Public space in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley: Six observations
Flying over the Coachella Valley. Photo: Stewart Burgess
By Stewart Burgess, VPSN Board of Directors
Palm Springs holds a special place in the minds of many Canadians. It’s a place of leisure and heat with a luxurious tint that to some is a kind of utopian existence: golf, tennis or hiking in the cool of the morning followed by lounging at the pool with a tall drink in the hot afternoon.
There’s no doubt that Palm Springs offers a pleasant lifestyle. Reams of paper could also be (and have been) spent deconstructing the consequences and causes of the area’s life of ease: exploitative use of cheap immigrant labour, drawn-down aquifers, rivers feeding golf courses in the desert, unequal concentrations of capital, high carbon footprint and many more.
For today, though, I’ll focus on six public space aspects of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley that I observed on a recent trip there.
1. Which Palm Springs?
The city of Palm Springs is one of a string of communities in the Coachella Valley that are often generically referred to as “Palm Springs” by the average visitor. Around the city of Palm Springs spreads a continuous suburban milieu divided into the municipalities of Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City and others. Although these areas are legally distinct from the actual city of Palm Springs, there are few discernible physical borders (e.g., green belts, rivers) between them and the city.
From a public space perspective this is important, as the city of Palm Springs itself has a downtown with a neat midcentury and postmodern mix surrounded by lowrise neighbourhoods. The surrounding communities up and down the valley are generally a mix of mediocre strip malls and gated developments, many with golf courses inside their fences.
The downtown core is a kind of idealized Mediterranean public space experience with generous, visually engaging streetscapes, palm trees and shaded colonnades, bike lanes (some separated) and lots of active sidewalk cafés and services. Around this core are older small-scale apartment buildings and hotels centred around courtyards, generally with pools, making for very unusual and lively semi-public communal spaces. Some of these offer exceptionally vibrant experiences (such as the Ace Hotel).
Downtown core, Palm Springs. Photo: Stewart Burgess
This feeling disappears as one enters the residential neighbourhoods of detached houses, both literally (as there are no pedestrian sidewalks) and metaphorically (as houses are designed to be “discreet to the street,” with blank façades or “brise soleil” sunscreens). As one leaves the older streets and neighbourhoods of Palm Springs and enters the suburbs, these tendencies become even more pronounced.
“Discreet to the street” in Palm Springs. Photo: Stewart Burgess
2. No public space outside downtown
Outside the Palm Springs downtown core, there are effectively no public spaces in the Coachella Valley. The urban sprawl of Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City and the other cities consists of “super blocks” about 1.5 kilometre long on each side containing gated communities (with or without golf courses and/or racquet clubs), strip malls and an auto-focused transportation network connecting them. A citizen goes from a fenced and gated privately held cluster of houses into a private automobile onto the 4–6 lane arterial road to a privately held shopping centre and back again. On good days the resident never even needs to exit through the community’s gates, especially if the golf course is open and the weather is clement (and they always are). Public encounters and the potential to meet an unfamiliar or disturbing “other” are held at a distance by the car’s windshield.
Super blocks in Palm Springs. Map data © 2017 Google
This being said, there is a surprisingly vibrant interior “public” life to some of these gated communities, with houses often gathered around a common swimming pool and landscaped area. Pleasant socializing with a familiar-looking face is easy and common. There’s a noticeable socioeconomic distinction, however, in that the loungers are mostly rich white people, while the pools are cleaned and landscaped by poor brown people. To be fair: each of the communities outside Palm Springs includes a few outdoor pedestrian malls that are pleasant to stroll in (if you have the disposable income), and Palm Desert in particular has a surprisingly large and beautiful central park and civic area around a local college and public outdoor pool.
3. Bus shelters for everyone
About halfway along the face of each super block is a bus stop. Service is sparse (about one bus each hour), but you wait in style as the shelters are extravagant. Perhaps they’re covered by the development levies, as each is a stylistic reflection of the development spread out behind it: neo-Tuscan, midcentury modern, deconstructivist and more.
Palm Springs bus stops reflect the styles of the developments spread behind. Photos: Stewart Burgess
4. Climate and location as opportunity
Perhaps the greatest failing of the Coachalla Valley where it comes to urban design is that of missed opportunity. The valley is blessed with a warm, dry climate (the temperature rarely dips below 10 degrees C) and wide, flat open spaces fronted by inspiring mountains. In the past, these mild conditions allowed for America’s most stunning examples of midcentury modern residential architecture, with open-plan rooms, indoor and outdoor pools, lots of glass and minimal structure. The conditions could also have enabled attractive public spaces and could have privileged low-carbon transportation from the beginning. Instead, developers built automobile-oriented arterials (with 50 mph, 90 km/h, speed limits!) and high-carbon lifestyle gated communities that give nothing to the public realm or promote democratic or civic spaces. Unfortunately this urban development pattern appears to be ongoing.
There is no Palm Springs. Photo: Stewart Burgess
5. An alternative future
There is hope, though. The wide roads mean that arterials have bike lanes (generally paint only) and glorious winding landscaped sidewalks (intended for golf carts but perfect for biking). The super blocks, the temperature, the lack of rain and the relatively flat landscape are ideal for biking in casual clothes at a moderate speed. The wide arterials could also lend themselves to excellent public transit: more frequent buses or at-grade light rail could all be added without significant changes to car traffic flow.
The super-block pattern in itself is not wrong and could be cut up into smaller mixed-use, higher-density packages, with sidewalks and all the normal urban amenities. The existing gated communities, oriented to golf courses, could be retrofitted as productive growing areas with multifamily homes interspaced with bike and walking paths. (Yes, you could even keep a few of the golf courses.)
6. Back to Vancouver
How does this discussion inform our city?
Vancouver itself is fortunate to have multimodal streets, dense neighbourhoods and generous, democratic public spaces. The comparison to Palm Springs is apter where it comes to suburban areas in the wider Metro region, where we have examples of what are close to being super-block developments. Even these, however, tend to include multimodal transportation and reasonable public amenities. Somewhat dense mixed-use super-block developments are also taking place in some areas, particularly Surrey and Richmond.
South Surrey. Map data © 2017 Google
Palm Springs can perhaps teach us these lessons, variously positive and negative:
- Automobile-focused, poorly thought-out urban design and planning are hard to undo and can reinforce inequality and bad transportation habits. Make sure you do the best you can for your own time while thinking to the future.
- Curving, visually interesting separated bike paths surrounded by an amazing landscape are a joy to ride on.
- Many pedestrian-controlled stoplights in Palm Springs and its suburbs have auditory announcements with location-specific instructions. These features are probably great for those who need them.
- Have developers design bus stops (and other urban objects?) around new development, with performance criteria. This might make each neighbourhood seem unique and give it a sense of place.
There is no denying that the high-carbon, leisurely lifestyle of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley is very enjoyable. These observations were gathered over a six-day period in March 2017 while I stayed in a very pleasant time-share condominium complex gathered around a private pool in Palm Desert. Would my stay have been more pleasant if we had been in a denser, more democratic place, friendlier to low-carbon transportation? Perhaps not at the personal level of specifically hedonistic enjoyment, but then is individual bodily pleasure the only goal of city-making? I think we could have it all, but only if we are collectively thoughtful and smart about democratic, climate-sensitive urban design and transportation systems.
Sunline bus service
City of Palm Springs planning department
City of Palm Desert planning and land use
Midcentury modernism in Palm Springs (only eight of many remarkable houses)