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Hit the Road: Arizona ‘city’ ahead of its time

We can’t see the skyline of Arcosanti from the road or even from the parking lot. We find the best view is from a trail on the opposite slope across a shallow valley. From here, the futuristic concrete-paneled buildings and arches, settled among the boulders and the antithetical Italian cypresses — are more easily visible. 

It’s been several decades (let’s just say it was sometime in the last millennium) since we last visited Arcosanti, an experiment in sustainable urban living founded in 1970 by Italian architect Paolo Soleri (1919-2013). 

The word “urban” might seem incongruous, since this “city” sits in the wide-open Arizona desert and has only about 70 year-round residents, but Soleri’s vision was for an eventual population of 5,000. This would be accomplished through the concept of “arcology” — the melding of architecture and ecology — which calls for cost-effective, pedestrian-friendly, dense housing surrounded by large open spaces to encourage socialization and provide easy access to the natural world.

Arcosanti then and now operates on a code of reducing energy use, waste and pollution, recycling water and cultivating gardens to supply food for residents. 

Now nearly 50 years old, the community has accomplished some of these goals on a limited basis. While the permanent population remains tiny, the number of annual visitors has ballooned to 40,000-plus, and more than 8,000 have participated in workshops over the years.

You could say that Arcosanti is on track when it comes to its mission, which is “to explore the experiential and educational benefits of combining architecture with ecology,” explains our guide, 31-year-old Tim Bell who arrived at Arcosanti in 2017. He and his wife, whom he met at Arcosanti, live in a 1,000-square-foot apartment that features four bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, two living rooms and a balcony that overlooks the canyon. 

Arcosanti’s property stretches over 865 acres; 15 of the 25 proposed acres have been developed.

Ironically, though Bell spent some of his formative years only an hour from Arcosanti, he didn’t learn about it until he was living in New York City. 

“I was attracted to the project because years of urban living left me feeling very disconnected from the natural world,” explains Bell, who has a background in theater, writing and producing. “I like that at Arcosanti I am constantly aware of my own behavior and how it might impact both the environment and the people who I share the planet with. Living (here) often feels like living in a city… where nature has been so holistically taken into account that you can’t ignore its presence and value.”

Bell is Arcosanti’s director of community engagement. Part of that job is raising money for the self-funded project, which is supported by its café; workshops; overnight stays in bedrooms, suites and dorms; art, music and film festivals; and donations and grants.  

And then there are the iconic Cosanti windbells, cast from clay and bronze in the on-site foundry. Sizes range from small to massive, and each is unique. The bells have become the symbol of Soleri, Arcosanti and its goals.

“We seek to prove, through intelligent and thoughtful urban design, that people can live in a city and have a close relationship with nature,” Bell says. 

Arcosanti’s board meets this spring to decide where to go from here, and Bell believes that Arcosanti’s mission will remain chiefly educational. As for his personal future, “my wife and I plan to stay for at least five years. After that, we’ll pause to reflect on if we still have value to bring the project, and if the project is still providing value for us.”

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