Department of Geography & Planning

Social sustainability and the revitalization of inner-ring suburbs

Professor Carlos Balsas

Social sustainability remains quite a complex and understudied area within urban and regional planning. Cities, their central areas, inner and outer suburbs are of great importance to understanding territorial dynamics and the impact of public policies devised to address some of their most difficult issues. This short essay is twofold: firstly, I highlight how spatial syntax methodologies can be utilized to study major social problems; and secondly, I reflect on how a set of different capstone planning studios attempted to help revitalize three inner-ring neighborhoods in Phoenix, Arizona.

It is believed that social interactions within unmediated urban settings are rather difficult to predict and can potentially lead to the perpetuation of social injustices. Such unfair human behaviors usually place disproportionate burdens on those whom, quite often, cannot do much to preclude future recurrent practices from repeating themselves under the same or slightly different circumstances. In “Making Sense of Space Syntax for Broad Societal Issues” it is argued that space syntax thinking and methodologies can also be utilized to reduce, and, perhaps, eradicate various societal malaises in urban settings. Social and community oriented planning instruments and concepts ranging from social impact assessments, social audits, social capital indicators and metrics to social sustainability thinking and social innovations are likely to provide renewed opportunities to resolving complex societal problems.

The Phoenix metropolitan area was greatly affected by the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. The growth rates experienced in previous decades were substantially reduced and although the impacts were felt in many societal areas, they were especially severe in the real estate sector. Many cities and towns experienced high foreclosure rates and depressed property values. Phoenix implemented a major effort to revitalize its downtown area while several inner and outer suburbs were deprived of resources and political attention, and had to rely on existing networks and community dynamism to implement their various neighborhood revitalization projects.

In the late 2000s, I taught three separate planning capstone studios aimed at helping to revitalize various neighborhoods in the city of Phoenix. The opportunity to study suburbs with distinct characteristics (i.e., Maryvale mostly residential, the Van Buren corridor mostly commercial, and South Phoenix mostly industrial) brought forth a more complete characterization of the urban-suburban transformation dichotomy. It was concluded that the investments in downtown Phoenix were able to partially invert decades-old suburbanization trends. Moreover, although effective regional governance is still deficient, the planning goals of sustainable urban regeneration, metropolitan resilience, and integrated territorial cohesiveness have all, to different extents, been experimented within the three capstone neighborhoods.

For more information on these studies, please read:

Making Sense of Space Syntax for Broad Societal Issues. In: Heitor T., Serra M., Bacharel M., Cannas da Silva L., and Silva J.P. (Eds.) Proceedings 11th International Space Syntax Symposium. Lisbon, 3-7 July, 2017.
Revitalizing Phoenix’s Inner-Ring Suburbs. In: Wolfe, M. (Ed.) Urban Planning and Renewal. Hauppauge: Nova Science Publishers, 2017.

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