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ASU student project recognized for work with town of Clarkdale

By

David Rozul

Tucked just north of the Phoenix metropolitan area, adjacent to popular travel destinations including Sedona and Jerome, sits the smaller and perhaps lesser-known 10-square-mile town of Clarkdale.

The historic mining town situated in Arizona’s Verde Valley boasts a unique history as Arizona’s first “master-planned community” and is host to a tourism economy with a burgeoning art scene, outdoor recreation opportunities and scenic vistas. 

But like many small aging historic towns, Clarkdale faces modern-day urban planning challenges. In recent years, many of the historic commercial buildings have remained vacant, 100-plus-year-old residential structures have evolved without historic preservation, and an undeveloped section of a highway commercial corridor has yet to be fully utilized for its potential. 

This past spring, a class of ASU Master of Urban and Environmental Planning students — led by Meagan Ehlenz, assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, and co-instructor, Kim Kanuho — took on these challenges, partnering with the town of Clarkdale to create a set of design guidelines that established a vision and could guide future development within the town.

For their work, the class was recently recognized by the American Planning Association (APA) Arizona Chapter as the winners of the Honorable Mention Award in the Student Planning Project Category at the APA Arizona annual conference. 

“The students created an exemplary project, demonstrating a high-degree of professionalism, innovation, and applied solutions,” Ehlenz said. “It addresses key concerns for Clarkdale, as the community works to identify ways to protect its heritage and manage future growth along the major highway arterial within the Verde Valley.” 

Tackling real-world problems

As part of ASU’s Master of Urban and Environmental Planning degree graduation coursework, all students complete a capstone project that applies their education to hands-on, real-world problems.

Through work that grew out of a partnership between ASU’s Project Cities and Clarkdale, the graduate planning workshop class gave students the opportunity to execute a complete research analysis with the town and offer a set of planning strategies to protect and improve the Clarkdale community. 

“The project allowed me to see what it would be like to work in a planning field, and whether I enjoyed it or not,” said Trung Vu, a spring 2020 Master of Urban and Environmental Planning graduate who was involved in the class. “Most importantly, it provided me with experiences, lessons and tools to move into the next stage of my life.” 

Over the course of the spring 2020 semester, the cohort of graduate students immersed themselves with Clarkdale staff and local residents, learning about the challenges the town faced and the ultimate goals they had hoped to see from the project. 

Students walked the streets and surrounding areas, interacting with business owners and community members, listening to concerns and deepening their understanding of the impact planning designs and recommendations could have on individual lives. 

“Planning documents are road maps to achieving visions through people-focused policies, strategies, and investments to improve all lives,” Vu said. “Usually, it’s more cost-effective for local governments to hire a consultant than hiring additional staff, and why the Planning Workshop made it possible for the town of Clarkdale.”

“Our work helps guide the Downtown District and the 89A Commercial Corridor vision and support future planning efforts without spending valued tax-payer money.”

Additionally, students organized and held a community engagement meeting that allowed Clarkdale stakeholders to share real-time feedback and contribute to development concepts. Students reviewed existing plan documents and relied on their academic knowledge to inform their recommendations. 

The final report provided planning strategies that focused on Clarkdale’s two main business districts — Clarkdale’s historic downtown and a portion of State Route 89A that runs through the town — as complementary destinations. It emphasized local economic development and support of Clarkdale’s “live-work-play” identity while preserving its small-town character.

“The work performed by the students and the resultant document create a foundation for growth and revitalization for our town,” said Ruth Mayday, community development director of the town of Clarkdale. “I was impressed with their enthusiasm, creativity and breadth of knowledge. They were a great group and I enjoyed every moment working with them.” 

“The report provided detailed information for implementation, and the document as a whole will likely serve as a Specific Area Plan.”

A project that’s ‘worth it’ 

While the student project benefited the future planning of the town of Clarkdale, students say that being part of the project was also instrumental in their personal growth as professional planners. 

“This class highlighted to me how important it is to identify team members’ different strengths and skills,” said Beth Freelander, a spring 2020 Master of Urban and Environmental Planning graduate who was involved in the project. “While all of my classmates, including myself, had opportunities to hone our skills where we had weaknesses, our ability to make use of everyone’s strengths truly elevated the quality of our work and allowed for each of us to learn from each other’s strengths.”

Nicole Baltazar, a Master of Urban and Environmental Planning spring 2020 alumna who was also involved in the project, agrees. 

“Having these connections through a class is honestly such an amazing opportunity that I am so grateful ASU provides.” 

“I think it is a huge honor and it makes me proud of both myself and my classmates,” Baltazar said about the recognition their project received by the AZ-APA. “There were a lot of late and sleepless nights that my classmates and I had, so this recognition is a wonderful reminder that it was all worth it.”