Tucson Walk

On a drive back home from my doctor in Phoenix, I took a few hours to explore an old neighborhood south of downtown Tucson.

Within the next several weeks, I returned. Why?

Barrio Viejo is a delight to visit, with authenticity in its treatment to Tucson’s architecture and even ecology.

My 11/26/19 visit:

Sunset near Willcox AZ, after leaving late for the drive to Scottsdale

After my midday appointment, I stayed overnight in Tucson for the time to explore the neighborhood I’ve wanted to for years.

After breakfast at the hotel, I parked here. One peek inside the courtyard of a design firm was spare but appealing, incorporating xeric plants that are adapted or regionally native.


This motor court serves both vehicles and pedestrian movement to this house, but it has a great focal point of one of my favorites, Blue Sotol / Dasylirion wheeleri.

Other houses or buildings display a variation on restrained, tasteful design, which ties into their spaces. Many of their compact landscapes are naturalistic, a few are very massed, but most use proven design principles and respect their arid region ecology.

Colored walls and woodwork are common in this neighborhood, and they are used well. Bold colors have probably been employed as a design tool in Tucson and parts of southern Arizona longer than most anywhere in the US.

Native plants grace the tight front gardens, including Prosopis velutina, Larrea tridentata, spiky Yucca rigida, and various Opuntia.

Other adapted Mexican and South American agaves and cacti are sprinkled into many properties. Various aggregate sizes including decomposed granite form mulch and pervious walking or parking areas.

Plantings casually but deliberately frame the entry to the home.

Here, the very loose planting frames the front door.

The metal roof at the entry combines with the well-composed but naturalistic plantings.


Mexican Colonial architecture? My clue on that is the stone framing all openings, reinforced with containerized plants.

Of course, this purple house is my favorite, architecture and plantings.

Edging or groundcover masses using evergreen aloes and rosemary works.


Some architecture is out of place, including the deeper front yard and random planting style more in fitting to certain other suburban areas in the southwest.

That’s in contrast to a modern take on the historic barrio forms and use of earthen walls, contributing to the neighborhood context. This looks like rammed earth.

Getting real, would I want to live in Barrio Viejo if I were to relocate? Could I even afford to live there, since their real estate prices are insanely high?

Renovation isn’t cheap, but still.

Compare an area’s median income to the median real estate sales price. Not stating cliches such as, “well, people are buying it, so it must be affordable.” Or not repeating new urbanist planner-speak about how “tight, walkable neighborhoods command higher prices”, right after such folks claim “it’s less expensive to develop that way.”

Greed and disconnects

I’m always wondering how the boutique-type owners and designers can be kept at bay from entirely changing who lives in such an area. Can they move to another planet?

The gentrification in Barrio Viejo is severe based on real estate prices 18 years after this linked article’s date.


Onto an adjacent neighborhood…

This is clearly not the office building where my former employer’s “management” team is busy patrolling the earth!

2 hours later is this rest area, as the sun began to set on the high desert grassland near the New Mexico line. Two more hours until my warm, peaceful home.


My 12/30/19 to 1/1/20 visit:

Before another doctor appointment, I returned to a favorite place, the Desert Botanical Garden. Crystal clear light enabled views towards Camelback and Four Peaks and made the experience seeing the gardens a pleasure.


Soon I was back to Tucson to celebrate the New Year with Gayle.

Though she’s from Tucson, she hadn’t spent time in the original barrio areas, so I learned them better by reading up on them online, then showing her what I had begun to learn.

An attractive office building converted from a house, the date palm, solo cactus, and grass mass providing legibility and somewhat of a sense-of-place, though not very native.

Ironwork and gates, often unique…

I’m enjoying their pipe roof drains, which are a break from the squared canales common in my state.

This looks like Arizona Territorial architecture, made with exposed adobe.

That’s as good as Tucson streets get, probably paved as recently as 1980…

Another of my favorite buildings, with such contrasting colors and desert plants

Gayle enjoys the chill of a “winter” day, Sentinel Peak in the background.

If only that former tiendita was revived in its original spirit, instead of becoming a yoga studio or artisanal toast and porridge cafe.

We can hope, since planning or design includes imagination!


What I saw was often a repeat of my November visit, except the lighting and cool temperatures were different. I cannot imagine why the owner is now selling, after putting so much into this house.

The postal worker I talked with here in November told me about what a kind woman the owner is, from his delivery of her mail. I’ll leave it at her first name…Diane!

Me – “Too bad saguaros grow…kinda close spacing.”

Most everyone – “C’mon, Dave!”


Later in the day, we headed out to Sky Bar. A New Year’s Eve show from an excellent group I’ve heard thanks to online streaming, The Bennu.

But first, the landscape lighting…

The New Year’s Day trip finished with breakfast on the patio of the very busy Lodge on the Desert. Wyoming just won their college bowl game, so many fans stayed there.

The buffet spread was amazing, and possibly a thing of the past.

Then, one more 4 hour drive to be back in my home, where space heaters don’t make a mid-winter breakfast comfortable, alfresco and in the shade.

Inspiration Elsewhere on a Hike

Scottsdale and Phoenix have a fitness and hiking culture to accompany their polished, go-getter attitude, racing down broad arterial streets and smooth freeways in cars like Maserati, Porsche, Lotus, or Bentley.

And there’s garden design inspiration, notably arid regions

This is the trailhead I access a few quick, workout hikes when I’m up there, in fitting with their preferred vehicles.  Photos from 4/15/20:

Lexus or Mercedes are as common there as Ford or Chevy monster pickup trucks are where I live.

The Gateway Trailhead at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is more than just several parking spaces along a residential street. It was designed to be in harmony with the functional forms of the Sonoran Desert, earning LEED Platinum certification!

Ignore the Covid-19 era, six foot tape on the floor, a sign of the times

What rules here? Rammed earth columns, an arroyo spanned by a steel bridge to begin most trails, and some focal points.

Small mountain ranges or individual peaks and buttes offer low relief but are visible from the Valley of the Sun’s flat terrain. Miles of desert hills, arroyos, and a mountain range have been preserved for outdoor recreation, including hiking and mountain biking – 56 square miles or 36,400 acres, actually.

Partnership and consideration show between the owner, the conservancy, and the entire architect-led design team including the landscape architect. I could even do a post or two on the parking lot design!


“Stick ’em up”, Sheriff Saguaro said to the Barrel Bandit.

Meanwhile, I continued the start of my hike – in a long-sleeve tee. I can’t imagine that now!

Though I was and am limited on where I can hike, with no mountain biking, by doctor’s orders, there’s much to see on variations to my 2 mile loop. That’s like the similar loop trails near my home in Las Cruces.

The Compass Barrel / Ferocactus cylindraceus right and the Foothills Palo Verde / Parkinsonia microphylla left, combine to frame the view and direct one where to walk.


This large grouping or mass of Cylindropuntia bigelovii / Teddybear Cholla has plenty of space and softer shrubs surrounding. This hike-mountain bike trail was sited back from the flowering Engelmann Hedgehog / Echinocereus engelmannii, nicely separated by the more daunting chollas by a low swale and scattered woody shrubs.

That natural scene is similar to how one would use this viciously-spined cholla cactus. Not crowded into a too-small space and too close to walkers.


Though their Sonoran Desert is hotter with few freezes compared to my Chihuahuan Desert, both are bold landscapes with similar processes and patterns unique to arid regions.

Any client or designer worth their salt embraces such a difference as an opportunity, not loathes it as a limit or ignores it to blindly copy it elsewhere.

Adapt the use to the environment, then skillfully adapt the environment to the use.

Land ethic and informed design meet!

Another view…


The foothills palo verdes are still flowering with their more understated yellow color than Parkinsonia florida display. They provide a pleasant backdrop to some young saguaros and a barrel in front. While older, taller saguaros stand sentinel on the hillside beyond.

Another design vignette for a large space, but that could also be scaled into a tighter area though perhaps not a small property.


That’s the foothills of the Sonoran Desert.

If you live elsewhere, what design effects and locally-native plants in the wild could be used well but aren’t? Which plants do you have that resemble or are from similar genera?

Memorial in May

This is one of three El Paso hospitals I worked on with HKS, in that 2014 to 2016 whirlwind of renovations and new construction for Tenet Healthcare: The Hospitals of Providence Memorial Campus.

It looks great in evening light or even at night, but I also must stop by for a look in the early morning.


Years later, this project is in ongoing maintenance. It’s great to see the solo Parkinsonia x ‘Desert Museum’ full and in bloom, without any topping or chopping.

I hope to encourage some gentle pruning of low and crossing interior branches. It’s all that’s needed!

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Hopefully, I can also get the masses of Bouteloua gracilis grasses to be cut back to the ground instead of mounded, leaving stubble, and only every few years – not annually. There’s no need to do more, as has been done.

The green form of Leucophyllum spp. is being left to grow naturally. A victory!

More than one person I know was either born at this hospital or received care here, and I hope this revives any feelings of care received.

Too bad the seat walls along the sidewalk along Oregon Street were deleted from the contract. Now with the bus lines and landscaping, even without enough trees, those would provide a resting stop walking between the bus, streetcar, or just up the long incline to UTEP.

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I’m just not used to seeing this and other hospitals with hardly any people parked out front or in the parking lot like our post-March 2020 mayhem about COVID-19. Since the saying is how everyone is “sheltering in place”.

Of course, the artist’s sculpture trees look good, too, especially without a few more pesky trees from my original design, which would have somehow blocked their visibility from the street…

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5/15/20 weather:
87F / 55F / 0 or 31c / 13c / 0