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Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory (PURL)

Arizona State UniversityUnited States

Topic(s): Sustainability
Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts
Funding Source:
University, Government, Private
Government, Private, NGO, Other, Individual
community organization
Type of Institution:
67,082 (2009)
Highest Degree Offered:
Project Contact Information:
Nancy Levinson
Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory (PURL)
234 North Central Avenue, suite 9401
United States
Email Address:
001- (480)-727-9890

Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory (PURL) is a research extension of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University (ASU). The lab performs design and research activities on issues pertaining to 21st century urbanism, and also acts as a think tank that aims to raise quality of life and sustainability standards in the city of Phoenix, Arizona. PURL acts as a link between local city governments and ASU, increasing the university’s involvement in urban planning, development, and infrastructure decision making. Through partnerships, projects, exhibitions, workshops, and publications, PURL’s continuing goal is to inspire collaboration and development that will lead Phoenix to an environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable future.

Project Description

Phoenix Urban Research Lab (PURL) is a research organization within the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University (ASU). PURL pursues a multi-faceted agenda of design research, including studio courses sponsored by local municipalities and organizations; print and online publications; lectures, exhibitions, and conferences; and summer workshops for design professionals and high-school students. The lab is located at ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus, providing a direct connection to many of the urban issues PURL studies.

PURL has two primary operational and intellectual functions. Operationally, the lab acts as a bridge between ASU and its surrounding municipalities—a place where academic, civil, cultural, and business communities can discuss key urban issues that affect the city at every level. Intellectually, PURL acts to find progressive solutions to the complex challenges of 21st century urbanism.  Though Phoenix is the primary focal point of study, many of its challenges—such as water shortage, rapid population growth and development, rising gas prices, and energy consumption—are shared by cities around the world.

Each year, PURL publishes a Lab Report that outlines successful research endeavors. The 2008 report details projects based in Phoenix and beyond, including public landscapes in postwar cities; the past and future of a massive public park in Phoenix; innovative architecture in extreme desert environments; and green infrastructure for desert cities. The report also outlines sustainable planning projects based in Syracuse, New York; Atlanta, Georgia; and Chihuahua, Mexico. PURL also hosts several conferences and exhibitions each year on selected research topics. Conferences in 2008 addressed the rapid urbanization of the Mojave Desert in SW USA, and the increasing role of universities as civic partners.

PURL is comprised of a team of professional staff who organize sponsorship, joint venture projects, studio courses, and research. The lab is directed by Nancy Levinson, an architect, writer, editor, and co-founder of Harvard Design Magazine. Her staff involves ASU students by establishing interdisciplinary design courses and projects sponsored by local city governments. These courses have included studio design work, urban planning, geography, and architecture and typically apply credit toward the student’s degree program.

PURL sponsored two studio courses in 2008 with the ASU College of Design: Glendale Centerline Urban Planning Studio and the Big Box Reimagining Studio. The Glendale Centerline project is a course in partnership with the City of Glendale, meant to assist the city in its efforts to revitalize Glendale’s downtown corridor. The Big Box studio is a project that explores the possibilities of repurposing existing ‘big box’ retail locations like Walmart and Target, with strategies meant to promote urban density and local culture. Both courses are sponsored by local municipalities with the goal of gaining student input on sites and projects that may actually be constructed.

Project Results

Phoenix Urban Research Lab has been a primary catalyst for university involvement in planning, infrastructure, and other urban research with local governments in the Phoenix metropolitan area. PURL’s research endeavors have had a direct impact on several projects throughout the city, showcasing the positive impact that university students and faculty can have as civic partners.

In summer 2006, PURL became involved in planning discussions for the future of the Maricopa County Campus, the central government district located at the heart of downtown Phoenix. The collaboration between Phoenix city officials and PURL yielded a concrete design plan for constructing an urban oasis of regional foliage, civic plazas and shaded outdoor structures that complement the desert environment. Partners for the project included DMJM Design, Pinnacle One, and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. Additional research projects have included efforts to reduce oil demand through urban design, enhancing the streetscapes of Phoenix, and innovation in solar technology and implementation.

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