly unfair and inaccurate use of the word “desert.” It is also dangerous to the protection and preservation of these beautiful ecosystems.

Sonoran Desert dusky winter scene

Anyone who has ever visited the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, California, and Mexico can tell you it is an amazing ecological wonder that is filled will a diverse range of flora and fauna. Here’s a brief summary of how many species call this gorgeous desert landscape their home:
  • 60 species of mammals, including the only jaguar in North America
  • 350 species of birds
  • 20 species of amphibians
  • 100+ species of reptiles
  • 30 native fish species
  • 1,000+ native bee species
  • 2,000+ native plant species, including the only place in the world where you will find the majestic Saguaro cactus

Even the vast Sahara Desert of North Africa contains more than 2,800 species of vascular plants, while the Atacama Desert in South America is much more diverse ecologically than one would expect given its extreme dryness.

My suggestion is the term “vacuum” be used instead of “desert.” Dictionary.com includes the following in the definition of “vacuum:” a space not filled or occupied; emptiness; void.
This seems like an appropriate word for what we planners are trying to relate to the public and decision makers, without dissing an entire fragile ecosystem in the process.
The greatest danger associated with applying a negative connotation to an entire ecosystem, is that we begin to diminish its importance and need. That’s exactly the kind of poor rationale (or excuse) that was used to drain those “pesky, mosquito-filled” wetlands, marshes, and swamps back in the day…and still today. Let’s not accidentally open Pandora’s Box to such environmental mistreatment for the Earth’s amazing deserts.
Posted in Advocacy, Animal rights, Animals, climate change, deserts, diversity, ecosystems, environment, geography, history, land use, nature, planning, Science, sustainability, topography, tourism, Travel, weather, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Arizona DOT ponders paving over paradise


The Avra Valley as seen from Saguaro National Park with Ironwood Forest National Monument visible in the distance (mountains).

Are they NUTS? Among the alternatives being considered by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) for future Interstate 11 (I-11) are two (2) options that would loop it west of Tucson through the stunningly gorgeous Avra Valley.

Who in their right mind would consider bulldozing an expressway through a beautiful and virtually pristine valley corridor bordered by Saguaro National Park (West Unit), Tucson Mountain Park, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the east and the Ironwood Forest National Monument on the west? Apparently land speculators, developers, builders, and some politicians don’t seem to care how beautiful it is as long as they can make money. It is almost like they are saying, “To hell with scenic beauty and the associated tourism dollars it attracts, when we can defile the natural landscape while making a buck.” I cannot think of a more selfish and egotistical way of thinking.

Screenshot map from the ADOT Study shows the alternatives being considered for future I-11 near Tucson. Options C and D would pass through the Avra Valley.

There are a number of alternative routes originally under consideration including piggybacking future I-11 with existing I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson, with a double-deck freeway built in portions of Tucson – at a cost of $2 billion less than going through the Avra Valley, I might add. This option is shown as Alternative B (blue) on the map above.

If future I-11 must extend beyond Phoenix (it was originally only intended to connect Phoenix with Las Vegas) I do not see a better option than co-shielding and aligning future I-11 with existing I-10. This is especially true given the many significant scenic vistas and environmental, historical, and archaeological sites located along and near the route(s) of Alternatives C and D. Both would pass through the Avra Valley and are shown in lime green on the map above.

Arizona is one of the most beautiful states in the nation, but at what point does paving over paradise destroy the beauty that drew folks there in the first place? In my opinion, Phoenix is largely beyond the point of no return. Tucson, however, is an entirely different story. But, throw in another busy highway corridor west of the city and the careful balance that has been achieved between city and nature could be irreversibly harmed.

What strikes me as even more reckless is that Alternatives C and D would pass right over/by several of the City of Tucson’s primary groundwater sources (see CAVSARP and SAVSARP on the map above). Want to guess how much chaos and catastrophe an overturned semi-truckload of hazardous chemicals could cause there? Heck, why worry about potential terrorists when risky highway projects are being planned virtually on top of public drinking water supplies, especially in a desert environment where such supplies are limited?

Add to that the fact that Alternatives C and D would also cross large areas of floodplain (shown in light blue and pink on the map above) and you a yet another recipe for disaster.

Toss into these issues the increased light pollution from traffic and new development and its negative effects on the Kitt Peak, Mt. Lemmon, and other important astronomical observatories. Do they really want to forever tarnish Tucson’s role as an astronomical research center for a few more miles of freeway and urban sprawl?

All said, as a professional land use planner, I cannot think of a worse location for a new highway. It’s almost like reading a dystopian novel or watching a James Bond film with ADOT as the evil villain. One hopes and prays that reason and logic would prevail, but in our world where only money talks, one can never be sure of anything.

The Sonoran Desert is not a giant child’s sandbox to play in and reshape in whatever manner we human’s desire. It is a delicate living ecosystem filled with amazing creatures and living organisms that should be cherished and preserved. One only need visit the desert or review Pima County’s award-winning Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan to see this.

If you agree with me and think Alternatives C and D for future I-11 are a really bad idea, then please write, email, call, text, or speak to elected officials, appointed officials, and other concerned citizens in an all out effort to stop the desecration and destruction of the Avra Valley. Contact information for some of these folks are listed below. It is time to say…and if necessary repeat over and over again, the word NO!


Posted in Advocacy, cities, civics, civility, commerce, economic development, environment, geography, Geology, historic preservation, history, infrastructure, land use, light pollution, Maps, Mexico, nature, planning, pollution, shipping, spatial design, sprawl, Statistics, topography, tourism, traffic, transportation, Travel, urban planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fracking sprawl across West Texas

Fracking sites dot the landscape of West Texas near the New Mexico border.

Many places across America lament the urban sprawl taking place in their midst. Meanwhile, parts of Texas have a different kind of sprawl to contend with – fracking sprawl. As can be seen in the photos taken as I flew home from Tucson two weekends ago, the numerous fracking sites are quite troubling – they almost look like a sea of new home building sites from the air.

Probably the most poignant photo (below) is the one showing the City of Andrews, Texas, where the town’s urban form is largely bookended by fracking sprawl. This is especially evident to the north of town, where the number of fracking sites in close proximity to each other looks almost like another town.

Andrews, Texas with fracking sites to the south and especially to the north.

One has to wonder how these multitudes of fracking sites simply don’t siphon off the oil/gas from one another, but maybe that’s the whole point – I’ll get mine from my property before you suck it dry from nearby. It’s almost like couples both sipping a milkshake from straws competing for the last bits liquid – add an little directional drilling [like a corrugated straw] and you can just siphon off the residue from your neighbors.
I also wonder about the current and future impacts from these sites on neighbors and on area communities. Would anyone ever desire to build and home and drill a water well on a site that had been fracked previously? What about the folks already living next to one of these things? Does all this fracking impact area aquifers and city water supplies? Are the short term gains really worth the long term costs?
Below are links to several articles/studies on the impacts of fracking and what is is like to have a fracking site be developed next door. Here are two eye-popping stats gleaned from them:
  • Each and every fracking shale well site requires between 2 and 20 million gallons of water.
  • The EPA estimates each [site] produces between 300 and 1,300 truck trips per well site.


Posted in agriculture, air travel, Alternative energy, aviation, Cities, Climate Change, economics, energy, geography, Geology, health, Housing, infrastructure, land use, pictures, planning, politics, pollution, spatial design, sprawl, topography, Travel, Uncategorized, visual pollution | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Astronomical metro areas

Sunset at Kitt Peak – February 22, 2018

The following cities have the highest metropolitan area concentration of astronomical and radio observatories and related uses in the world. A minimum of three (3) such facilities was required for inclusion in the list.

Several of the observatories atop Kitt Peak

As can be seen from the data, the Tucson, Arizona region contains far and away the most astronomical research stations of any metropolitan area in the world with at least 14. The photos included in the past all come from our recent trip to the Kitt Peak Observatory Station(s) located southwest of Tucson, Arizona.

Beijing, China (3)
  • Beijing Astronomical Observatory
  • Beijing Ancient Observatory
  • Huairou Solar Observing Station
  • Beijing Ancient Observatory
  • Huairou Solar Observing Station
Boston-Cambridge, Massachusetts (6)
  • Harvard College Observatory (Cambridge)
  • Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Cambridge)
  • Haystack Observatory (Westford)
  • Judson B. Coit Observatory (Boston)
  • Sagamore Hill Radio Observatory (Hamilton)
  • Whitin Observatory (Wellesley)
Charlottesville, Virginia (3)
  • Fan Mountain Observatory
  • Leander-McCormick Observatory
  • National Radio Astronomy Observatory HQ
Cleveland, Ohio (4)
  • Burrell Memorial Observatory (Berea)
  • Pollock Astronomical Observatory (Hunting Valley)
  • Stephens Memorial Observatory (Hiram)
  • Warner and Swasey Observatory (Cleveland)
Denver-Boulder, Colorado (3)
  • Chamberlin Observatory (Denver)
  • National Solar Observatory HQ (Boulder)
  • Sommers-Bausch Observatory (Boulder)
Detroit-Ann Arbor,-Windsor, Michigan/Ontario (6)
  • Angell Hall Observatory (Ann Arbor, MI)
  • Detroit Observatory (Ann Arbor, MI)
  • Hector J. Robinson Observatory (Lincoln Park, MI)
  • McMath-Hulbert Observatory (Lake Angelus, MI)
  • Peach Mountain Observatory (Dexter, MI)
  • Sherzer Observatory (Ypsilanti, MI)
Flagstaff, Arizona (4)
  • Lowell Observatory
  • Lowell-Anderson Mesa Dark-Sky Station
  • Northern Arizona University Observatory
  • U.S. Naval Observatory
Indianapolis, Indiana (3)
  • Goethe Link Observatory (Brooklyn)
  • Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium (Indianapolis)
  • McKim Observatory (Greencastle
Ithaca, New York (3)
  • Ford Observatory
  • Fuertes Observatory
  • Hartung-Boothroyd Observatory
London, England, United Kingdom (4)
  • Royal Observatory (Greenwich)
  • Northolt Branch Observatory (London)
  • Northolt Branch Observatory – Shephard’s Bush
  • Northolt Branch Observatory – Blandford Forum
Los Angeles, California (5)
  • Big Bear Lake Solar Observatory (Big Bear Lake)
  • Griffith Observatory
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena)
  • Mount Wilson Observatory
  • Robert Brownlee Observatory (Lake Arrowhead)
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota/Wisconsin (4)
  • Goodsell Observatory (Northfield, MN)
  • Macalester College Observatory (St. Paul, MN)
  • O’Brien Observatory (Marine on St. Croix, MN)
  • Onan Observatory (Norwood-Young America, MN)
New York City, New York/New Jersey/Connecticut (8)
  • Bowman Observatory (Greenwich, CT)
  • Class of 1951 Observatory (Poughkeepsie, NY)
  • Custer Observatory (Southold, NY)
  • Paul Robinson Observatory (High Bridge, NJ)
  • Rolnick Observatory (Westport, CT)
  • Rutherford Observatory (New York City, NY)
  • Sperry Observatory (Cranford, NJ)
  • Yale Student Observatory (New Haven, CT) 
San Diego, California-Tijuana, Mexico (3)
  • Mount Laguna Observatory
  • Mexican National Astronomical Observatory
  • Palomar Observatory
San Francisco Bay Area, California (6)
  • Chabot Space & Science Center (Oakland)
  • Foothill Observatory (Los Altos Hills)
  • Fremont Peak Observatory (San Juan Bautista)
  • Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy (Monterey)
  • Sonoma State University Observatory (Rohnert Park)
  • Weaver Student Observatory (Marina)
Shanghai China (3)
  • Shanghai Astronomical Observatory
  • Sheshan Astronomical Observatory
  • Xujiahui Astronomical Observatory

Telescope atop Kitt Peak

Tucson, Arizona (14)
  • Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (Amado)
  • International Dark-Sky Association
  • Kitt Peak Observatory
  • MDM Observatory at Kitt Peak
  • Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory (Amado)
  • International Dark-Sky Association
  • Kitt Peak Observatory
  • MDM Observatory at Kitt Peak
  • Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory (Amado)
  • Mt. Graham International Observatory
  • Mount Lemmon Observatory
  • National Optical Astronomy Laboratory HQ
  • National Solar Observatory at Kitt Peak
  • Steward Observatory
  • Vega-Bray Observatory (Benson)
  • VLBA Radio Telescope at Kitt Peak
  • Winer Observatory (Sonoita)
  • WIYN Observatory


Posted in aerospace, Astronomy, cities, environment, fun, geography, history, infrastructure, land use, light pollution, nature, Outer Space, pictures, planning, Radio, Science, spatial design, sustainability, technology, topography | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eons of neon in Tucson

If there is one type of signage this urban planner adores, it’s tastefully designed mid-century neon. And if there is one place to find such glorious signage, it’s Tucson, Arizona, where the city and local preservation groups have done a stellar job of preserving these commercial works of art.



While in Tucson last week, we stopped and photographed a number of the restored neon signs in the city, particularly along and near the city’s famed Miracle Mile. The effort, nicknamed “The Neon Pueblo,” even includes a linear neon sign preservation walk fronting Pima Community College’s Central Campus on Drachman Street.



Throughout this post is a photographic sample of the preserved, saved, and restored historic neon signs we saw. I’m looking forward to photographing more historic neon signs in Tucson during our next trip there, including two personal favorites – Monterey Court and SunLand Motel – both have been seen, but I didn’t get a chance to photograph them.

Well done, Tucson! This program is a terrific historic preservation effort that this urban planner wholly supports.





Date unknown






Posted in advertising, architecture, art, Cities, Communications, consumerism, economic development, fun, historic preservation, history, land use, planning, shopping, signs, tourism, Transportation, Travel, Uncategorized, zoning | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Planning lessons from Tucson

My wife and I just returned home from an amazing week in gorgeous Tucson, Arizona. Unlike many places visited, it was easy to come up with many more than ten planning lessons from this beautiful desert oasis. While we adore Tucson, it, like most large cities, has some issues to overcome. These are included in the list, as well. The list of planning lessons is provided below in no particular order of importance.

We are eagerly anticipating many more trips to discover the varied panorama and secrets of this magnificent city. Thank you, Tucson for a great visit and a hearty Southwestern welcome. Peace!

  • Residential and commercial developments can be designed and built in a manner which beautifully compliment the surrounding natural environment.
  • The Sonoran Desert is an absolutely stunning ecosystem. Anyone who thinks it’s a wasteland or it’s there to be exploited for mining, is completely off their rocker.
  • You gotta love a city that preserves its historic neon signs. Well done, Tucson! (more on this in a future post)
  • Tucson is and has been an amazing palette for architectural experimentation.

  • Innovation, particularly in the arts is fostered by cities which are situated in a breathtaking visual setting.
  • Freeway overpasses and abutments can be more aesthetically pleasing when they are allowed to be designed with artistic flair and not uber engineered.

  • Detroit is definitely not the only city in the country with clear and sudden boundaries between the haves and the have-nots.
  • Sprawl in the desert is as ugly as any other environment – perhaps worse because it can be so visible.
  • Cities that celebrate and embrace their varied cultural influences are far more interesting than those that do not.
  • Mountains make a stunning backdrop to most any vista, but when combined with the desert, the effect is even more dramatic.
  • Classical architectural styles look really silly and out-of-place in the desert.
  • A major university in Midtown is a substantial blessing to both preserving historic neighborhoods and maintaining quality of life.
  • It’s unfortunate that Tucson lost many of its historic barrios to growth and redevelopment, but unlike other places, the city has learned from those past mistakes to be a leader in historical and architectural preservation.
  • Tucson is proof positive that dark-sky standards can work for large cities too.
  • Similar to previous observations from Boulder, Colorado; cyclists, pedestrians, and hikers were visible everywhere, as was the infrastructure to support both active and passive recreation. It also makes for a healthier community.
  • A great and varied food scene can go a long way towards bridging cultural differences, while also bringing the city positive notoriety and press.
  • Every large city in America needs to have an avant-garde street like Tucson’s eclectic and whimsical N. Fourth Avenue.

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A visual celebration of Le Corbusier’s five Unite’ d’Habitation

Source: all posters.co.uk

Five European cities have the distinct honor of being home to a magnificent Brutalist style, utopian ideal, multiple-family housing complex designed by renown architect, Le Corbusier. These Unite’ d’Habitation are breathtaking in their form and functionality.

Each building has slight variations in style and design, but all remain in remarkable condition some 50-66 years after they respective completion. Some include retail shops or a post office, as well as a nursery school or kindergarten on the upper floors.

Recreation space is provided on the surrounding green spaced site and in some cases on the rooftop – Marseille’s rooftop even has a small wading pool.

  • Marseille (1952) = 337 units
  • Nantes-Reze’ (1955) = 294 units
  • Berlin (1957) = 530 units
  • Briey-en-Foret (1961) = 391 units
  • Firminy-Vert (1967) = 414 units

Enjoy the utilitarian and visual beauty of these mid-century marvels of European architecture. All have been declared protected historic structures/monuments.

Marseille, France (1952) – Source: foundationlecorbusier.fr

Wading pool area atop Marseille Unite’ – Source: atlasobscura.com

Nantes-Reze, France (1955) – Source: https://dome.mit.edu

Briey-en-Foret, France (1961) – Source: http://corbusierhaus-berlin.org/en/unite/

Firminy-Vert,France (1967) – Source: pinterest.com

Artwork etched into concrete in Firminy-Vert – Source: corbusierhaus-berlin.org


Posted in architecture, art, Cities, culture, Europe, geography, historic preservation, history, Housing, humanity, land use, minimalism, placemaking, planning, skylines, spatial design, urban planning | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment