When I moved to the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood in 1994 much of it was not a pleasant place to walk.
Most of the public right-of-way (the area between the street curb and property lines/fences) was just hot, bare dirt devoid of shade trees and other life. There were few sidewalks, but thankfully there was plenty of room for earthen footpaths. Yet many people parked atop the footpaths rather than parking on the street. I’m afraid my brother and I were guilty of this too (fig. 1A). This was partly due to a fear that the cars would get broken into if parked on the street. This fear was due in part to there not being many neighbors’ eyes on the street. Which was due in part to having impassible footpaths, and you did not want to hang out or look out into the bleak lifeless street environment. Another problem was the traffic in the streets…
The neighborhood at that time was often rife with speeding cut-through traffic (especially on the east-west streets), which would often collide with slower moving pets or cars parked on the street. Thus I did not consider the hot streets to be a viable alternative to walking in the right of way.
But there was much to love about the community, and a number of neighbors saw great potential for simple transformations of the negatives to positives, with the past and present sometimes informing the future. For example, before she passed away, Dunbar school alumni and activist Willie Fears told me that many decades ago when she was a child, trees lined Main Avenue and its footpath to downtown, enabling kids to walk there barefoot in summer from our neighborhood and back.
Those trees were all gone when I moved here, but an oasis could be (and still can be) found on Perry Avenue between University Blvd and 2nd Street where South American mesquite trees planted by neighbors in the 1980s canopied over most of the street. Steve Leal obtained well over a hundred of these trees, which were planted by volunteers around the neighborhood. But many of these trees were eventually lost as they blew over or were leaning so much they had to be removed. On the northwest corner of Perry and University Blvd a different tree, a huge native desert ironwood tree grew (and still grows)—planted many years ago by Elizabeth Upham who bought it as a seedling in a one-gallon pot from Target.
These and other tree stories and plantings inspired then newcomers such as myself, along with longer-term residents to begin in 1996 what has become an annual neighborhood tree-planting project, which brings neighbors together to plant native, food-bearing trees along our streets, walkways, and property lines. As we planted, we found cars moved to the street (figs. 2A and B). Where we did this the neighborhood immediately felt enhanced and more cared for. Native songbirds, butterflies, and pollinators returned to the growing habitat. More people started walking and bicycling in the neighborhood. Crime dropped.
Since 1996 our neighborhood’s annual tree planting project has resulted in neighbors planting over 1,400 trees! Still more were planted before 1996, or since by individual efforts outside of the neighborhood programs.
I know many of us do a lot to save water. Conserve2Enhance (C2E) is a simple program that helps you put your water conservation efforts to work for the environment, including the environment in our own neighborhood. The Tucson C2E program links your water conservation to riparian restoration projects in the Tucson area. To date over $55,000 has been spent on 7 community led riparian and urban wash enhancement projects.
As a neighborhood, Dunbar/Spring can apply for C2E grants for rainwater harvesting along streets that serve as our water courses to restore the wash-like qualities of shade, flood attenuation, stormwater quality improvements, and habitat.
RAIN HARVESTING: Harvesting rain is a passion for many residents living in the Dunbar Spring neighborhood, north of downtown Tucson. Brad Lancaster and his neighbors share a few innovative ways to make the most of the rain that does fall in the desert. They also offer compelling perspectives on why rainwater harvesting is so important.
Brad Lancaster describes the strip of vegetation beside the sidewalk outside his Tucson, Arizona home as “an orchard and a pharmacy.” The desert ironwood tree has peanut flavored seeds and blooms that make a delicious salad garnish. Creosote is good for athlete’s foot. Chuparosa has a red flower that tastes like cucumber. The barrel cactus’s yellow fruit can be used for chutneys or hair conditioner. Mesquite pods make nutritious flour. And many more. Depending on the season, Lancaster gets 10 to 20 percent of his food from this sidewalk garden, and another in his yard.
Lancaster grew up in the desert outside Tucson. He and his brother often played in the sand until, one day, the suburbs of nearby Tucson engulfed his neighborhood and there was no more desert to play in. Now, he’s trying to integrate a desert playground into the city.
“We’re trying to bring the desert into the urban core. Not a survival desert or desert of scarcity, but a thrival desert of abundance,” he said.
By we, Lancaster means the Dunbar Spring neighborhood, home to about 900 people dispersed over six urban blocks in Tucson. Through rainwater harvesting, Dunbar Spring is reaping sustenance—both caloric and communal—from a landscape that others see as stingy.
Water-harvesting, traffic-calming chicane clean up party - this Saturday, August 10 at 8am. Meet at the intersection of 9th Ave and 1st Street. Bring water, pruning shears, and gloves.
We will work together to spruce up some of our streets' chicanes and circles. Brad Lancaster will show you how to identify the plants we want to keep (native wildflowers, native grasses, and good trees) and the plants we want to take out (weeds, invasive grasses, weed trees). We'll also show you how to prune and replant. We can also help provide new plants where needed.