UA Students Take to Tucson's Roads

Graduate students in one of the interdisciplinary urban design studios of the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture developed an award-winning Complete Streets policy for the city.

By:
Stacy Pigott, University Communications
Faculty and students in CAPLA's interdisciplinary urban design studio included (back row, from left) Arlie Adkins, Brad Kindler, Kelly Cederberg and Chris Ortiz y Pino and (front row, from left) Yuheng Zhang, Fei Yu, Amanda Maass and Eduardo Guerrero.

Tucson often leaves an indelible impact on students who live and study at the University of Arizona. Along with their degrees, graduating students take with them fond memories of the city. Recently, a group of graduate students in the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture decided to give something back by developing a Complete Streets policy for Tucson.  

Students in one of CAPLA's interdisciplinary urban design studios undertook the ambitious project last fall. For one semester, they worked with two community partners — the city of Tucson and Living Streets Alliance — to build a framework that would support safe, equitable and healthy streets, and encourage economic growth within districts throughout the city.

"When students graduate and are out working, they are working with people from different professions," said Arlie Adkins, an assistant professor of planning who taught the graduate course alongside Kelly Cederberg, assistant professor of landscape architecture, and Eduardo Guerrero, assistant lecturer in architecture and urban design. "We want to give them that experience here at the University by working on projects with different disciplines."

Four planning students (Connor Harmon, Amanda Maass, Chris Ortiz y Pino and Michele Scanze) and three landscape architecture students (Brad Kindler, Fei Yu and Yuheng Zhang) worked on the project, which focused on three busy corridors in Tucson. The selection of First Avenue as one of the streets gave students the opportunity to tackle a hypothetical project the city soon will be undertaking in the real world.

'Designing Streets for Everyone'

A portion of First Avenue is scheduled to be widened within the next four years, although much has changed since voters approved the project in 2006. Cities increasingly are turning to Complete Street policies, which make streets safe and accessible for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders.

"What is Complete Streets? It's basically designing streets for everyone," Maass said. "Streets are such an integral part of cities. They play an important role in how people interact with the community, how economic development occurs and how some of the environmental systems function. These are key aspects in creating a sustainable community."

The students reached out to Jennifer Toothaker, a planner with the city's Department of Transportation, to review planning and policy documents. They compared Complete Streets policies from across the country and did case-study reviews of transit systems and placemaking. They identified the various street types and developed what Toothaker called a forward-thinking method of determining theoretical and actual road capacity.

Putting it all together, they created recommendations for each corridor and documented it in an award-winning, 82-page report titled "Livable Streets for Vibrant Communities." Ideas such as new shopping and parking locations, parklet spaces near transit lines to encourage mobility with dignity, and vegetation improvements with storm water run-off detention basins met the goals they had set for social, economic and environmental improvement.

"Tucson has very high rates of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities per capita when compared to other cities in the nation," Toothaker said. "In 2017, 25 pedestrians and one cyclist perished. One month into 2018, there are already five deaths. TDOT recognizes the important role that good design and thoughtful engineering solutions can have in reducing fatalities, and a Complete Streets policy can provide importance guidance.

"The students have done an amazing job of crafting some design concepts. Their recommendations for streetscape design, connections between land use and transportation, and public and open space are absolutely things we can actively consider in retooling our existing street design manuals, which don't really encompass today's more progressive thinking about safety and roadway design for all roadway users, particularly those that are most vulnerable."

Attention to the Human Dimension

"I was impressed the most by just the fact that they were so passionate about the cause and the human at the center of it," Cederberg said. "I drive down these corridors every day, to and from work, and I see how many people are standing out in the hot sun waiting for a bus that comes very infrequently, and trying to cross the road and getting almost hit by cars. I don't think those people ever left their minds."

As they worked hard to come up with recommendations that were applicable, realistic and implementable, the students also learned some real-world lessons. Yu said her biggest takeaway from the class was learning the value of teamwork, while Zhang enjoyed the creative process of collaborating with her peers.

"Of course, everyone learned about the topics, but they also learned a lot about human relationships and group discipline," Guerrero said. "The way the students started the project and the way they finished was very different, because the experience of interacting with other disciplines made them change, positively, their points of view."

"I think the biggest thing I learned is that partnerships drive success, whether it's community partnerships or interpersonal relationships," Kindler said. "This is what will make our projects more successful."

That was certainly true for "Livable Streets for Vibrant Communities," which was honored with the 2017 Best Student Planning Project Award by the Arizona Chapter of the American Planning Association. In 2016, students in the same studio won the same award.

"CAPLA students put a lot of thought and effort into this project, which culminated in an outstanding report," said Living Streets Alliance project manager Evren Sönmez. "Their design recommendations illustrate that it is absolutely possible to re-imagine our multi-lane, car-centric, dangerous roadways as vibrant, people-centric places that would enhance quality of life while promoting safety, equity and economic opportunity. I'm excited about the potential for integrating their work into the Complete Streets initiative we are currently working on in partnership with the city of Tucson."

Even if the city doesn't implement any of the students' ideas, the studio still served its purpose — preparing students for careers after graduation.

"Learning how to work with each other, identifying what each person's strengths are and understanding how each person works best is just so important," said Ortiz y Pino, who graduated last fall. "In my current job, I don't know these people at all, but I still have to learn who they are, where they come from and how best to work with them."

Thanks to CAPLA's interdisciplinary urban design studio, he learned it at the UA.