How can design efforts help unify an aging historic town center and reconnect a community with its public spaces?
Ajo, Arizona, is a former copper mining town in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. It was established by John and Isabella Greenway who, inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, brought architects from Minnesota to design their company town. The town's center was originally anchored by a beautiful train depot. As people disembarked the train and walked out the station doors, their gaze fell on an arcaded plaza surrounding a palm tree-lined park. From the park they looked up a wide avenue to the town’s most prominent building, the Curley School. Today, however, the arrival experience has changed. Instead of coming into town by train, people drive in on a road that divides the plaza. They no longer see the intended connection between plaza, park, avenue, and school. The loss of this connection and downtown’s significance has not been a concern for the local community until recently. Historically local residents have had little sense of ownership of the plaza or engagement in their town center due to Ajo’s company town origins.
Ajo, Arizona, is surrounded by 3.2 million acres of undeveloped Sonoran Desert, one of the most expansive uninterrupted arid landscapes in the world. It is the gateway to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument only 15 miles south and to the seacoast in Mexico only 90 miles south. Just to the east is the Tohono O’odham Nation, the second largest Indian Nation in the United States. A two-hour drive southwest of Phoenix or two-and-a-half hour drive west of Tucson, Ajo is rural and relatively isolated. After a long drive through pristine Sonoran Desert landscapes, Ajo’s town center is a startling and welcome surprise.
Today, Ajo has 3,300 year-round residents, including 10% Native Americans and 40% Hispanics. Younger families are predominately Native American and/or Hispanic (20% of the children are Native American and 60% are Hispanic). Many retirees have discovered Ajo, so the median age is 52 years. There is also a significant seasonal population (Ajo is “where summer spends the winter.”) Like other southwest mining towns, Ajo was originally built as three separate, segregated towns. Indian Village and Mexican Town no longer exist, but older people still remember the years of institutional racism resulting in cultural and ethnic divisions across the community. Though opportunity was far from equal, the historic town center—the plaza park and shops and the Curley School campus—were the places where everyone mixed and enjoyed community events.
Ajo’s copper mine closed in the mid-1980s at the end of a bitter strike that divided families. Having lost their jobs and homes, many mining families left town. Later the mining company sold most of their homes to new seasonal residents. Since the mine closed, there has been a severe lack of economic opportunity. The current tax base remains only one quarter of what it was before the mine closed, with nearly a third of the community living in poverty. Unemployment is generally double the rate in Tucson or Phoenix. Worse, only half of the community’s working age adults are in the labor market at all, and nearly half of those who work have only part-time jobs. Although the rate of homeownership is high in Ajo, most homes are well over 50 years old and many are in serious disrepair. The historic buildings also began to deteriorate after the mine closed and the economy shifted.
More than a decade ago, the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) proposed a new arts and culture driven economic development strategy to revitalize Ajo. With broad-based community support, ISDA purchased the historic Curley School and converted it to 30 units of affordable live/work housing for artisans who came from all over the country to live and work in Ajo. ISDA developed other campus buildings into studios, a clay shop, wood shop, and gallery. Currently ISDA is redeveloping the last section of the campus into an international retreat center focused on cultural and eco-tourism. With community support, ISDA also purchased Ajo’s historic plaza and began the long process of its preservation and renovation. ISDA’s larger vision is to establish Ajo as an international arts and cultural center, transforming the local economy from one based in mining to one based in tourism. The organization appreciated that Ajo’s primary cultural asset is the historic town center, now divided by a road. With NEA Our Town, ISDA put together a plan to work with the community to help reinvigorate the area through design activities.
Founded as an alliance of people from three nations and governed by a board that includes directors from Mexico and the Tohono O’odham Nation, partnership is inherent to the way ISDA works. For this Our Town design project, Pima County joined ISDA as a strong public partner to share in leading the initiative. ISDA invited the whole community and all its key organizations to be involved—the public school, the Chamber of Commerce, local businesses, social clubs, etc. Participation in the project was multi-cultural and multi-generational. In addition to the lead landscape architecture firm, students from the Conway School of Landscape Design, Arizona State University, and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture worked on the project.
A team of professionals from ISDA and Pima County managed the architect selection process, resulting in a contract with ARC Studios (Phoenix) led by landscape architect Chris Winters who teamed up with architect Rob Paulus (Tucson). Together they conducted a variety of surveys and multiple design charrettes in the Ajo community. Residents identified town center “sweet spots” by placing oranges on a large wooden model and marked places needing enhancements with lemons. After rounds of discussion and special events to reach out to segments of the community, Winters and Paulus submitted design ideas for public review. Comments were received online and on multiple printed copies available through the public library on the plaza. After much discussion with ISDA and Pima County, the architects provided revised design suggestions.
One of the main objectives for the project was to fully engage the community and foster a sense of ownership of the plaza and the surrounding public spaces. In this aspect the project was wildly successful. ISDA engaged a broad spectrum of community members across ages, ethnic backgrounds, and social groups. Other project objectives were design-related, and the project was successful in producing a large variety of design options to help unify the experience of the whole town center and beautify specific areas as identified by the community. For example, ARC Studios suggested an innovative use of pavers and shade trees to simultaneously slow traffic, attract attention, and visually connect the plaza and the broad avenue leading to the Curley School. Bright bouganvilla vines on the plaza archways, particularly the train depot, were also designed to attract the attention of people passing through the intersection clear through the plaza park toward the historic train depot.
Some community residents became very angry that ISDA would consider making any changes whatsoever to the historic plaza. By and large this group had refused to join in any of the community input sessions and became angry after seeing ideas proposed by the architects. ISDA came to see this as an unanticipated “win”; the project idea was to get the whole community to feel more ownership of the plaza. “Although not our favorite,” said project manager Tracy Taft, Executive Director of ISDA “opposing change became one clear way for part of the community to engage and assert ownership of the public spaces! Once there is engagement, dialogue is possible.” Another unanticipated impact was the emergence of a dedicated group of volunteers who call themselves “Friends of the Plaza” and spend many hours every week doing maintenance and beautification projects that are beyond our current capacity. They are also raising money for plaza enhancements.
A Cultural Bridge Across a Desert: Arizona's International Sonoran Desert Alliance
Article in the NEA Arts Magazine
Creative Place-Making & Adaptive Reuse at the Historic Ajo Townsite
Request for Proposal