Reid Park Reimagined: Addressing Extreme Heat and Water Stress in Tucson’s Sonoran Desert


Reid Park Reimagined was more than a park planning effort for Tucson’s “central park.” It was a process of engaging the Tucson community to envision how climate adaptation and heat resilience, and authentic Southwestern culture and ecologies can be interwoven in the city’s only major urban park through a focus on thermal comfort and water use. The planning effort involved a comprehensive, equitable and multifaceted community discovery process with over a dozen public events and interactive online surveys, a dynamic project website, and thousands of interactions and conversations that captured stakeholder voices. In a bilingual city divided in access to cool, shady open space, with vulnerable populations disparately impacted by climate change, Gene C. Reid Park is reimagined as a recreationally and culturally rich gathering place for diverse users, in an ecologically honest landscape reflecting the climate of the Sonoran Desert. Championed by a community that craves contact with native ecology, the plan for this beloved community asset uses water intelligently to provide comfortable play and fitness interwoven with experiences of plant and animal life.


Meeting the Needs of a Changing Climate and Community

Reid Park’s 131 acres of open space include flood management infrastructure, reclaimed water storage ponds, tall shade trees and dozens of shade structures which make it central to urban Tucson’s heat, flood and drought resilience strategy. The purpose of the Reid Park Reimagined planning effort, which was led by the landscape architect in partnership with City of Tucson Parks and Recreation, was to address how the park can adapt to meet the needs of a changing community, city, and climate while preserving what makes it special. A desire exists in the community to diversify the program options offered at the park while celebrating the landscape of the Sonoran Desert and introducing more appropriate ecologies. The strategies and design interventions of the master plan envision a park that will stay an oasis of green in a hotter, less vegetated urban area in the face of climate change. It will provide residents of central Tucson a verdant and cool haven, opportunities to see wildlife, and a unique blend of native and introduced plantings from a variety of ecozones. While Reid Park is not and will not become a natural resource park, it can provide enhanced wildlife corridors and critical urban habitat for lowland and upland species, augment ecological services, and supplement the natural recreation available on the edges of Tucson with nearby nature that is easily accessible to the community.

Community-Informed Planning 

Engaging Tucson to reimagine Reid Park was a year-long continuous conversation that occurred in tandem with the planning process. To do so required a comprehensive and multifaceted approach that involved digital communications, interactive mapping,  in-person events, surveys, stakeholder interviews, and one-on-one conversations. The interactive and entirely bilingual engagement process prioritized equity by monitoring the demographic profile of participants and proactively working with local partners to reach under-represented communities. Events specifically focused on South Tucson, the hottest area of the city with the highest minority population, where residents are also the most vulnerable to heat emergencies. The city-wide planning process, which was conducted in three themed phases–Discovery, Vision and Action–ran parallel to the analysis and visioning portions for the master plan and yielded a set of guiding principles and criteria with which to evaluate the success of the planning proposal. The effort engaged 31 stakeholder groups and over 100 community leaders with deep knowledge of the park and community expectations for its use. The landscape architect-led team achieved a remarkable 7,119 points of engagement and 722,365 unique views of digital materials by Tucson residents, which is over half the metro area population of 1,014,000.

Beloved Urban Oasis Under Heat Stress

As the only major park in Tucson’s urban center, Reid Park must appeal to many user groups and meet a wide range of recreational, ecological, and cultural needs. This cherished community asset is characterized by its cultural and recreational destinations, and the unique landscape feature of the tree-covered Barnum Hill. Regional heat models clearly show Reid Park clearly as a cool, verdant oasis surrounded by hotter urban and desert areas. Much of this “oasis effect” is owed to the park’s open water bodies and tall exotic, water-intensive shade trees, which mitigate the impacts of extreme heat. The park draws residents from all over Tucson, but especially from lower income communities to the south and west which lack tree canopy and experience higher temperatures.  It is essential to providing equitable access to cool, shady outdoor space for fitness, learning, play and expression. The plan proposes extensions of greenways and bike lanes through the park as a distributed approach to integrating water-wise water features that create comfortable microclimates. A robust planting strategy dramatically augments the canopy with native and adaptive tree species. Shade structures are carefully placed at park entries and programmatic destinations, and along main circulation routes.

Water Wise Ecology in the City

Reid Park Reimagined revealed not only the community’s desire to see creative recreational and cultural opportunities integrated into the park, but a strong commitment to weave these opportunities into biodiverse landscapes reflecting the unique climate and ecology of Southeast Arizona. While lush exotic shade trees are important to outdoor thermal comfort, and turf is essential to safe play and recreation, to have a park characterized entirely by these features is dishonest to Tucson’s ecology, climate and culture. Support for turf reduction and tree replacement came as we discovered, together with the community, how every drop of water could be strategically dedicated to its best and highest use.

To further improve the usability of Reid Park in all seasons, the plan seeks to increase the amount of shade in the park by developing a canopy succession strategy based on a rigorous analysis of local and adapted species that will be able maximize thermal comfort and increase urban habitat, while minimizing water use. Additional trees are strategically planted to provide shade along high-use paths and play areas. Water resources are carefully managed through turf reduction. Water once used to irrigate turf is transformed into a mitigating heat through water features.

The confluence of Arroyo Chico and Citation Wash is an important ecological and hydrological node within the Rio Grande watershed and acts as a major drainage channel. To mitigate the significant monsoon season flooding at the low-lying northern end of the park, the plan realigns this engineered drainage device into a meandering form that slows down flood waters, adds flood capacity for increased capacity, and leverages rainwater for surrounding vegetation. It is an important corridor for wildlife and provides essential shade to mitigate heat. Inspired by the Sonoran Desert’s vanishing vernal pools, intermittent flooding at La Ciénega is leveraged as habitat for local riparian wildlife and a natural experience for visitors.

A Connected Site

To create clear wayfinding and pedestrian accessibility, the plan features a central multi-use loop connecting Reid Park’s major destinations, weaving together its four corner entry plazas, while connecting to a network of secondary and tertiary paths. Water is a major driver of the plan’s overall form. Existing water bodies around Barnum Hill are preserved and enhanced through restored vegetation and protection of banks. Citation Wash is realigned to expand the available area in the center of the park, improve circulation, and create a new riparian landscape with ecological and flood resilience benefits. Flood-prone areas west of the baseball fields are transformed into a naturalized landscape with educational and recreational opportunities. The plan seeks to better integrate the park with surrounding mobility infrastructure by creating welcoming gateways at the park’s corners and new parking facilities.

The plan diversifies programming and distributes community assets throughout the park, a top community priority. The plan is abstracted into three main programming zones: culture and events, natural recreation, and active recreation. The active recreation zone follows Si Schoor Path as it connects everyday features for smaller groups like the dog park, multi-use courts, small playgrounds, and fitness amenities–located near neighborhoods and main parking locations for easy accessibility. By contrast, the center of the park is reserved for destination programs and cultural spaces such as the renovated outdoor performance center (OPC), welcome plaza, festival lawn, and central playground for use by large numbers of people and requiring centralization of resources. While the entire park will incorporate natural features, the natural recreation zone specifically focuses on creating experiences that weave seamlessly with trees, gardens, and water features. The form of this zone is influenced by hydrology as it follows the path of Citation Wash and loops around into La Ciénega, the new flood control and nature education area.


Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):