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Culdesac Tempe: A Car-Free Community

Opticos Design, Inc.

Tempe, AZ, United States

September 2023


Opticos Design, Inc. (Master Plan, Overall Design Vision, Design Architect for Housing System)


Floor Associates (Landscape Architect), The Davis Group, D33 Design & Planning, Inc. (Architects of Record), Thomas Dolan Architecture / Live-Work, Blackmon Rogers, Loman McNamara (Contributing Architect/Designers), Wood Patel and Associates, Inc. (Civil Engineer), Venue Projects, Matt Salenger (Retail Consultant, Shade Pavilion Design




Paul Probst, Aero Drone Visions


This model community intends to: 1. Respond to the growing demand for car-free living;
2. Demonstrate how a car-free and mobility-rich design can foster a healthy, sustainable, resilient, and thriving community; and, 3. Elevate the quality of the built environment and human comfort by integrating desert-responsive design at all scales, creating an internal micro-climate.

Without cars, this community is entirely human scale. A porous, fine-grain urban pattern creates a network of delightful pedestrian-only paseos, intimate courtyards and plazas, and a dynamic central plaza that fosters social interaction, a strong contributor toward resiliency. The central plaza is activated by 35,000sf of mixed uses, including a restaurant, small grocer, bike shop, and multiple 550sf small business incubator spaces.

Culdesac Tempe introduces a unique, desert-responsive courtyard housing type system—a catalog of two-and three-story buildings with eight or fewer units. Designed purposefully to be simple fabric buildings, they play an important role: shaping and activating a vibrant public realm. This catalogue of buildings is thoughtfully selected and assembled to create pods/blocks with a network of primary, secondary, and tertiary courtyards.

The resiliency approach also includes passive design strategies, native landscaping, and permeable ground surfaces: the residential buildings are only 18’ wide to allow cross ventilation and passive cooling in the desert evenings; smaller openings and shading elements are strategically placed on west and south-facing facades to reduce heat gain; the white building color reflects the desert sun; and the landscaping is drought tolerant and thoughtfully placed to provide comfort and reduce heat gain.


We have created a perfect storm of conditions that create a compelling imperative to reimagine our built environment. A majority of Americans desire vibrant, mobility-rich urban living, yet only 8% of the geographic area of our cities delivers it. Our automobile-centric development patterns have been a primary contributor to climate change and have directly and negatively affected America’s physical and mental health—42% of Americans are obese and 20% experience mental illness. Our entrenched zoning regulations and policies perpetuate social division and segregation, and climate change is impacting our safety and wellbeing. The Phoenix, Arizona, metro area at the northern end of the Sonoran Desert recently experienced a record-breaking 55 days over 110˚ and the three hottest months ever recorded.

This project, Culdesac Tempe, is a daring response that challenges the way we design and implement our built environment. A model car-free community, it delivers a thoughtful, replicable alternative: healthier, sustainable, mobility-rich living that serves as a foundation for a thriving human condition. It’s desert-responsive, building on lessons from existing desert urbanism, but translated into a modern, people-centered living environment.

This vibrant 15.5-acre, 636-unit community is approximately 2.5 miles from downtown Tempe, Arizona, along a transforming suburban corridor that has been changing since the light rail opened along it in 2008. Culdesac Tempe will be the largest car-free community in the United States when complete and is a pilot project for the developer to ultimately deliver a new car-free city.


The first phase is now occupied, with half of residents having moved from other states to live car free. The project created a comfortable micro-climate, and a healthy, thriving community is growing, with frequent informal and formally-planned events, locally-owned small businesses, a weekly flea market, and a restaurant.

Residents love the intimate courtyard spaces—varied sizes provide choices between larger, more social courtyards and smaller, more private ones. They also appreciate the quiet and safety created by the lack of automobiles.
New small businesses in the 550sf incubator spaces are flourishing after struggling to find small, affordable spaces elsewhere. They nicely supplement the restaurant and grocery store, which help meet the daily needs of residents on site.
A broad range of people have moved in, including local business owners and employees. From a single mother who uses the light rail to get her two children to school to a resident with special physical needs who loves being able to navigate the community on his three-wheel bike and having a grocery store nearby.

In 2023, a Harvard researcher proved that the project successfully created a micro-climate. They registered temperatures of 137˚ on the sidewalk just outside of the community, but 97˚ within the community, which is quite comfortable in shaded courtyards and dry heat of Tempe.

In response to numerous current, pressing issues, Culdesac Tempe successfully rethinks the built environment in a way that can be replicated: delivering healthier, sustainable, mobility-rich living that serves as a foundation for a thriving community.

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