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From “Open Country” to “Open Space”: Park Planning, Rapid Growth and Community Identity in Tempe, Arizona, 1949-1975

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Tempe experienced rapid growth in population and area from 1949 to 1975, stretching its resources thin and changing the character of the city. City boosters encouraged growth through the 1950s

Tempe experienced rapid growth in population and area from 1949 to 1975, stretching its resources thin and changing the character of the city. City boosters encouraged growth through the 1950s to safeguard Tempe’s borders against its larger neighbor, Phoenix. New residents moved to Tempe as it grew, expecting suburban amenities that the former agricultural supply town struggled to pay for and provide. After initially balking at taking responsibility for development of a park system, Tempe established a Parks and Recreation Department in 1958 and used parks as a main component in an evolving strategy for responding to rapid suburban growth. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Tempe pursued an ambitious goal of siting one park in each square mile of the city, planning for neighborhood parks to be paired with elementary schools and placed at the center of each Tempe neighborhood. The highly-publicized plan created a framework, based on the familiarity of public park spaces, that helped both long-time residents and recent transplants understand the new city form and participate in a changing community identity. As growth accelerated and subdivisions surged southward into the productive agricultural area that had driven Tempe’s economy for decades, the School-Park Policy faltered as a planning and community-building tool. Residents and city leaders struggled to reconcile the loss of agricultural land with the carefully maintained cultural narrative that connected Tempe to its frontier past, ultimately broadening the role of parks to address the needs of a changing city.

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  • 2019