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.

About a Rock: Mass and Void

“We even have a feeling about a rock, about anything.” – Donald Judd


No, not even for a difficult or evasive interviewee such as Judd

Like function, landscape design is much about the relationship between mass and void. Below are views of the same median I designed for vehicular speeds, though to a degree it also works for pedestrians and cyclists.

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The plants are grown in, showing the relationships between boulders, plants, and gravel mulch. The boulders and plants are mass (positive space). The gaps using mulch are called voids. (negative space) 

Together in a landscape, that’s considered legibility.

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The relationship of mass and void begins with the designer and their plan. Moving plants on a plan is easier than in the field. 

Years earlier, young 5 gallon plants were placed by the contractor helped by the owner’s representative 3 or 4 feet away from boulders per plan, further apart than above. That enabled those plants to grow properly in relation to each other and the boulders.

More than not, project owners and contractors don’t get that. Plants that appear on the plan against a boulder are placed too close, ignoring the plan’s scale and growth. 


Nature often inspires good placement. Even if no person placed all this.

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That’s in Picacho Arroyo, near the above streetscape. Remember the Donald Judd quote?

Also, was Judd being too controlling wanting his works to be installed specifically for their space, or even to create spaces for his works?

Onto another streetscape vignette in the same development…

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There are plant and boulder masses with crushed gravel voids, like the other median.

But with differently-shaped boulders that couldn’t be predicted months earlier on a plan, the contractor and owner did a good job of retaining the plans’ spirit and spacing between once-younger and smaller plants and boulders. Both parties also set the boulders to look real yet be deliberate.

Everything matured graciously.

So, I agree with Donald Judd: a rock…anything!

More Spring Flowering near My Home

(I forgot to publish this post, so we’ll whiplash back 2 months)

Here are more images of spring coming on around my block in the hills west of the Mesilla Valley.

Some people believe the Las Cruces area has no seasons, claiming “it’s always summer” or other oddities. Such provincial bias and negativity isn’t helpful. It’s better to embrace the annual cycle of our moderate 3-1/2 seasons. Spring often comes early but leaves early, too.

Spring is the 2+ months between our “winter-light” and summer, mild and increasingly dry though windy at times. Photos through 4/2/20:


Texas Mountain Laurel / Dermatophyllum secundiflorum puts on a show in a more clipped but free-form garden of mostly arid-region native plants such as a mass of gray Texas Sage.

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Near-native Parry’s Penstemon / Penstemon parryi, some possibly crosses with nearby P. superbus, grace and bounce in the breezes around Pulque Agave / Agave salmiana.


Across the street from the home with the Texas Mountain Laurel, is this attractive pergola softens the garage, covered with a relative to that neighboring plant: the more common Wisteria / Wisteria sinensis.



A few blocks away, an Oklahoma Redbud / Cercis reniformis is at peak bloom. Merging an irrigated lawn and non-thirsty ocotillos and cacti, it’s happy.



These 2 species of quince are not common today or in Las Cruces, but this home dates back to when they may have been used more. This Flowering Quince / Chaenomoles speciosa is in a neighbor’s front garden area.


Stepping out of my car, I got to meet my neighbor Bruce, who lives here with his wife. They retired here from Phoenix.


Japanese Flowering Quince / Chaenomoles japonica has a more pale, scarlet flower.



I’ll get back on track with upcoming posts, or in other words, catch up to early summer. Though not without a few flashbacks to this spring.