Tucson, AZ: Warehouse Arts District

Detail from a large mural with a panel supporting immigration and another with a WPA representation of a worker
Photo by Patrick Cobb

How can a GIS mapping project help to create a sense of community in a former industrial area?

For many years, artists and galleries had populated a post- industrial warehouse district in Tucson, Arizona where they were able to make use of centrally located warehouse spaces. The problem was that neither fellow artists nor the public at large were aware of what the artists were working on behind the warehouse walls. The Tucson-Pima Arts Council (TPAC) developed an innovative cultural asset mapping system and an awareness campaign that rendered the district more navigable—both for pedestrians in the area and for people visiting the website.


Arizona’s second largest city, Tucson, has a population of over 550,000, with nearly a million people in its metropolitan region. The warehouse district, where the project took place, has been in limbo for many years. Many of the buildings were bought over 20 years ago by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) in anticipation of them being demolished for a new inner city roadway. Today, however, there are no current plans for the roadway to be built and many of the buildings have been sold for development. At the same time, ADOT still owns many of the buildings, which means that they could still be demolished if the need for the roadway returns.


As the warehouses emptied out in the 1970s and 80s, artists began to move in, adapting them to studio spaces, galleries, and residential lofts. This real estate trend created a new center of gravity for artists, many of whom came from Tucson’s barrios and who might have otherwise been dispersed throughout the city. One event that originated in the district is the All Souls Procession that now brings an average of 60,000 participants from around the world. This culturally rich mingling of creative artists, tourists, and revelers benefits the entire city economically. Within the last few years, more artists have been moving into the area, creating a spark that has attracted other non-artists to move in, and for the area to receive added attention from private developers.


Even though there was a lively arts and culture scene, it was common for the public to be unaware of the different artist spaces and events in the area. Also, artists themselves had limited knowledge of what other artists were doing in the warehouse down the block. In order to enhance the economic opportunity for the artists and to create a way for the district to contribute to the economic and cultural vitality of the city, these places and artists needed to be identified and made public. As Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of TPAC, put it, the area had a need to make “visible the invisible” cultural assets within Tucson's Art Warehouse District.” TPAC also wanted to assess changes within the district, using a 2004 baseline documented during the creation of the Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO), to better understand the arts and culture sector and its impact.


TPAC set out to place each of these arts entities onto the map, creating an atlas of the Warehouse District. The organization concluded a new resource would help to encourage relationships between different groups based there, fostering the kind of social cohesion that is so important to any place. The resource, which became an interactive map, would also serve as an invitation to people throughout Tucson to explore the district in an informed way and help to shape the identity of the place. By cultivating a greater sense of belonging, Bedoya knew that the efforts could help address the pressures of gentrification in non-traditional ways by helping to revive the creative assets that have historically defined Tucson’s sense of place for centuries.


While TPAC took the lead on the project, it was the result of a wide array of community partners. The project would have never left the ground had it not been for the enthusiastic input from the area’s artists. Established in 2010, the Citizens Artists Collective, a group of professional artists who had or have studio space in the historic Citizens Warehouse, assisted with outreach to local artists. Four neighborhood associations and local business and property owners provided data. WAMO, formed as an outcome of the Tucson Historic Warehouse Arts District master planning process, assisted with data collection, mapping analysis, and community engagement activities. Taking advantage of Tucson’s intellectual and creative resource in the University of Arizona, TPAC collaborated closely with the university’s College of Architecture and Planning and Landscape Architecture. The Drachman Institute (a research-based organization within the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture that focuses on sustainable community design in the region) was particularly instrumental in shaping the rigorous approach that TPAC wanted to employ.


The approach combined Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping technology with the traditional techniques of canvassing the neighborhood, knocking on doors, and taking surveys—the kinds of on-the- ground work that took what TPAC called, “exhaustion, frustration, and satisfaction.” In the technological realm, researchers used GIS mapping as a way to record what was on the ground in their neighborhood. This place-based data took into account the artist(s) responsible for the work, where it gets made, its core audience, and insights into the economic and social impact of artists and cultural activity. Once the maps were made, TPAC placed signs at each of the identified organizations that included Quick Response Codes (QR codes). These allow passersby to scan the sign with their smartphones to get all the relevant information about the activities going on in that location. TPAC also worked with the City of Tucson to get the necessary permissions from the Historical Commission to place signs on historically significant properties. Throughout the process, TPAC held public workshops as a way to keep the community closely involved in the process.


TPAC reports a greater awareness of the district, generally, and of different artists throughout the area, specifically. On the Warehouse Arts District website, the interactive mapping tool provides geographic data and specifics about arts activities throughout the District. For pedestrians, consistent signage marks those locations that are part of the map. Bedoya says that this exposure has resulted in a “market development for artistic outputs.” The process itself was also productive for all those involved. With the intensive data collection process that the research brought, artists and gallery owners became more of a community, sharing information about the district’s geography, and becoming part of a shared map. TPAC plans to replicate the process and product for another naturally occurring culture district, a 4-mile street car line that connects the University of Arizona to the 4th Avenue commercial district, downtown Tucson, and a redevelopment area west of downtown.


The process was arduous (perhaps more than TPAC had anticipated). Acquiring and coalescing geospatial data took many hours of "feet on the ground" to make sure nothing had been missed. “The involvement of the stakeholder community in our process took longer than we thought,” says Bedoya. The neighborhood had never been formally studied, so there was, as Bedoya says, “a slow pace of development due to the learning curve, deliberation process, and organizational capacity.” But, in the end, the group is entirely pleased with the result. The identified goals have been met, and, unexpectedly, programming emerged as a result of the community mapping process. For example, different organizations organized the Toole Avenue Art Walk, a self-guided tour of the district’s many art sites.


Warehouse Arts District
Online home of the project featuring interactive map

  • City of Tucson
  • The Tucson-Pima Arts Council
  • The Warehouse Arts Management Organization
  • Dunbar Spring Neighborhood Association
  • West University Neighborhood Association
  • El Presdio Neighborhood Association
  • Iron Horse Neighborhood Association
  • Citizens Artist Collective
  • Raices Taller 222 Gallery and Workshop
  • Solar Culture Gallery and Studios
  • University of Arizona Department of Geography and Development
  • University of Arizona College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture