Scottsdale Is Transforming. Here Are 5 Reasons To Experience the City Now
Scottsdale, Ariz., isn’t generally thought of as a place for the young and hip to visit or live. The 250,000-person city has an economy based largely on tourism, and for most of its short history—Scottsdale was only incorporated in 1951—that tourism typically meant older people. They came to Scottsdale to bask in its warm and dry winter climate, to play golf, to restore their health at spas and hospitals. (The Mayo Clinic has a campus in Scottsdale.) They came to shop in Old Town, the city’s hub of galleries and restaurants, and meander along prime shopping street 5th Avenue. Though Scottsdale certainly saw the occasional movie star getting away from Los Angeles for a weekend, and was titillated by the frisson of some organized crime presence, visitors didn’t come because Scottsdale was cool. Few would have described it that way—certainly not when you had the much bigger and more diverse Phoenix a few miles down the road.
But Scottsdale is changing politically, culturally and demographically. It’s immersed in discussion and debate about issues such as greater density versus continued sprawl, the emergence of a new generation of business and political leadership, becoming a more culturally diverse place and its environmental future. Which makes this a particularly interesting time for the thoughtful traveler to visit Scottsdale. You can still appreciate the golf courses—there are some 200 of them in the area, an abundance of pitches—and the spas, which are working to attract a younger demographic than in the past. But you can also look at Scottsdale from some fresh perspectives that infuse a visit there with new energy. Here are five ways to look at this dynamic city.
Scottsdale is an Architectural Mecca
Thanks to the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, Scottsdale has become a locus for great examples of mid-century modern architecture. At the recommendation of his doctor, Wright began traveling to Arizona for the winter in 1935, and two years later, he bought land there and commenced the building of his western school for young architects. Today, Taliesin West is open to the public for tours, and the tours reflect Wright’s commitment to the democracy of architecture; you can sit in the same furniture that Wright designed and sat in. The immersion into Wright’s remarkable achievement fills one with a sense of his genius. Taliesin flows along the desert landscape, like a step up onto McDowell Peak behind it. Its exterior, made of the natural materials that Wright and his acolytes found in the desert around them, seems to emerge from the land, and its interior is both pragmatic and surprising; behind every detail is an idea. Note, for example, how in the architects’ studio, the windows flood the drawing tables with sunlight. (When I visited recently, a number of young architecture students were busy drafting; none of them were using electric light.) Those windows also offer almost endless views of the desert—but you have to be sitting, working, to see those views and benefit from that inspiration.
Taliesin West attracted hundreds of aspiring architects to Scottsdale, and its status as a hub for mid-century modern devotees resulted in other great local examples of the style. Perhaps the most remarkable is the Hotel Valley Ho, designed by Wright protégé Edward L. Varney and opened in 1956. Hotel Valley Ho has classic Wright elements: its dramatic lobby, meant to create an impact on those entering the building, the flowing segue to a restaurant and nightclub, the sense of gravitating away from the street and the automobile. In its original inception, the hotel was an epicenter of Hollywood and celebrity glamour; Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant and Tony Curtis, among others, stayed there. Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood hosted their wedding reception at the hotel. Substantially renovated in the early 2000s, Hotel Valley Ho now is, simply, exquisite. It combines the intelligence and stratagems of mid-century modern architecture with the amenities of a four-star hotel. Guests feel a sense of the period in which the hotel was built, but it’s light and relevant rather than dated and obsolete. It’s rare to find a hotel that isn’t afraid to have a sense of originality and identity—visitors looking for those qualities will fall in love with Hotel Valley Ho.
Other buildings that architecture buffs will want to see include the Arizona Biltmore Resort, designed by a Wright draftsman who asked for Wright’s help in fashioning its distinctive “Biltmore Block” construction; Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, which was designed by Wright protégé Hiram Hudson Benedict; ASU Gammage, in nearby Tempe, an auditorium at the Arizona State University campus and one of the last buildings Wright designed.
Deserving of special mention is Arcosanti, a futuristic town designed by Italian architect and thinker Paolo Soleri, who spent a year and a half studying with Wright at Taliesin West and Taliesin East in Wisconsin. Soleri designed Arcosanti, which was commenced in 1970 and has evolved ever since, to maximize human interaction and minimize human impact on nature. Built by thousands of “arcology” (the fusion of architecture and ecology) devotees, Arcosanti is brilliant and thought-provoking and wonderful, and challenges visitors to rethink our relationship with each other and the planet.
Scottsdale is an Emerging Environmental Success Story
Cities in deserts aren’t typically thought of as eco-friendly; like Las Vegas, they’re more often seen as unnatural impositions on an environment ill-suited to urban density. But over the past decades, Scottsdale has taken some dramatic long-term steps toward sustainability. One came when, in the early 1990s, city leaders pushed to create the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, a land trust that began acquiring land in the Sonoran Desert, which occupies some 100,000 square miles of Arizona, California and Mexico. Voters supported a tax increase to help buy and preserve the land, and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve now occupies about 30,500 acres, making it the largest nature preserve in the country.
A second major step came in the late 1990s with the creation of the Scottsdale Water Campus, which is essentially a sewage treatment plant. The Water Campus began as a reclamation plant to capture wastewater that previously had been sent to Phoenix for treatment; Scottsdale wanted to find a sustainable way to water its many golf courses. But the Water Campus soon reached a point where it could further treat already filtered water, bringing it to a level of cleanliness where it could be—and was—restored into aquifers hundreds of feet below the ground. Scottsdale now puts more water into aquifers than it takes out. Finally, in late 2019, the Water Campus received permission from the state to allow the serving of filtered human wastewater as drinking water—a testament to the technological ambition of their filtration processes. (Only two other facilities in the country have that authority.) The Water Campus hasn’t done so yet—they’re initiating public education around the concept, so that the public doesn’t react violently against the idea—but at a recent citywide event, local brewers collectively poured beers that they’d brewed using recycled wastewater. (“Pooh Brew,” one local joked to me, showing both a sense of humor and exactly what the Water Campus is working to mitigate.) For the record, it was delicious. It was also important, a huge step toward human sustainability both in Scottsdale and around the globe.
A final step isn’t Scottsdale-specific, just Scottsdale-relevant: In January, Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, announced that it would switch to 100 percent carbon-neutral power generation by the year 2050. Even by 2030, APS announced, that number would be 65 percent. The move shows that in one state where many citizens support the climate change-denying Donald Trump, there’s a realization of the threat of climate change.
You might not expect such environmental concern from a significantly red city in a traditionally red state, but, again, Scottsdale and Arizona are changing, becoming more purple than red. Many visitors might never be aware of what Scottsdale is doing to lessen its impact on the earth, air and water. But plenty of other cities can, and should, take note.
Scottsdale is a Center for Public Art
Even the casual visitor can’t help but notice that significant, ambitious works of public art are liberally sprinkled throughout Scottsdale. There are grand statements, like the Soleri Bridge and Plaza, the work of Italian architect (and Arcosanti founder) Paolo Soleri. And there are smaller pieces that you might not even notice, sculptures and wall carvings and statues, on street corners and rooftops and out at the airport. (There’s even a terrific water installation at the Scottsdale Water Campus.) Individually, these pieces are usually visually intriguing and creative and fun. Collectively, they add energy and life to the city, and help make Scottsdale a nicer place to live, work and visit.
In one way or another, much of this public art is the work of a nonprofit called Scottsdale Public Art, part of whose mission is to “promote a strong sense of place and a unique identity for Scottsdale.” Scottsdale Public Art is the sponsor of, among many other projects, Canal Convergence, a 10-day interactive festival on and around the Arizona Canal, which winds through town. Canal Convergence manifests Scottsdale Public Art’s mission; it is designed around the canal in ways that make viewers appreciate both the beauty of this man-made artery and the artist’s imagination. Environmental messages about Arizonans’ relationship to water are thoughtfully woven throughout, which is why Canal Convergence was a natural place to introduce the idea of using recycled water to make beer.
But there’s also a general public consensus that art is a good thing and should be supported; the city has zoning regulations requiring developers of commercial, mixed-use and multi-family projects in downtown Scottsdale to incorporate public art into their work or pay a fee.
Scottsdale is also blessed with a small but excellent contemporary art museum, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMOCA). It’s ambitious and topical; a current exhibit, Design Transfigured/Waste Reimagined, features the work of designers who’ve transformed human waste (not the Water Campus kind) into useful products. SMOCA doesn’t shy away from challenging and abstract work, but it also makes a point of being accessible to and engaged with the local community. (I love how the museum regularly schedules events targeted at families and teens.) SMOCA is both a significant museum and a community hub, one more contributor to a city filled with the pleasures of art.
Scottsdale is a Great Place to be Outdoors
This might surprise people who’ve visited Arizona in summertime, and yes, one would probably want to be careful of spending too much time outside during prime sun hours in the desert. But for much of the year, and in summer mornings and late afternoons, Scottsdale is a great place for hiking, biking, horseback riding and more. I think this is especially true for those who don’t live in a desert ecosystem and aren’t used to the physical totality of the desert. When you know what you’re doing and what you’re looking for, or are with other people who do, the Sonoran desert is a remarkable place to explore. It’s teeming with plants and animals that have adapted to survive in its hot and dry conditions, and the more you know about them, the more you appreciate the desert’s magnificence.
In my entirely subjective opinion, hiking is the best way to absorb the Sonoran; I like the exercise, but I value even more the ability to pause, breathe and listen in a way we rarely get to do during our normal routines. (Although judging by how many of them hike and trail bike, locals seem to appreciate the desert at least as much as visitors do.) The desert is a spiritual place, and for me at least, that’s a priority, and it’s hard to feel that when you’re steering a bike down a rocky trail. (You can imagine how I feel about the ATV and Hummer desert tours that are also available. That’s just wrong.)
There’s no shortage of outdoor companies that can help you find the right option and guide. I hiked the McDowell Sonoran Preserve with a guide from REI Adventures, and he was great, filled with knowledge about every plant, cactus and rock formation that I asked him about. The Preserve is a global treasure with a community feel; hundreds of locals volunteer as stewards of the preserve, committing to give a minimum of 60 hours a year. They serve as tour guides, citizen scientists, historical researchers, land restorers and more. The Preserve is remarkable, and the people of Scottsdale don’t take it for granted.
Scottsdale is a City in Transition
Demographically and politically, Scottsdale is getting younger and more diverse, which is only making it a more interesting place to visit. (And the visitors there are also getting younger and more diverse; I was struck by the hipness of the crowd at the Andaz Scottsdale, which felt not so different than those you’d encounter in Playa del Carmen or Miami Beach—except, perhaps, for the traditional Indian wedding taking place while I was visiting.)
Such change is to be expected from a city that only officially came into being about 70 years ago, but it is a transition for a city whose national identity was so firmly grounded in a certain kind of tourism—and a certain kind of tourist. You can still visit Scottsdale to play golf, or enjoy spring training, or restore yourself at a spa. Only now, there’s more.