Urban Oasis

A commercial corridor in Phoenix promises better sales for merchants—and shade for pedestrians.

Last year vast improvements to public space in Phoenix came not through the cajoling of community groups and progressive politicians but through the activism of merchants. Business owners along a forgotten commercial strip were faced with an all too common problem. Ever since the road had been widened decades earlier, approximately 60,000 cars a day were passing their restaurants, antique stores, and auto shops, but very few were stopping. The merchants’ efforts to attract passing vehicles—flags, banners, and merchandise displays in parking lots—were illegal according to the city’s zoning regulations.

The owners, who had banded together to form the 7th Avenue Merchants Association, asked the city for help. But instead of new regulations to permit Las Vegas-style billboards and the disappearance of sidewalks altogether, the unlikely result of their political lobbying was a streetscape project that not only provides sun shelters, public art exhibits, and green spaces to pedestrians but also allows the merchants to integrate their commercial signage with the surrounding landscape by purchasing individual components. The project, dubbed Stripscape, has been so well received that the city decided to fund another series of installations this summer.

Its success is due in no small part to Darren Petrucci, who was called upon by the city to devise a solution through his applied research lab at Arizona State’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. “I first ran it as an integral studio where the students worked in an atelierlike fashion,” Petrucci says. “We began with a series of photographs of the way in which merchants were appropriating the landscape and created a lexicon of found conditions that could be potential strategies for a new kind of urbanism. For example, antique stores were putting merchandise in their parking lots because cars driving by couldn’t see inside the windows. I called that ‘retail garage sale.’” Based on those found conditions, the studio staged a series of interventions to imagine alternative uses for the strip and ways of inserting new elements into the landscape.

The resulting components—LampShade, a canopy for shading, signage, and illumination at night; Art Panel, a large lightbox for displaying art exhibitions and additional shading; a wire screen for hanging vines that also blocks sunlight; and Bands, a rusted concrete ground surface infused with iron dust—respond to specific conditions along the 7th Avenue commercial strip to transform bus stops, street signage, and parking lots into little oases. “Imagine that every sign in Phoenix was a shading device,” Petrucci says. “You would have a completely pedestrian-friendly desert city.”

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