Next Doors: A Reimagined Rio

Posted By on October 3, 2019

Project seeks to restore the artery of the Valley

If you’ve studied your Arizona history, you may know of the Great Papago Escape.

If you’re not familiar with it, the escape is probably the most noteworthy story from World War II that took place within the state’s boundaries. The U.S. government operated a prisoner of war camp at Papago Park that housed German POWs. Naturally, the Germans were not happy about being encamped.

So after looking at maps of the region, they came up with a plan — they would break out of the camp, head for the Salt River, hop on boats and float down to the Gila River, then the Colorado River, then to the Gulf of California, and then on to freedom. So they fashioned some crude rafts and on Dec. 23, 1944, they made their run for the Salt River …

… only to find it dry when they got there.

I tell this story as a metaphor. For those who come across the Salt River for the first time, at least as it runs through the Valley, the river can be a little disappointing and lacking in purpose. With the exception of the Tempe Town Lake section, it’s generally dry, thanks to the upstream dams that capture its contents so that we can have water in urban areas. It has been dug up, dumped on, and generally serves as nothing more than a physical barrier cutting through the middle of the Valley.

But that could all change one day, if the vision of a broad coalition of community leaders comes together.

Rio Reimagined is the umbrella effort to rethink how we interact with the Rio Salado and find ways to revitalize it into a key asset and artery for the community. When I say “umbrella,” it’s a big umbrella, with a lot of moving parts underneath.

A revitalized river was a legacy vision of the late Sen. John McCain, who helped keep the issue front of mind in the community. The Rio Reimagined effort is generally curated by Arizona State University, and is backed by the Arizona Community Foundation and a significant coalition of business and community leaders. It includes the six cities and two Indian communities where the river runs.

Additionally, and significantly,  it includes the Rio Reimagined Ideas Competition, an effort led by the American Institute of Architects-Phoenix Metro Chapter. Between now and Nov. 19, individuals and organizations from throughout the community — architects, planners, visionaries or anyone with ideas that could make the Rio Salado more of an asset for the Valley as a whole — are encouraged to submit their visions, with the winning vision receiving a cash prize and becoming part of the overall conversation around the river.

This year’s theme is “Crossing the Line That Separates,” and it asks participants to think about how the river could help connect communities instead of being a physical barrier.

“This river has undergone considerable change through the years, and while we’ve made significant advancements as a community in terms of mitigating the flood risks associated with it, we also need to recognize how the changing face of the river has kept us from taking advantage of all it has to offer,” said AIA Phoenix Metro Chapter’s past president Michael Jacobs.

“Instead of seeing it as the immensely valuable resource it is, we’ve taken to seeing it as something that separates rather than unites us, and in this competition, we’re looking for ways to reverse this trend and change this sentiment,” he said.

The goal of the competition and all of these efforts is to generate momentum toward a long-term vision for the Rio Salado. That may sound vague, but that’s where big ideas start. ASU’s charge is to create a longstanding vision with the input from the competition, the communities involved and anyone else with ideas. Once the community at large coalesces around a plan, we can figure out how to pay for it all.

But in the meantime, it’s a great time to put thinking caps on, and get creative about the future of the Valley. That’s how legacies are made.

For more information about AIA Phoenix Metro Chapter’s 2019 Rio Reimagined Ideas Competition, visit For more information on Rio Reimagined, visit

Tom Evans

About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is a contributing editor of Frontdoors Media.