Playful Gardens • Tucson, AZ
The Pueblo Gardens neighborhood has an incredible amount of history. Generations of a family lineage live in the neighborhood, and attended the nearby elementary school, also called Pueblo Gardens. Even Vanessa Cascio, Living Streets Alliance Community Liason and the Play Everywhere Challenge project lead, went to Pueblo Gardens as a kid and has grandparents who have lived in the area for 30 years.
While the makeup of the community has remained uniquely consistent, unfortunately, so has the lack of pedestrian safety. At a macro level, pedestrian safety is one of the biggest challenges for Pima County, which also remains true for Pueblo Gardens' residents.
As a community school, 75% of the kids that attend Pueblo Gardens Elementary School live in the neighborhood or along the Menor Stravenue corridor.
Walking or biking to school is a straight route, but the lack of clear foot paths, traffic signs or cues indicating a neighborhood zone, have made commuting to school a safety concern. As part of its project goal, Living Streets Alliance hoped to change these perceptions by celebrating the neighborhood's rich culture and history. This project was an opportunity to dignify the space, so that the kids interacting with it have a daily reminder that their neighborhood is clean, beautiful and safe.
While land use plans in the area have limited active living, external perceptions of the safety of the neighborhood have made it even harder to facilitate.
Promotion of walking and biking in some communities is less about choice and more about economic circumstance. Vanessa and her team were determined to challenge these circumstances by offering ownership, and inspiring unity. The result is a powerful shift in circumstance and a unique version of a healthy community.
Playful Gardens was a collaboration of many partners, including the neighborhood association, City of Tucson Department of Transportation, Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, and other important agencies within Pueblo Gardens. The two intersection murals painted on the street were selected through a design contest among the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders at the elementary school. Middle school students were also asked to identify symbols that most represent their neighborhood, which were then incorporated into the murals.
We had been trying to cultivate relationships with the school district. This project really elevated our status, and helped decision makers think more broadly about what access and safety means.
While Vanessa and her team were unsure about completing everything in one day, nearly 300 community members came to be a part of The fiesta en La Calle painting party. This community event made clear that the process of the project was just as important, if not more so, than the outcome. As one father said, "It was a beautiful day. It taught my son how to live together with his community."
The families who live in Pueblo Gardens have proven time and time again that they mobilize for issues that are important to them, and the Playful Gardens project was no different. The opportunity to reclaim this space was just as important as the chance to celebrate the stories and history that make Pueblo Gardens what it is today. "This little girl didn’t sleep at all the night before," said Venessa. "At one point in the day she ran home to get some knee pads. She painted all day."
Porter McDonald, the artist who spearheaded the mural, and is a resident of the neighborhood, explained that the mural has been a great conversation starter about place and history. "Some folks stop by to tell us stories of growing up in Pueblo Gardens; others shout encouragements and honk as they drive by. City bus drivers even pause mid-route to check on the progress! The response from the neighborhood has been truly inspiring."
The community mural, which lines the wall that follows the sidewalk to school, inspired pursuit of a historic designation for the neighborhood. Neighbors are advocating for more public art and beautification projects, and city officials are making more plans to add green infrastructure along the corridor.
One gentleman came up to me and said, 'This is so amazing, I want to give everything I have to this,' and he handed me some paint brushes.
Living Streets Alliance is now considering developing a more replicable "play street" program as part of their Safe Routes to School goals. They hope to streamline bureaucratic procedures to help eliminate repeat barriers for organizations and communities looking to do similar projects.
For now, Pueblo Gardens families can reminisce along the story-filled mural, stroll between rows of hand painted rocks outlining the sidewalk, cross the street through a multi-colored snake and mystically end at a view of an enormous painted heart surrounded by clouds.
Porter McDonald Artist & Pueblo Gardens Neighbor
Luis Herrera Pueblo Gardens Neighbor
Taylor Miller Photographer
Gabriela Barillas-Longoria Evaluation
City of Tucson Department of Transportation, City of Tucson Ward 5 Office, Pueblo Gardens Neighborhood Association, Pueblo Gardens Prek-8 & Principal Seth Aleshire, Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Trees for Tucson, Serve Tucson, University of Arizona