2019 | Phoenix, AZ | Conceptual Design | Design Competition | Water

The Rio Salado is a collection of rivers that, on their way down mountains to the east, combine into one as they reach Phoenix. A series of reservoirs created in the early 1900s to control the river mitigated but did not eliminate flooding. Thus, the river became viewed as a hazard rather than a resource, devaluing and eventually sacrificing the adjacent land to heavy industry, waste management, mining, and other polluting uses. The Rio Salado now stands as a symbol of division; a scar upon the landscape. In 2019, the AIA Phoenix Metro put out a call for entries to explore what could be done to reclaim this forgotten asset.

Renewed focus on the Rio Salado has created opportunities to rejuvenate the water’s edge and reclaim the waterway as a natural cultural amenity and enrich the once-forgotten communities that border the river. Rio Unido reimagines the once-flowing lifeblood of the Valley as a new symbol of unification by focusing on scales of development, infrastructure, and transportation that integrate into and better connect communities around the Rio. During six weeks of design, the team explored how to create a new district centered around sustainable mixed-use development, public/political space, resilient infrastructure, and a monument to the scarcity of water in our region.

Sited at the base of the waterway, the Forum acts as the center of the project, a space for civic engagement against the backdrop of the Rio, utilizing the water’s presence as a natural heat sink and source of evaporative cooling. Above the Forum rises the Observation Tower, a beacon to the water’s edge and a 1,500-foot perspective of the fragile nature of water in our vast desert home.

The site is organized into a series of programmatic rings radiating from the central civic zone:

Surrounding the Forum is the Resilient Zone, at once recreational, conservational, and educational, where the waterway and desert flora exist as a natural environment. This zone embraces extremes of drought and flood while providing an exhibition of the natural cycles.

The next ring is a zone of urban agriculture, honoring the Valley’s rich history of food production while demonstrating how a localized approach to agriculture can flourish. This ring acts as a buffer between the solace of the resilient zone and the outermost ring interfacing with the neighboring residential, commercial, and light industrial areas.

Finally, the outer ring is comprised of mixed-use development that activates the site edges and integrates with its surroundings. By creating this intermediary of mixed-use development between the city and the site, adjacent neighborhoods are drawn to this natural amenity while also creating a sustainable and balanced economic model for future development.

Building upon the success of the restoration area, Rio Unido re-envisions the waterway as a critical convergence for Phoenix and adjoining cities: a place for discussion, discovery, celebration, and reflection; a link to reconnect communities; and the setting of a new story pronouncing a more sustainable relationship with our water.