On Resilient Settlement

Tools and strategies for transition

Unlocking Development Potential on Phoenix Light Rail: Toward a “Pattern Language” Toolkit


NOTE:  Sustainable development in Phoenix, like sustainable development around the country and the world, is very often uneconomic in competition with sprawl, unless we take steps to “unlock” the opportunities.  That usually means identifying and addressing barriers, “monetizing externalities” (costs and benefits that are not usually priced into development) and finding other tools to make the development feasible and economically rewarding.  

 The following report discusses one such opportunity, the relatively new light rail corridor of Phoenix, AZ.  The line has seen limited redevelopment and infill development, in part because of the economic downturn — but in part, we have concluded, because significant barriers remain, notably in relation to conventional sprawl development. 

 This report was developed at the Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory by students of the Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning.  The students helped to develop the main body of the report and also wrote detailed patterns which appeared in the appendices, available at www.sustasis.net/purl-lr-dev.html


In recent years the City of Phoenix and its regional partners have begun to shift planning policies toward greater choice in modes of transportation, seeking to develop more viable options for bus, bike, walking, and most recently, light rail. Along with these changes, the City has sought to reform its land use policies to encourage more diverse mixed-use development that will also support meaningful transportation choice.

In partial implementation of these policies, the City of Phoenix and its suburban partners opened a 20-mile light rail line in 2008, with an additional 8 miles under construction at this writing. Another 29 miles has been designated “high capacity transit corridor” with mode of transportation to be determined. The existing line includes 38 light rail stops, many of which offer some level of transit-oriented development (TOD) opportunity. The future corridors may also offer opportunties for some fifty such stops, as well as infill opportunities along the corridors themselves. (City of Phoenix, 2011)

However, while there is ample opportunity for redevelopment along the existing and future lines – indeed, there are many vacant and under-utilized sites in these corridors – there are also formidable remaining barriers to their development, as we discuss below. A successful infill development strategy must move beyond well-intentioned plans to carefully assess these barriers, and identify the specific tools needed to overcome them. It must also recognize that different sites will often require very different tools, types of tools, and combinations of tools. Finally, it must make these tools and resources available to the diverse parties who are actually implementing development – some of them at fine-grained scales. This is especially important in the current economic environment.

An approach that meets this need is to develop flexible “toolkits” that can bring a range of tools to bear on different sites with varying needs. These toolkits need to be able to combine the different kinds of tools that are needed in the development process – design types, regulatory and entitlement processes, funding mechanisms, partnership structures, collaborative planning processes, and other resources. But they must do so in a way that allows the tools to work together, and to do so in a relatively simple, easy-to-use form. This capability has been referred to as “plug and play” – a format in which different tools are made available, relatively easy to use, and able to work together.


The Nature of the Barriers on the Phoenix Light Rail

Many of the barriers we have identified are common to any infill project in almost any city. Some of these barriers are more challenging in the Phoenix region, in part because the region has developed a major portion of its economy around edge or “greenfield” development, and existing tools, skills and resources are still geared largely to support this class of development. By contrast, tools to support infill development have limited availability or, where they do exist, limited functionality in the present environment.

As part of our research, we have consulted with an array of stakeholders and gathered their input about barriers. These include familiar barriers for any infill project, as well as particular barriers for the Phoneix area. We can summarize the identified barriers as follows:

  1. Uncertainty in the entitlement process, in part because of high scrutiny and
    potential opposition by stakeholders, within a public process that
    does not yet provide substantial regulatory support for more
    walkable mixed-use, compact infill development.

  2. Relative
    cost of higher-density projects
    especially when structured parking is needed to fulfill parking
    requirements or expectations.

  3. Regulatory
    mixed-use and infill development, which tend to make this form of
    development slower and more costly than greenfield development.

  4. Fragmented
    land ownership patterns.
    is often difficult to assemble parcels of land that are of
    sufficient size to make a viable redevelopment project.

  5. Competitive
    advantages for suburban edge development
    relative to infill development. These include natural advantages
    (such as lower development costs) and artificial advantages (such as
    lower permit fees and other effective subsidies). This has the
    effect of making infill development relatively uncompetitive, and
    more difficult to finance and sell.

  6. Chicken
    and egg” problem of weak markets
    in areas where amenities have not yet been developed (e.g. lack of
    groceries, etc) and where there are negative aspects of amenities
    within existing neighborhoods (e.g. empty buildings, etc). This is
    a particular challenge within large areas of central Phoenix.

And there is one other factor that is very important at the present time, but may become less important as financial markets stabilize:

        7. Lack
of capital
for larger,
more conventional development projects. There are notable
exceptions in

           student housing and multi-family rental, but other
markets are likely to remain weak for the

          foreseeable future.


Overcoming the Barriers: Changing the Structure of Incentives and Disincentives

To understand the tools and strategies needed, we should begin by recognizing that every act of development occurs within a context of incentives and disincentives – a kind of “operating system” that governs how much something costs, in relation to how much it is rewarded. This “operating system” includes the laws, rules, fees, standards, and all the other parameters that govern what can be done and where, and for what cost and reward.

For most projects, the market itself provides perhaps the most obvious set of incentives and disincentives — namely, whether buyers (or renters) are prepared to pay a price sufficient to cover the cost of development, plus a competitive profit. The more they are willing to pay above the threshold of profitability, the more there is an incentive for that development to occur. Conversely, if they are not willing to pay enough to make a minimum threshold project, then developers say the project “doesn’t pencil” – and in most cases, it simply doesn’t get built.

But market behavior does not arise in a vacuum. Buyers have their own set of incentives and disincentives, which often depend on conditions set by the public sector. Construction and expansion of public infrastructure (roads, water, etc) is clearly a major incentive to development, and a disincentive when that infrastructure becomes inadequate. Other sources of buyer incentives and disincentives include the cost of resources and services, the structure of tax policy, and the “pricing signals” of such services as toll roads and parking charges.

Buyers also have non-economic incentives, of course, including neighborhood aesthetic appeal, amenities, convenience, attractiveness, and peer-group desirability. These in turn are sensitive to public investments in area services and amenities, and the perceived quality and effort made by the public sector in things like schools, parks, streetscapes, public transportation and other amenities. Many of these conditions develop slowly, and are difficult (and usually expensive) to change quickly.

There are also important incentives and disincentives in the cost of development itself. This includes the cost of planning and entitlement, the cost of regulatory requirements, the cost and complexity of construction, and – one of the most significant for the public sector – the cost structure of development fees, including infrastructure system development charges. These are often consciously structured in a way that incentivizes suburban edge development, which is used to generate new tax base and additional economic activity. The regulatory and entitlement process is often also greatly streamlined in smaller suburban jurisdictions, adding more powerful incentives to this form of development.

Therefore it is not a surprise to see that while many infill sites stand vacant, including many along the light rail line, the overwhelming volume of development activity in the Phoenix region remains at the suburban edge. This pattern of uneven regional development reflects an uneven playing field when it comes to incentives. If the public sector wants to see a more spatially efficient form of development that makes greater use of existing inner-city resoures, and likely lowers worrisome externality costs – which will hit future taxpayers and citizens especially hard – then it must examine the steps needed to re-balance the incentives and disincentives.

Therefore we can express the steps that the public sector can take, in partnership with private and NGO entities, to help overcome the infill development barriers previously summarized:

  1. Increase
    in the
    entitlement process by providing a clear framework, and clear,
    workable regulatory requirements such as zoning codes. Provide a
    more formalized process for public and stakeholder involvement that
    increases neighborhood confidence in the quality of the result.

  2. Lower
    the relative cost of higher-density projects
    by easing parking requirements and other major drivers of cost.
    Work to reduce cost through economies of standardization in the

  3. Streamline
    mixed-use and infill development, by coordinating otherwise
    conflicting requirements, and by offering pre-approved types that
    overcome regulatory barriers.

  4. Work
    to overcome fragmented land ownership patterns
    partnering with entities that can identify and assemble “opportunity
    sites.” Provide incentives for owners to collaborate with each
    other and with other developers to create coordinated development.
    Use codes that provide maximum flexibility in use, while assuring
    maximum coordination of form (such as form-based codes).

  5. Level
    the playing field relative to suburban edge development
    by eliminating hidden subsidies and requiring all development to pay
    its true cost to taxpayers and citizens. Examine fees and other
    “pricing signals,” and consider tools such as “feebates” to
    equalize incentives for infill development. Consider targeted
    public investment catalytic projects across a range of scales (a few
    large, many small, etc.) to promote additional growth.

  6. Overcome
    the “chicken and egg” problem of weak markets
    by identifying areas with weak amenities (e.g. “food deserts”)
    and by incentivizing needed amenities that can be provided
    reasonably (e.g. farmers’ markets). Build on existing resources to
    create desirable amenities, if necessary through modest means (e.g.
    artist studios, galleries, etc).

  7. Compensate
    for lack of capital
    larger, more conventional development projects, by incentivizing
    smaller, pay-as-you-go development, and by preparing sites for
    incremental development as capital becomes more available.

All of these issues are interrelated, and the specific tools developed to address them must also be interrelated and coordinated. Moreover, they must be made available within a coordinated planning framework that is sensitive to the varying requirements of different development sites. This is the intention of the “Place Types” system, which we discuss below.


Place Types” Concept

The concept of “place types” has been used by a number of planners to identify the unique attributes and appropriate new components of different planning areas (Raimi 2007, Calthorpe, 2011) . These elements will vary not only by land use, but also by character. For planners, Place Types provide a kit of planning parts that can be combined together as the planning proceeds, and as the outcomes can be assessed by local stakeholders.

Place Types have been applied more specifically for planners of transit-oriented development or TOD (Center for Transit-Oriented Development, 2011). Again, it has long been recognized that different TODs will vary greatly according to their location within the urban area, and in particular, their level of urbanization. Therefore a “one size fits all” model of TOD development will not be adequate. Place Types, by contrast, allow a more customized, “mix and match” kind of planning process, which allows the development to adapt more specifically to contextual conditions (Figure One).

The City of Phoenix is now considering a system of Place Types to coordinate planning in the TOD areas along its light rail system (Figure Two). Again, the goal is to respond to needed variations in land use mix, housing type, scale, intensity and other elements.

But the question remains: will it be enough to identify the planning types, without also identifying the tools needed to overcome the barriers? Given the need for a coordinated strategy, should these approaches perhaps be combined into one expanded methodology? This is the central subject of our research, and the proposal that we present herein for further research and development.

And if such a combined, expanded methodology is to be undertaken, what is the model that will be used to coordinate the elements, so as to preserve maximum flexibility while achieving maximum coordination? Can the Place Types model be used as a basis for an expanded system that includes incentives and other process tools?

NOTE: A typical Place Type system can be seen at   




The Capabilities of Pattern Languages

A tool for such an expansion might well come in the form of a design system known as a “pattern language.” The system was developed by architect Christopher Alexander, and it has recently seen a dramatic increase in research and application across a wide range of fields, including engineering, product design, economics and biology. The system is perhaps best known for its success in computer software, where “patterns” are used in many common programs, and in the Mac and iPhone operating systems.

Pattern langauges have demonstrated a remarkable capability to coordinate a range of disparate design elements, through a modular “plug and play” kit of parts that is adaptable to a range of conditions and problems. Although they were developed originally to handle physical design, their success in other fields shows that pattern languages are suitable for the design of processes and other non-physical systems – including, it would seem, the physical and non-physical aspects of urban development. What has not been done, as far as we are aware, is to combine these approaches into one coordinated system.

This, we believe, could mean that there is an important but unrealized opportunity to develop such a resource for the Phoenix light rail corridor. Indeed, that has been an important quesiton for our research, and we can report that we do see great promise in this work. But at the same time, the pattern language system also illustrates well the wider point that such a “toolkit approach,” by any other name, is very much needed to unlock the development potential of the light rail corridor.

Our project has therefore focused on developing a representative sample of just such flexible tools, within a “toolkit” system. Such tools may include:

– Building types and elements

– Landscape features

– Community amenities

– Financial tools

– Process tools (e.g. partnership models)

– Diagnostic tools (e.g. checklists, certifications)


Structure of the Place Pattern System

The “place patterns,” then, are in effect “master” patterns that refer to a specific place along the light rail line (a town center, neighborhood center, etc.) and that allow modular coordination with other patterns that provide details, address barriers and offer resources. In some cases these other patterns (which we refer to here as “sub-patterns”) will be specific to one or more Place Patterns, and in other cases they will be applicable to a range of Place Patterns. But in all cases these sub-patterns will address specific challenges of placemaking on the Phoenix light rail corridor.

Since the sub-patterns incorporate tools to unlock the potential along the light rail line, they are not limited to physical design. They include diagnostic patterns (tools to understand what exists and what are likely to be next steps), other process patterns (collaborative tools, educaiton tools and processes, etc.) and other kinds of tools (economic mechanisms, planning tools, etc.)

FOR AN ILLUSTRATION, SEE THE FIGURE AT TOP.  It demonstrates how the Sub-patterns may be applicable to more than one Place Pattern, but they are written originally for just one, as part of the “project pattern language” for that place.

In our research, we have developed specific examples of Place Patterns and sub-patterns patterns, to evaluate this approach, and to get stakeholder feedback. While this is by no means a complete set of patterns, it does begin to suggest the structure of such a Place Pattern system. Moreover, such a system will by necessity be evolutionary, and able to adapt to new conditions, opportunities and challenges as they develop.

The structure of this pilot Place Pattern system follows the structure and layout of Alexander’s 1977 book, for three reasons. One, the pattern language structure is well-established and familiar to many people. Two, the format is visually accessible and not likely to be intimidating to lay people, including stakeholders, who may be encouraged to write their own patterns. Three, the book itself can easily become a “repository” of additional patterns for ease of use, which will all be compatible with one another in look and function. In fact, we have identified a number of patterns from the book that might be particularly appropriate for the Phoenix light rail line.

Following is an outline of illustrative examples of the Place Pattern system that we have constructed for evaluation in this project. The patterns are listed in more detail in the Appendix.



(Examples given in more detail in the appendices are in bold, followed by the researcher’s name)

Regional Center (Shawna Leach)

Town Center (Adam Stranieri)

Neighborhood Center (Martin Martell)

Neighborhood Node (Michael Mehaffy)

Mixed-Use Corridor

Interim Commuter Center

Special District (Airport, University etc)


(From Alexander’s book A Pattern Language)

Web of Public Transportation

Shopping Street

Row Houses




(Developed as proposals by our team)

Sprawl Repair Neighborhood Market (Michael Mehaffy)

In many cases development does not need to wait for large well-funded projects, but can
proceed on a small-scale, almost informal basis. We examine a model to convert unused or
under-utilized corner sites into neighborhood markets.

Farmers Market (Lynn Coppedge)

Farmers’ markets are critical to both the development of sustainable food delivery systems and
the integration of local producers into food retail activity in Town Centers. Additionally, equity
concerns in food accessibility, price, and quality should be explored in food retail development

Food Desert Repair (Zach Wallace)

Related to the Farmers’ Market pattern, “food deserts” are census tracts that do not provide
practical access to healthy food. This has serious implications for community health, economic
viability, and quality of life. This group of patterns addresses the problem with pro-active
concepts of viable neighborhood-based shopping and placemaking.

Active Living Parks (Jarrid Bryant)

The identified Town Center locations are adjacent to or neighbor existing athletic facilities ripe
for further development of community outreach and participatory opportunities. It addresses
the shortage of open recreational access areas, and targets new resources.

Good Sidewalks (Yi Li)

Sidewalk design considerations such as lighting, shading, biophilic elements, and continuity are
critically important to the public experience of Town Centers and accessibility concerns. Both
redevelopment and the design content of form-based codes require attention to these details.

Biophilic Design (Jaycen Horton)

The built environment in both town centers and related place types all require the adoption or
intensification of biophilic design elements to realize improvements to sustainability,
walkability, and public health. This is a consideration severely lacking in all targeted areas.

Bike Share System (Brandon Towson)

As the City of Phoenix works to provide greater choice in transportation, it’s critical to integrate
bike use with other modes, including transit and walking. This can be done with a bike sharing
system, with strategic locations at transit stops and other uses.



Dead Zone Diagnostics (Joseph Muro)

Potential future Town Center locations, particularly at transit locations west of the 3rd Street/Washington (NWB) stop, will require redevelopment of blighted or vacant properties. The diagnostic patterns for urban dead zones provide a vision for this process.

Site Readiness Diagnostics (Don Henning)

Different sites will need evaluation and identification of specific tools and preparation
processes, including parcel assembly, infrastructure, partnership agreements, models of public
and provate collaboraiton, and other tools.



Incremental Sprawl Repair (Shawna Leach)

Regeneration along the light rail line must recognize that people will not change their behaviors
overnight, and that patterns must address the way people use spaces today, while providing a
practical, incremental transition to a more liveable, sustainable environment.

Community Education and Capacity-Building (Charlotte Quinn)

It is vital that regeneration along the light rail line focus on human capacity as well as structural
changes. This group of patterns covers educational processes that build capacity for both
placemaking and community-building.

Community Development Center (Drew Hanley)

The best patterns in the world will not be helpful if they are not part of a delivery system that
engages the community. This group of patterns describes a proposal for the institutional
structure that could deliver the resources where they are needed, within the community.


(Examples for illustration only)

Some of these patterns are likely to be familiar tools (e.g. Tax-Increment Finance) while others may be more cutting-edge concepts (community land trusts) and even novel approaches developed specifically for the Phoenix light rail. Some examples:

Tax-Increment Finance

Local Improvement District

Storefront Micro-Grants

Affordable Housing Funding

Community Land Trust



Conclusion and Recommendations

We suggest there are indeed important opportunities for livable, sustainable development along the Phoenix light rail corridor. But if this high potential is to be achieved, the many agents of development will need access to coordinated toolkits that bring together flexible strategic tools that can unlock the potential of development sites. The “Place Patterns” system we describe herein (and in much greater detail in the appendix) is an example of such an approach.


We therefore make the following recommendations:

  1. Develop
    a coordinated toolkit approach, using a method similar to the one we
    describe herein.

  2. Build
    upon the “Place Types” system, but add more flexible,
    context-sensitive tools, and tools designed specifically to overcome
    implementation barriers.

  3. Make
    this set of resources available through a physical office or agency
    that accommodates visitors, as well as an on-line resource.

  4. Do
    this through continued research and development, partnering with the
    stakeholder identified in this research.     



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