Monday, August 16, 2010

Canalscape: Watch Where You're Going, Know Where You've Been

Eventually, the hard way, I learned that while riding a bicycle, you have to be careful where you look, because the bike will follow your eyes. I'm told the same thing holds true for motorcycles. On a mountain bike, I learned to keep my eyes on the best line, and away from the largest rocks, deep ruts, cholla balls, and steep drop-offs that I wanted to avoid. This lesson came only after riding straight into several of these while staring hard at the thing I wanted to avoid. Along the canal, I learned that I could ride through the narrow gap in the anti-vehicle barriers by keeping my eyes fixed on a point just on the other side, right down the middle of the opening. 

This works on a bike: look where you want to go, avoid staring at what you want to avoid, the bike will tend to go where you want it to. Cast your eyes along the happy path, and your bicycle will follow.

I want to say that a similar principle holds for thinking about the future. To make things better, someone has to create a vision of how things could be, share that vision with the rest of us, and keep our attention focused on that one, rather than others, long enough, and effectively enough, for all of us to get there together. 

It takes a compelling vision to capture people's imaginations, to pull their minds away from what they see around them, from what they are comfortable and familiar with, to get them to focus on What Could Be, to have a better chance of steering us clear of repeating the same mistakes over and over by staring at them and nothing else, to stop us driving right off the steep drop-off because our vision is fixated on it.

What Could Be...from the Canalscape exhibition at Gateway Community College

Canalscape represents one such vision. I am a little ashamed to admit that I only just heard about this project recently, when I read the news about the Arterial Canal Crossings Public Art Project in the New Times. From the City of Phoenix Call to Artists Public Art Program page, I'll copy some of the text here because no one knows how long a page like that will last: "A professional artist will be selected to work with the Street Transportation Department to enhance the design of major street bridges that cross the Salt River Valley canals in Phoenix. The designs will be expected to focus on the bridges' concrete abutments and metal railings, and address the essential role the canals play in the history and life of Phoenix. The designs will be incorporated into retrofits of the bridges as funds become available in the coming years," says the City.

The Canalscape project embraces the concept of a sustainable desert urbanism. The booklet from their site can tell you a whole lot more about that vision, although I don't get the use of Scribd to police access to it--why not put it out there as a PDF to attain a sustainable typographic presentation-ism? Scribd is flaky in the Google Chrome browser latest stable version I'm currently using, and is better, but still not a very good vehicle for presenting a bold vision, in IE8 or Firefox. The only acceptable resolution I can get is if I read it embedded in the Canalscape site, and pan/zoom to read and navigate. I yearned to view their "Timeline" graphic, surely one of the key artifacts of their vision, on my widescreen monitor full across, but no, the text is fuzzy and unreadable in the standalone Scribd incarnation--I even tried dropping down the resolution of my monitor, but no. Note: eventually, I worked out that this one is problematic (blurry and bleedy) and looks like it really needs help from Steve Esser, where this one works. Direct-linked PDF please!

I rode over to Gateway Community College to see the current home of the Canalscape exhibition. I had to hunt for a bicycle rack, and honestly found the online booklet more detailed and informative than the exhibit, but if you happen to be over there, it could be worth a look. 

Visions for what to do with our miles and miles of canal paths have been around for a long time. The City of Phoenix Canal Design Guidelines present a sensible and level-headed approach that would go a long way toward integrating the canals into the daily lives of more people in the city. 

But some of the previous attempts haven't fully achieved their stated purpose. To pick one example, the 2001 American Society of Landscape Architects Merit Award for Design went to the Arizona Canal Demonstration Project, which I happened to include part of in a photograph in my recent post on trees along the canal. As I mentioned, I like the trees and the shade they provide, but the impacts of the design elements mentioned in the award are not evident when I ride through this area. Next time I'm there, I'll dig deeper and document what's still left, but if (as the site says), "The Sunnyslope Canal Demonstration Project is Phoenix's first effort to exemplify the expanding urban role of the canal corridors as unique outdoor spaces for educational, recreational and cultural experiences," it wasn't that successful: this area of the canal just isn't rich in citizens having educational, recreational, and cultural experiences at this time. But, I believe the attempt does help us to keep our eyes on a vision of what the canals could be, since you can't help but notice while passing through here that it is a living example of something greater than the other, larger, non-modified portion of the 180-odd miles of cement ditch skirted with gravel paths.

I thought a lot about the Canalscape vision as I rode my bicycle through the current canalscape this weekend. A few things people have done along the canals so far really work; many things do not. I have a photo essay below to show some of both success and failure that I saw. I wish I could say my tastes are refined enough, and my imagination active enough, that I internalized the grand vision of Canalscape, and applied it rigorously to all that I encountered. Alas, I think my current vision is more in line with the modest City of Phoenix Canal Design Guidelines. And in fact, as the guidelines are put into practice, as the Arterial Canal Crossings project moves forward, and of course as the Soleri Bridge and Plaza project is completed (photos in this space on 11/6/2010!), my ability to grasp and imagine grand visions may be enhanced by resting on a foundation of real features along the canal that are nearer to it. For now, though, I have a few derived guidelines of my own that I would like to share: 

The canal corridor should be accessible from, and related to, the surrounding area--busy cross-streets, residential, park, strip mall, retail, downtown, mass transit, urban multi-use paths, business,  and industrial zones. Each requires its own unique solutions.

There should be ample shade from both structures and low-water usage plants and trees.

There should be benches and other pleasant places to rest, chat, read, and look around.

There should be convenient sources of drinking water.

There should be at least a few open, functioning public restrooms.

There should be clear signs telling people where they are, where nearby amenities are located, and distances to previous and next features along the canal.

Here are some photos I shot this weekend of some features that I think work, and others that do not.

If this had a sign, it would say "Next restroom: Thunderbird Paseo Park, 22 miles ahead.

The water is pretty cold, and there's enough pressure to get the bottle almost full. Doggy-level faucet included around back, too. A little shade would help, but I'm not complaining. This stop is a life saver.

All three of these shots are at the Nature Park by Hayden Road and the AZ Canal in Scottsdale. Look at that shady spot in the background. A good book and a cup of coffee is all one needs back there.

Canal residential, also in Scottsdale. It looks like it belongs there.

Canal office. At night the lights sometimes blaze here, and I dream of an office like this.

The gravel is working for these two. They were moving right along!

Another way to do the MUP. Not strictly on the canal, but connected to it.

Some call it access. It's somewhat difficult to get up this. If one of the more upscale neighborhoods in the city has access like this, what about the average (or lower) neighborhoods? (near Lafayette Blvd)

Another doubtful access method. In the heart of Arcadia. Also see the next shot.

This is by the Arcadia ramp. No way to cross here (except swimming, forbidden!). Go about a mile back, or half-mile up, to get over to the new Crosscut MUP. Which is going to be one sweet path, by the looks of it. I'll make sure to ride on the south bank of the AZ Canal to get here, though.

Shopping carts in the Grand Canal, about 3/4 mile from the Canalscape exhibit.

Grand Canal at the 202 Freeway

Not on the canal, at a nearby park, but what you don't want to see happen to civic improvements: what state is a community, and a 'scape of any kind, in, when signs warning of the results of continued vandalism are wantonly vandalized? This is a vision that leads off a cliff, if it fixates.

Cyclists, pedestrians, strollers, equestrians, and runners, all can get a sense that the linear space along the canal suits them, without competition from motorized vehicles, for moving along a quiet flowing waterway, yet slicing through a large desert urban city. Making full use of its many varied miles in their current form is sometimes challenging, sometimes physically demanding, but it always feels promising to me: as if, just ahead, around the next turn, may be something or someone new that I haven't seen before, a chance for learning, or helping, or just having fun. If I understand it, the vision of Canalscape is to make improvements along the canal which make its promise more accessible, and richer, to more people. Thank you to Nan Ellin, her students, the tireless canal boffins at SRP, and the rest of the people who are working to create the Canalscape vision of a Happy Path to hold our imaginations. I'll keep my eyes in that direction as I go out and do one of the things I enjoy most. Get up. Go ride.

Watch where you're going, know where you've been


  1. Thanks for the excellent post on Canalscape! I added the PDF to the site, hopefully to make it easier for you and others to downlod and see it. We had avoided adding the PDF because it's a massive file.

  2. Thanks for the PDF, Sam Feldman! It actually downloaded pretty fast, and looks great fullscreen--page and zoom is faster locally I think. The Canalscape project filled me with ideas that I only started to write about here in this long post. More as the canal develops...

  3. It is very true that you tend to go where you look. It's particularly dangerous when you find yourself looking at the headlights of cars, coming on the other side of the road. One time, a pickup (white, of course) turned on its headlights in a driveway right before I was going to make my turn. I overshot and went straight into that driveway, GREATLY upsetting the pickup driver, who told me to get the heck out of there in none too gentle terms. Had he been thinking, he might have considered that a cyclist isn't going to shoot into his driveway like a moth to a flame for insidious purposes. Lesson absorbed...


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