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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

Civano: The Dark and the Light

image, Desert Country homes on walkway.
The lushly landscaped Desert Country area of Civano's Neighborhood 1 done right: homes face the meandering path.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

A Debate

“By diluting and frustrating an authentic new urbanist project in Arizona," says Congress for New Urbanism co-founder and Civano town planner Stefanos Polyzoides, [Pulte Homes is] buying ten more years of sprawl, business as usual practice. The public will not be able to demand the real thing, as long as they are not given the choice."

For most of the last year, I—as Civano resident and Civano Neighbors neighborhood association spokesperson—publicly debated Polyzoides about the future of Civano, a Tucson, Arizona new urbanist "sustainable" development. Our debate was online—on the Pro-Urb listserv—among practitioners of new urbanism.

My stance was based on a year-long, neighborhood-sponsored public process involving a series of public meetings and consensus-reaching, private negotiations, and subsequent agreements between the neighborhood association, the City of Tucson, and Pulte's Tucson Division.

My stance was based on faith in Pulte management's commitment to Civano's vision and unique guiding documents. It was based on a strong idealism and drive for a paradigm shift in national production building—that if it could happen anywhere, it could happen at Civano; that if any production builder could do it, Pulte could. And it was based on a belief that as a neighborhood organization we really could make a difference; moreover, that as a neighborhood association working with the city, we could drive Pulte to do the right thing.

I was wrong.

image, Civano Neighborhood 1 looking north toward the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Southwestern architecture, drought-tolerant landscaping,
well-placed parks, and alternative building materials make
Civano Neighborhood 1 a success.

Photo by Simmons Buntin.

After a change in Pulte's Tucson management, Pulte's inability to provide either a vision of or code-based plans for its Civano development, and most recently a preview of Neighborhoods 2 and 3 down to the very lot, it is now painfully clear that Pulte's plans are not true to Civano and its vision as a resource-efficient, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use community, let alone new urbanism or neotraditional design.

Now it is as many have already said: What is left is the possibility of winning some battles, maybe.

For Civano, then, it is the dark and the light, and this is the opportunity to explore both.

image, Pulte's Civano II plat.
Pulte's Civano II plat was a known compromise, consisting of front-loaded homes from its typical Tucson 'Seranata' subdivision. Will this compromise now be the best we can expect?
Graphic courtesy Civano Neighbors.

Pulte and Neighborhoods 2 and 3

While I could argue that Pulte's true intentions did not raise their hydra heads until after the Tucson city council approved changes to Civano's development agreement and approved a rezoning request for Pulte's first plat, that's only partly true. The full truth is that by refusing to put its vision of Civano in writing, by declining to sponsor a full new urbanist design charrette for Neighborhoods 2 and 3, by rejecting our call for a pattern book or form-based code regulating a new urbanist neighborhood plan, by shying away from critical new urbanist concepts like mixed-use neighborhood centers, and by making promises about streets and houses it appears now were not meant to be kept, Pulte's intentions were clear before that December 8, 2003 city council meeting.

At that critical meeting, Civano Neighbors supported amendments to the development agreement and rezoning—the latter of which we previously publicly acknowledged as a "compromise" for better things to come in the rest of Neighborhoods 2 and 3—finally stating that, "We will continue to push Pulte to meet the original vision of Civano by defining its vision of Civano."

Ten months later, when completion of the planned area development for Neighborhoods 2 and 3 looms on the horizon, there is still no written vision. That exemplifies the darkness over Neighborhoods 2 and 3.

Yet there is still light, still the possibility of winning some battles. The sustainability goals, for example, are still intact across the entirety of Civano, including the use of Arizona's most abundant natural resource: solar energy. Pulte has agreed to set aside five percent of total buildable lots—perhaps 75 lots—for "innovative homes" built by others, a concept that we will ensure becomes codified through the planned area development that requires approval of city council. And Pulte has already set aside live/work lots adjacent to the Civano town center commercial area.

image, The custom Calhoun home.
The Calhouns' custom-built adobe home, with guest suite above alley-facing garage.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Civano: The Dark

For the neighborhood named "Best New Community of the Year" by Sunset's January 2004 issue, there remains some darkness in the portions already built.

Regardless of management, Civano Neighborhood 1 has had a difficult time maintaining complete compliance with the Neighborhood 1 Planned Area Development, the most specific of the community's codified planning documents. In addition to standard issues like walls exceeding height limits, there is one significant problem that will continue through buildout: homes in the "Desert Country" area are backwards.

Based on Davis, California's Village Homes concept, the Desert Country area is comprised of a series of homes that front landscaped walkways. These in turn connect to a larger linear parkway leading to the neighborhood center. Garages are in the rears of the homes, accessed off alleys that conclude in small parking lots.

Most of the homes initially built in this area are innovative custom homes using alternative building materials, such as the adobe home of Scott and Deirdre Calhoun (see Scott Calhoun's essay "Building the Sonoran Bungalow: A Construction Document"). Without exception these face the walkways—their front doors and porches open to the walkways, walls are lower in front, and front yards host xeriscaping that integrates seamlessly with the native vegetation of the pedestrian paths.

image, Bednar home is backwards.
A Desert Country home built 'backwards' by T.J. Bednar Homes: the backyard faces the walkway, the front door faces the alley.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Civano's local production builders, however, have had the liberty to site homes on the shallow Desert Country lots as they please, and so far most have sited theirs so the front doors and garages both face the alley. The alley then becomes a narrow street without sidewalks and often without street trees, where homes sited correctly look directly into the backyards of homes across the path that are sited incorrectly.

In early 2002, before the neighborhood association was formed, I led a group of neighbors in writing a letter to the developer demanding that construction stop until this issue was resolved. When we received no official response, we went to the city's Comprehensive Planning Task Force (now Department of Urban Planning & Design), which toured the site and consequently implemented a more stringent checklist in its review of Civano home plans.

Unfortunately, the problem of siting the homes was not resolved and, with the latest addition of Pepper-Viner homes that are now being built on the majority of the Desert Country lots, has in fact become worse. For all but the custom home areas, the Desert Country concept is a failed model at Civano. Where these homes should be rear-loaded, they are de facto front-loaded on narrow streets with no sidewalks and little if any street- or pathscape.

image, Neighborhood center.
The Civano Neighborhood 1 neighborhood center, with round meeting hall on left and two-story office space on right. What happens if the neighbors have no legal right to use their own neighborhood center?
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Finally, the developer's willingness to communicate with neighbors has been mixed. In the case of Pulte, when Fannie Mae was eager to get the neighborhood association's official support, it ensured not only that Pulte communicated with us—and through last year the year-long collaborative discourse was held up by us as a model of how we as a neighborhood association expect to communicate with all builders—but also provided public meeting space in the neighborhood center round building. The round building currently houses the welcome/model center, yet is designed and we have been told designated ultimately as a meeting hall. Fannie Mae has allowed access to that facility only for Pulte meetings, and not for other neighbor meetings.

More recently, in its pursuit to sell off the rest of its Civano holdings—which we support, but not at the cost of an adverse impact to Civano, not this time—Fannie Mae sold its share of the commercial town center area without notifying the neighborhood association organizationally, or any neighborhood leaders. The land was sold at a low cost to a commercial real estate speculator, rather than to David Case, the original Civano developer who still owns adjacent land, or to others who have expressed interest and were already communicating with neighbors.

We now have the same concern with the Neighborhood 1 neighborhood center buildings themselves. Fannie Mae has requested city approval to sell the buildings as commercial condominiums. Yet to whom, and when, and whether the neighbors will have any input to these very important transactions, is unknown, despite our requests to keep informed.

image, Neighborhood 1's Mary Webber Park.
With the recent passing of Civano pioneer Mary Webber, the central oval park was renamed Mary Webber Park. Unlike all formal parks in Neighborhood 1, however, Pulte's latest plans show most parks planned in 'leftover' space.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

The latter example is of heightened importance because of recent, positive activities in the neighborhood center district. Additionally, the Civano Master Development Plan requires that neighborhood centers "are provided for each of the three development phases, each of which contains neighborhood recreation facilities and meeting areas...." While there is a rumor that the round building will be given to the HOA, there is no contract. If all buildings are sold for commercial uses, then we as neighbors would have no legal right to use the courtyard and other amenities of the neighborhood center, as they would be private property. Where then is our promised—and mandated—recreation and meeting space?

Civano: The Light

Despite spade counting, there is a light that shines from southeast Tucson—indeed, from the Southwestern United States—and that light is Civano Neighborhood 1. While the list of successes and unique attributes is long, there are four in particular worth sharing in this essay: landscaping, homes, neighborhood center, and neighbors.

image, Abundant landscaping on Morning Sky Lane.
An abundance of native landscaping— including mature trees salvaged by Civano Nursery—coupled with vernacular architecture give Civano's Neighborhood 1 a real sense of place.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.


When I first learned about Civano in 1996, before construction began, I heard about Les Shipley and his family. The Shipleys moved from Victoria, British Columbia, to Tucson to create—or more adequately create again—Civano's sense of place by transplanting native trees like mesquite and palo verde, and cacti like saguaro. Though new to desert plants, the Shipleys and their Civano Nursery have recorded the highest successful Sonoran desert transplant rates in history.

These mature, salvaged plants provide immediate texture, shading, and color, and the well-planned landscape design guidelines ensure that streetscapes provide a real sense of place. Civano's native and near-native landscaping is not only among the most attractive in the Southwest, it is also the most water-efficient.


Civano's architecture, much of which is a direct outcome of the original Civano design charrette, is based on traditional Tucson and Southwestern styles. With a mix of local builders—some have come and gone—the vernacular and authentic building materials are unique among new communities. Architectural styles range from Craftsman bungalow to desert modern, barrio to courtyard, with an array of colors that celebrate our Sonoran desert heritage.

image, The Michals' super-efficient custom home.
The Michals' super-efficient custom home includes solar hot water panels that also provide shading for a rooftop deck, solar cooling tower, and rainwater harvesting.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Key to Civano's resource efficiency and access to neighbors and the desert climate is the integration of usable outdoor spaces. Most homes have large front or side porches, shady courtyards, and indoor/outdoor shared areas with uses that change to match the seasons.

Civano's custom homes are the community's most innovative. The home just completed by Rich and Susan Michal promises to be one of the most energy-efficient, grid-tied homes in the country. Completed as Rich's sustainable architecture master's thesis, the home features rammed-earth walls, a gravity-fed solar cooling tower, active and passive solar energy use, rain- and graywater harvesting, and much more.

Neighborhood Center

At Civano, we’ve been blessed with a neighborhood design that has a heart. That heart is its Neighborhood 1 neighborhood center, and as we are beginning to hear about more and more, that heart is coming alive. It’s alive in its locus of sustainable architecture, like the straw bale construction of the café space (currently the activity center). It’s alive in its central draw—not only in location, but in the actual design and calling of the round building, as a neighborhood meeting hall. And it’s alive in the number and types of new, mixed-use buildings at its periphery: Alan Boertjens’ Johan’s Tavern, the Neuser’s Ballet Rincon dance studio, the Calhouns’ Paper Flower Bed & Breakfast, and many others.

image, Adobe creates a territorial style for one section of the Neighborhood 1 neighborhood center.
Like the rest of Civano, the neighborhood center is designed to be a demonstration project, using local and alternative building materials, such as adobe brick, here in traditional Tucson territorial style.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Like any good community core, it has taken a few years for the Civano neighborhood center to mature. And it will take more time to fully mature. Beyond the original buildings of the center that are still owned by the developer, and which have sustained destination office uses well, the lots designated for live/work developments have remained unbuilt. Now that there are 400 homes and another 300 possible within Neighborhood 1, however, the center can finally viably support many neighborhood services within walking distance. The last available lot in the neighborhood center district went under contract in early September. Once these mixed-use buildings are complete, the mixed-use neighborhood center should offer a variety of services for our diverse residents and business owners.


If the neighborhood center is Civano’s heart, then its residents are its soul. It’s fair to say our soul has been around much longer than our heart. Well before the first home was completed in Neighborhood 1, prospective residents gathered, often off-site, to get to know each other and celebrate their community-to-be. We met most of our neighbors, well before construction even began on our home, through the regular monthly potlucks in the neighborhood center courtyard.

image, A mix of neighbors enjoy regular community social events.
Neighbors come together for a mosaic tiling party and potluck in the community garden.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Add in the other social and organizational events—community garden, newcomers breakfasts, tykes playgroup, dinners for eight, Civano book club, the list goes on—and the conclusion is clear: good community design does in fact promote good community interaction.

Civano is an active actual community—neighbors meet neighbors on their front porches, on walks, at community events—and also an active virtual community. The CivanoNeighbors.com website, for example, not only hosts a wide variety of information about the community, but also a well-used discussion forum, the Civano resource exchange that allows neighbors to borrow supplies and services from other neighbors, a full events calendar, and an online version of the community newspaper, The Town Crier. Both the website and newspaper are maintained by volunteers, funded by the neighborhood association.

Civano: What's Next?

The next few years will define success for Civano. Both internal and external developments promise to impact the community, including:


  • Sale of Civano Neighborhood 1 neighborhood center
  • Buildout of Civano Neighborhood 1
  • Conversion of the neighborhood center round building to a public meeting hall
  • Development of Neighborhoods 2 and 3
  • Integration of streets and pedestrian paths between Neighborhood 1 and Neighborhoods 2 and 3
  • Development of the town center commercial area, which currently only hosts the Global Solar thin-film photovoltaic research and manufacturing facility
  • Construction of a community middle school based on the success of our charter Civano Community School, currently grades K-6


  • Adoption of the Houghton Area Master Plan, which uses Civano as its model for the "desert village" concept that the city hopes to implement across southeast Tucson
  • Widening of Houghton Road, the city's designated major north-south thoroughfare on the (currently) far east side of town; Houghton Road is the western boundary for Neighborhoods 1 and 2
  • Addition of mass transit (at least bus stop/access) to Civano
  • image, Craftsman bungalow homes line narrow streets with parking cutouts in the north part of Neighborhood 1.
    Energy- and water-efficient homes modeled after bungalows surrounding Tucson's University of Arizona front streets in the north part of Neighborhood 1. Many homes have detached guest houses, and all have garages on carriage lanes behind the homes.
    Photo by Simmons Buntin.
    Extension of Irvington Road between Civano Neighborhoods 1 and 3 and the Pantano Wash
  • Development of a major regional commercial district a few miles south of Civano on Houghton and Valencia Roads

While Civano as a full new urbanist town appears to no longer be a possibility—a fate now apparently sealed with Pulte's plans for Neighborhoods 2 and 3, but a seed planted early on by Fannie Mae and its lack of dedication to Civano's new urbanist vision—the future for Neighborhood 1 and the town center remain bright. But as history shows, it won't be easy.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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