Aerial view of Civano

Civano: From Experiment to Model of Resilient Urbanism

By L. R. Rayburn

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While some have called Civano a “noble failure,” the data and livability show the community is instead a notable success.

There is no such thing as a failed experiment, just unexpected data to be understood.
   – Buckminster Fuller, to the author when he was studying architecture at Penn

As I write this, I am mindful of several anniversaries:’s 25th, Earth Day’s 53rd, and the 25th anniversary of the beginning of home sales at the Community of Civano in Tucson, Arizona.

Why should we note the anniversary of Civano?

Perhaps we should start with the simplest statement of what Civano is: a neighborhood of some 720 homes on the east side of Tucson, Arizona. It is notable for its verdant appearance, the home designs, the presence of a neighborhood center that integrates commercial activity into the life of the community, its inviting walkability and amenities, and the fact that home values in the community carry a substantial premium in the local real estate market.

A deeper, more relevant reason would be recognizing its long history from idea to reality. Civano was a private/public mixed-use project promoting aggressive environmental and social goals to create a new model of growth accommodation—one that was more environmentally appropriate and resilient in the American context, with a specific focus on the Desert Southwest.

Civano’s origins go back to the oil “crisis” of the 1970s, when a group of solar energy advocates promoted the creation of a “solar village” in Tucson. Through the early 1990s, the State of Arizona provided funding to study this aspirational idea. Feasibility and planning studies were done, and state-owned land designated for the potential project. However, all attempts to go beyond aspirational planning came to naught. Why? A simple explanation was that oil prices went back down, there was a shift to the right in Arizona and national politics, and the then-prohibitive cost of solar-generated power.

By the mid-1990s, Tucson had become a typical Southwestern sprawling city. The two images below illustrate this reality that has so many implications. The staggering growth in road travel quickly translates to escalating maintenance costs that put a strain on the tax base. It also created more pollution, along with the first appearance of smog. The social impact of sprawl is also hinted at in these two images: all that driving translates into a growing disconnection between where people work and where people live, with an increasing cost to families to just knit the various parts of their lives together.

Population increase and vehicular miles traveled
The graph above shows the relationship between population growth and vehicular miles traveled. The map below shows (in purple) Tucson’s substantial growth from the late 1980s to 1999.
Graphics courtesy Pima Council of Governments.

Historical growth in Tucson land use

The City of Tucson began looking for alternative models for accommodating growth, adopting the old Tucson Solar Village project as a starting point. However, there was an acknowledgment that addressing the challenges of sprawl would mandate a broader scope than the old primary focus on solar energy. An important fact in Civano’s history—and one I will return to in this editorial—was that the process of creating this expanded vision was community-driven. Sixty city-sponsored community meetings to find what people wanted in their communities lead to the codification of what would be the backbone of the envisioned experiment, the Integrated Method of Performance and Cost Tracking: the IMPACT System. A simple statement—and there were a number of subtle changes and evolutions—of the standards is as follows:

  • Reduce home energy use by 50 percent. The use of solar energy to achieve this was strongly encouraged, if not outright mandated.
  • Reduce residential potable water use by 60 percent.
  • Reduce vehicle miles traveled by 40 percent.
  • Address housing affordability by ensuring that 10 percent of houses built would meet government definitions of “affordability.”
  • Create jobs within the community, either by building 300 square feet of non-residential building for every two houses built, or by creating one job onsite for every two houses built.
  • Reduce construction waste and provide for recycling in the buildout of the community.  

It is important to note that these standards were set up to be a dynamic and ongoing system of trial, measurement, and corrective evolution. The first neighborhood would be the test bed, or proof of concept, and the following neighborhoods would build on the lessons learned there. It was expected that there would be inefficiencies in the first stage.

Civano roundabout.
Barrio-style homes in Tucson’s Community of Civano.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

In 1996, the city chose a private-sector developer bold enough to take all this on. Not surprisingly, it was not a national builder or developer: this proposed model bore no relation to the standardized practices of industrial-scale builders—they were the antithesis of those practices. Rather, a small entrepreneurial group took on this task. I was a member of that group.

As a pathway towards meeting the energy goal, we looked to successful vernacular building typologies of the American Southwest. The use of traditional building materials was investigated, along with innovative modern materials. Buttressing this respect for precedent, the developers engaged national experts in energy-efficient building to help the project’s builders achieve the required 50 percent reduction in energy use, as compared to a contemporary code-compliant house. 

As part of addressing the water reduction requirement, an aggressive “tread lightly on the land” approach to site development was implemented. Rainfall was gathered and directed to the surrounding desert, with a regenerative impact. Over 6,000 cacti, trees, and plants were salvaged and reused. 

Job creation was addressed by creating a commercial neighborhood center, planning for a future town center, and creating special zoning that allowed for home offices. This would also help reduce vehicular miles traveled.

Doucette courtyard homes
Courtyard homes helped Civano meet its affordability requirements.
Photo courtesy Community of Civano, LLC.

We embraced the practices of the New Urbanism to create a community plan and street patterns that mitigated the impact of cars and created an inviting and safe place to walk.

Affordability, the most challenging of the IMPACT System standards, was addressed by designing small but imminently livable homes to be built on very small lots.

Figuring out how to do all this and keep the housing prices aimed at the average home buyer in Tucson was a daunting task. In the early years, there were inevitable missteps, but these were countered with corrective action. Home sales began in mid-1999 and by the end of 2000, we did eventually find a way. We were meeting the IMPACT System standards while finding growing success in the marketplace selling homes at a pace to challenge the national builders. Achieving financial stability and modest profitability took another year: but achieve it we did. By 2002, the City of Tucson and Civano’s builders were eagerly looking forward to continuing the methodologies we had developed in the first neighborhood into the development of the last two.

Civano: From Experiment to Model of Resilient Urbanism, by Stefanos Polyzoides and Lee R. RayburnSadly, what could have been a path to growing success was truncated. 

Back in 1998, we had brought in Fannie Mae, the quasi-governmental financial institution, as an investor.  Through a series of events too complex for this editorial, Fannie Mae ended up owning the project outright. Rather than building on the lessons learned in the first part of this experiment, Fannie Mae chose to sell off the last two neighborhoods to a national builder, convert the IMPACT System standards into “goals,” and use standard development practices going forward. The successes of Civano’s first neighborhood were obscured in what was promoted as a “noble failure.” Fannie Mae chose to snatch complacency out of the jaws of what could have been a victory—a victory for finding a more resilient way of accommodating growth.  

I invite those wanting an in-depth study of the history noted above to purchase a retrospective Stefanos Polyzoides, Civano’s lead planner and now the Dean of the School of Architecture at Notre Dame University, and I wrote: Civano: From Experiment to Model of Resilient Urbanism.

Civano aerial
Civano, looking north.
Photo by Nicholas Polyzoides.

What does this have to do with us today, and is Civano really a model for resiliency?

I offer up two data sets to support the claim that Civano is indeed a model for resiliency. Below are satellite images taken throughout the year of Civano and adjacent desert land and two neighborhoods to its south. Civano is the consistently and near completely blue area. To the immediate south is the area Fannie Mae sold, a neighborhood build by Pulte Homes called Sierra Morado and below that a neighborhood developed by another typical residential builder. These images demonstrate the heat island effect, with the blue areas approximately 1.5 degrees Celsius cooler than the red areas. The significance of that lower number should not be lost on anyone following the growing climate crisis.

Seasonal Daytime Divergence from Mean Temperatures: Civano vs Other Neighborhoods
Graphic courtesy L. R. Rayburn.

Following is a chart comparing statistics of Civano and Sierra Morado, which was originally intended to be Civano’s second and third neighborhoods. I think the data speak for themselves.

Graph comparing neighborhoods: Civano vs Sierra Morado
Graphic courtesy L. R. Rayburn.

The essential and hopeful point here is that a built reality can achieve the kinds of results the Civano IMPACT System pursued. Rather than criticizing Civano’s experimentation as a failure, as Fannie Mae did, we find instead that Civano serves as a model for growth accommodation that addresses the impacts of climate change and the evermore obvious failings of standard sprawl development. It may not be a complete answer, but it is a significant step in the right direction.

Civano neighborhood center
Civano community center hosts both commercial and civic uses.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

What lessons does Civano teach us?

There are many. Civano: From Experiment to Model of Resilient Urbanism dedicates a full chapter to lessons learned. Let me focus on three interrelated comments here, all having to do with the nature of real change.

First, a compelling vision for change is necessary, but it is not unto itself sufficient. Though seemingly an obvious statement, what I saw in the history of Civano was a too-frequent assumption that the legitimacy of a passionate vision would somehow overcome whatever stood in its way as it relates to actual implementation. It took almost 15 years for the original vision of a “solar village” to be examined, modified, expanded, and finally codified into a definable set of actionable items: the IMPACT System standards. It took another five years to figure out how to successfully implement those standards.    

Second, it is critical to understand the implications of the difference between “change” and “modification.”  The IMPACT System was about “change,” and the development team was charged with bringing that change to reality. To do so, we had to pass through a myriad of institutions that had pledged to modify their standard operating procedures. There was a disconnect between expectations that we saw but did not fully understand. If I were developing Civano anew, I would spend a lot more time at the beginning exploring this difference and memorializing how to address it.

Civano front porch
A Civano front porch showcases the community’s vernacular architecture, native landscaping, and pedestrian orientation.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Third, and this may seem to contradict the first two, do not make perfect the enemy of good. A lot of compromises were made along the way from the original “solar village” vision to finding a successful way to build the community that exists today. It is a classic path for innovation: from idea, to codification, to measurable standards, to implementation, to corrective action when needed. Often, at each stage of this process, those invested in the preceding stage of Civano saw the next stage as abandonment, rather than necessary evolution. I wish we, as the drivers of the stages, had done a better job of addressing this dynamic. And I wish the earlier advocates and stakeholders could put more emphasis on the reality that was built and its measurable results: results that do support the original vision.

Finally, there is this: if Civano and its lower impact and greater sustainability represent a true vision of what people want in a community—and let’s remember that the IMPACT System standards came out of those community meetings—rather than what the marketing of the housing/development/finance industrial complex wants us to accept as our choices, we all need to act now. Get involved. Find out about and attend those sometimes boring planning meetings that most cities and towns hold. If they don’t, demand that they do. Demand transparency, accountability, timely discussion, and periodic review. Ask “Why not?” when told what you want is not “practical” or achievable. What is labeled that way may in fact be impossible, but an open exploration of why or why not almost always leads to unexpected possibilities for all stakeholders.  

We hold out the hope that engaging in this kind of dialogue and demanding more livable communities can lead to finding common ground: a common ground that is not tied to left/right or blue/red but is measured by whether it supports community—the community you want to bequeath your children.

It won’t be easy, and the challenges of this important journey are increasing, but we need to keep talking. It is my hope and belief that Civano can be a compelling signpost on that journey.



L. R. RayburnL. R. Rayburn earned his bachelor’s and M.Arch degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, with Stefanos Polyzoides, of Civano: From Experiment to Model of Resilient Urbanism. His career has bridged both architectural practice and development and has focused on adaptive reuse and preservation, community development, and urban revitalization. Sustainability early emerged as a central theme in all facets of his professional work and has remained so. Lee was the director of design, and later managed all facets of the Community of Civano’s development. He lives in Civano, splitting his time between Tucson, Arizona and Durham, North Carolina.

Header photo, aerial view of Civano looking north toward the Santa Catalina Mountains, by Nicholas Polyzoides. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.