Diana Rhoades

Grant Road construction is underway. Let’s take time to reflect on the changes over the past year and a half, particularly from First Avenue to Santa Rita. There were battles over the demolition of historic properties on the south side, but now those residential homes and landscapes that are so iconic of Tucson’s pre- and post-WWII neighborhoods are gone. After the bulldozers excavated to accommodate the six lane project, there are bare remnants half as deep and devoid of most vegetation. It’s time to seize the opportunity to do something quite visionary here — something to benefit all of Tucson.

In its centennial year in 2016, the National Park Service offered a grant opportunity, and invited State Park Agencies and local governments to compete for up to $15 million in federal funds nationally, with up to $750,000 per project.

In my role as one of 10 “Urban Fellows” across the country, hired to promote collaboration, engage the community on shared values, and reach new audiences, I was hopeful this grant could be our ticket. The historic Jefferson Park neighborhood, located along the Grant Road corridor, was designing a health trail walking path to connect the Banner Health expansion on the south side of their neighborhood to the newly vacant parcels on Grant Road. Despite its name, Jefferson Park doesn’t have a full-time open park! The Regional Transportation Authority, City of Tucson, central neighborhoods of Grant Road, Banner University Medical Center and Saguaro National Park pulled together a public-private partnership to apply for the grant.

Our project to create the Tucson Heritage Park and Health Trail scored the highest points, and was one of two applications submitted by Arizona for the national competition with the National Park Service. Unfortunately, unexplained delays and the winds of political change appear to have blocked this grant program, but the road-widening project moves forward on schedule. Now, there is an urgency to appeal to the City of Tucson and RTA leaders to support the vision, even without the grant.

Thankfully, Tucson is a place where thoughtful, environmentally-sensitive leaders have been valuing parks and open space for decades. Can you imagine Tucson without Tucson Mountain Park, established in 1929? Or without Saguaro National Monument, established in 1933? No — Tucson needs its parks and open spaces to maintain sanity and health in 110 degree weather.

Under the terms of the grant, the City of Tucson would have donated the land for the park, and used the grant funds to recreate the heritage landscape with walkable, bikeable paths to highlight health and arid landscaping practices. Banner would have created a sister park on its property where a series of walking loops could be created. This dovetails with the National Park Prescription program, where doctors and health care providers write prescriptions to spend time in nature.

Unfortunately, the existing plan is to sell these remaining small remnant parcels for development — relegating Grant Road to another uninspiring city thoroughfare — with dangerous bike paths in the roadway and sidewalks squeezed in above the curb. I propose we don’t abandon our more visionary concept. Let’s encourage the City of Tucson and RTA to commit to keeping these remnant parcels along the widened Grant Road, from First Avenue to just west of Tucson Boulevard — the primary section of Grant Road with residential zoning — as a future site of a protected bike and walkway that everyone in Tucson could use.

At the very least, it would contribute to a vibrant urban core that values natural open space and alternative travel modes to promote a healthy citizenry. Send a message to the mayor and council at cityclerk@tucsonaz.gov, and the RTA at info@RTAmobility.com.

Diana Rhoades is the National Park Service Urban Fellow for Tucson and Saguaro National Park. Tucson is one of 10 cities chosen for the Urban Agenda – a two-year program of the National Park Service Centennial of 2016. She works every day to fill her prescription for parks and public lands. You can reach her at Diana_Rhoades@partner.nps.gov. Contact Diana at Dianarhoades@gmail.com