People and Paseos

This article is also available in Spanish

Culdesac Tempe, a car-free development in Arizona, turns to Floor Associates to design the neighborhood.

By Timothy A. Schuler

It’s likely a fantasy of any number of landscape architects: designing an entire neighborhood without having to consider a single car. Housing blocks separated not by wide, traffic-choked streets but by gentle, shaded paseos, or promenades. Apartments opening onto European-style courtyards. Every square foot of open space devoted to people.

Kristina Floor, FASLA, is building that dream. For the past two years, she and her team at Floor Associates, which is based in Phoenix, have been leading the site design for Culdesac Tempe, a 16-acre, 761-unit mixed-use development in Tempe, Arizona, in which private cars are prohibited. Made up of two- and three-story apartment buildings arranged around courtyards, the development has no garages, no “parking podiums”—the latest urban work-around that stashes all the parking on the first few levels of an otherwise banal development—and nothing you’d even call a street, which, as it turns out, leaves a lot of room for people space.

“What happens on so many projects, with the amount of parking you have to put in, is that most of your landscape is perimeter landscape or parking-lot landscape,” Floor says. At Culdesac, which is under construction and will open in summer 2022, Floor says they’re “designing spaces for people.”

Housing pods are grouped around shared courtyards that feature desert-adapted plants and decomposed granite. The majority of the site is permeable. Image courtesy Opticos.

Culdesac Tempe is part of a growing movement among cities to rethink how much parking they need. New Haven, Connecticut, and St. Paul, Minnesota, both recently voted to remove mandatory parking minimums, which have long been seen as a hurdle to both building low-cost housing and weaning Americans off their dependence on automobiles. And across the country, existing street infrastructure is being retrofitted to create active transportation networks—at great cost to cities. Culdesac represents an opportunity to design for car independence from the get-go.

The only car parking at Culdesac is for the retail and commercial spaces. The rest of the development is car-free. Image courtesy Culdesac.

Located directly adjacent to a stop on the region’s Valley Metro light rail line, the development will offer residents a “mobility suite,” including free unlimited rides on the light rail and subsidized rates for electric scooters, rideshare, and carshare. The design, done in collaboration with the Berkeley, California-based urban design firm Opticos, locates retail and commercial uses in the corner nearest the rail station (to which a new crosswalk will soon be added) and organizes the site around a central paseo. The paseo winds its way through the site, connecting back to the surrounding street grid via a warren of secondary rights-of-way.

The result is a brand-new community that feels settled, reminiscent of the centers of older European cities, a vibe the design team embraced. “The concept was to make it feel like it’s been here for a while,” Floor says. This effect is partially achieved through the extensive use of decomposed granite, the hardscape material of choice for everything from the oasis-like residential courtyards to the parking areas for the retail businesses. More than half of Culdesac Tempe is open space, and of that, 85 percent is permeable. “We have zero asphalt on the entire site,” says Lava Sunder, Culdesac Tempe’s general manager.

Landscape also plays a role in wayfinding. Helping residents and visitors navigate the neighborhood, which has more than a dozen residential “pods” of eight to 10 buildings each and no street names, was a challenge. “You’re not always arriving by car, and there’s not a front door. It’s got a thousand front doors,” Floor says. “So we had to be cognizant of, how can we help guide people to where they want to go?” In addition to the use of color and architectural detailing, a plant palette of desert natives (in contrast to more lush plantings in the courtyards) and other landscape cues help denote primary circulation routes.

Kristina Floor, FASLA, participates in one of several three-day design charrettes with the Culdesac Tempe team. Photo courtesy Opticos.

These and other questions were explored through a series of charrettes Opticos hosted in Berkeley. The design team sketched, built models, tested ideas. It was an unusually free-form exploration of how a place should look and feel and function, without conversations about square footage or return on investment, Floor says. “I loved that. I was like, this is how I want to do every project going forward.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of the article mistakenly credited the photo of Kristina Floor and the rendering of the housing pods courtyard to Culdesac, when they should have been credited to the urban design firm Opticos. The errors have been corrected. 

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