Streetscape Walk While Away

For 2 weeks this past spring, I had to be in Scottsdale.

On the 5-1/2 hour drive up, this large group of Yucca elata east of Deming always looks like it’s dancing, as the narrow leaves shimmer and vibrate in the wind.

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Once I arrived in the Valley of the Sun, my time there allowed me many hours outside, since much of the city was closed due to Covid-19.

I remembered to visit sections of well-planned streetscape, which I drove by on previous visits and my stay last summer. Photos from April 14, 2020:

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Garden walls must be a standard or development requirement in many Arizona municipalities. With gentle berms and spreading desert plants, they provide a park-like feel to drivers’ by and property users.

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Good monumentation and signage is common in such retail properties in Arizona, which negates the more typical onslaught of ugly billboards and tall pole signs. Though these trees are a bit too-pruned up to see inside, a rightful complaint some of us designers have.

Muhlenbergia rigens under Parkinsonia praecox, from the parking lot and from the street side of the garden wall

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Walking up Thompson Peak Parkway, this is the start of an attractive privacy wall / public art feature. Salvaged, multi-trunk Olneya tesota provide a less thirsty, better grounding to place than habitual Aussie or northern, humid climate lollipop trees.

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At least I didn’t see any Yellow or Peruvian Oleander trees, unlike the condo I rented.

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Except for their shrub shaping, the rammed earth walls and regionally native Cordia parviflora and other species screen adjacent homes and visually “pop” with their typical blue skies.

The tricky inlay of ceramic details is also effective.

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Now, I’m walking back the same route to my parked car.

Prior to the 2000-2010 time frame, this is typical Scottsdale street landscaping, especially in front of apartments.

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I didn’t post the crowded, chopped up, and token desert plants used. That’s all so uninteresting to me, especially when unusable lawns drive all other plantings, including even more habitual, thirsty Australian trees.


Now, to something more interesting, newer, and grounded to place.

Just a half-mile drive past the blue Central Arizona Project bridge and fencing I gave a glimpse of on a previous photo…still on Thompson Peak Pkwy, only north of my initial photos.

I started this next stretch of my walk by parking at the Scottsdale Arabian Library.

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It’s not a New Mexico library in budget or design, and those are not typical building setbacks in New Mexico or many other places, either.

This does shout we’re in the Sonoran Desert: first is Arizona’s state flower, Carnegia gigantea, and then their state tree Parkinsonia florida and an expanse of revegetation plants like Encelia farinosa.

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Imagine that as a sea of gravel, or, cough, a sea of unused but irrigated lawn and Aussie trees.

Even this median over-planted with Yucca baccata has some appeal and sense-of-place. Though that plus its function in preventing jaywalking, it’s a bit much!

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My walk has now taken me to cross the collector street, the wide sidewalk taking me in front of a large, residential development. I’m still walking along Thompson Peak Pkwy.

It’s a typically well-designed monument and planting, using mostly native plants.

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The median here has a better amount of breathing room between bold plant forms, softened by more of their bread-and-butter native Encelia farinosa. It’s not particularly interesting, except that it isn’t  sterile gravel without plants, knitting together miles of land in the low desert, which allows cacti and trees to shine.

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The benefits of generous setbacks…

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By now, one should notice that the ground plane, instead of being covered with uniformly sized gravel, it is covered with a blend of varied rock sizes and with the same tone as local desert terrain has.

This mulch method works, but when I’ve used it on projects of my design, I’ve gotten mixed reviews.

Sophistication from owners and contractors is a process that moves at a glacial speed, unfortunately. The same architects or property owners seeing it in Arizona will likely accept it, only to revert once home.

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A Curve-bill Thrasher or something else perched on this Parkinsonia florida?

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The golden light shows off simple, understated desert landscaping, as I close in on my car and whip up something in my kitchen for dinner.

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Even the parking lot has ample shading and a local, natural sense-of-place, where native Sonoran Desert plants soften the once-common carscape. My car is hiding there.

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While the above is located in a wealthier place where the landscape cannot be winged as an afterthought, do you think design informed by one’s natural place is worth it?

I do.

I also know of many expensive, thirstier, but less appealing designs used in places with less wealth, but more excuses.

4 Replies to “Streetscape Walk While Away”

  1. Without mention, obvious it was higher end real estate.

    Those set backs and slight mounding. Lovely. Yes, noticed the ‘mulch’, looked so natural. Love it.

    On our county planning commission, set backs and landscaping of huge importance.

    Appreciate your taking the time, taking us along on your walk. Your conversation with us. What you shoot, how you shoot.

    Garden & Be Well, XOT

    The price point is obvious, unfortunately. Not sure how to inject that thought into places the rest of us can afford!
    Inorganic (rock) mulch holds moisture and insulates plant roots on desert plants in the wild or in gardens, but too many use it as the entire cover without using plants. Then, many try growing Lagerstromia or Fraxinus in it, which require organic mulch!
    You serve on a county planning commission, or just know their code application? Very cool – I’m considering our P&Z at some date, when more of my life is back in place. Glad to share my landscape experiences, and there are many more posts to come!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful, I need to visit the southwest when this plague lets up. I love the hands in the wall : ) Stay safe and healthy!

    Yes, there are some interesting designs among miles of over-“maintained” plantings in Arizona or most anywhere in the SW. Soon, I tell myself, but at least I get to “hunker down” here! Will do…

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  3. I love the clean looking green trunks of Palo Verde. Have you ever designed a large area landscape utilizing Mesquite Dunes ??? Just curious. If you ever visit Palm Desert in California, drive up Hwy 74 from Hwy 111 towards the Santa Rosa Mountains. On the left side going up is Bighorn Country Club, which is also on the right side near the top before the road winds up the mountain switchbacks. I remember when the country club was under construction. For privacy the built up with bull dozers a large berm of soil and rock. This was planted with all manner of desert trees and shrubs. Beautiful and something I believe could be built on a large scale to replace Tamarisk wind breaks. Problem is it’s too logical and common sense and our world we live in does not work that way.

    I like those green trunks too, and that with the golden flowers have popularized the ‘Desert Museum’ hybrid that is hardy in warmer areas of Las Cruces and El Paso. I didn’t know Bighorn did such a clever use of grading and land forms, but I met a landscape architect there who did work on the development and some custom houses. Common sense is not common! The key is to do such things for median and lower-priced development, which would be so easy if design weren’t an afterthought or the domain of boutique firms…

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