Creating Landscapes in Water-Scarce Environments: A Case Study of Tucson, Arizona

An Essay on a public lecture presented by Margaret Livingston at Darat al-Funun, Amman on May 30, 2001

Prepared by Mohammad Al-Asad and Majd Musa in association with Margaret Livingston, 2001 

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Support for the publication of this essay has been made possible by a grant from the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development.

Additional support has been provided by Darat al-Funun - The Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation.            


Table of Contents: 

 1. Introduction

 2. Tucson's Environment

 3. Vegetation

 4. Watercourses

 5. Human influences on Tucson's landscape

 6. Water Conservation

 7. Public education and the concept of xeriscape

 8. Regulation of water conservation

 9. Examples of Landscapes in Tucson

 9.1 Constructed elements in landscapes

 9.2 Natural elements of landscapes

 10. Towards a More Sustainable Landscape

 11. Endnotes

 12. List of Figures



Margaret Livingston (1) presented in this public lecture a number of ideas on landscaping for water-scarce environments in Tucson, Arizona. She began by stating that since her audience does not primarily consist of landscape architects and related professionals, it would be best to present a broad overview of the subject. Livingston also emphasized the relationship between Tucson and Amman. She mentioned that in spite of the numerous differences between Tucson and Amman there also are many similarities between both cities in terms of environments as well as the social, economic, and cultural factors that influence those environments. Such similarities make an exposure to the experience of Tucson useful and of importance to specialists as well as the public in Amman. In fact, Livingston made numerous comparisons between the two locations during the course of her lecture.

Livingston's lecture was divided into three major sections. The first section provides an introduction to Tucson. It deals with Tucson's natural environment and native plants and animals, and watercourses occurring throughout the city, and the human influences affecting them. These range from cultural influences to historical and current land-uses. The second section deals with the issue of water conservation and discusses how Tucson has addressed this issue. The third section presents different landscape solutions that have been utilized in Tucson.



The city of Tucson is located in southern Arizona, one of the states of the southwestern United States. It is located in the Sonoran Desert, which in turn is embraced by two other deserts, the Mojave (also called Mohave) Desert to the west, and the Chihuahuan Desert to the east. The Chihuahuan Desert, on average, receives more rainfall (and occurs at higher elevations) than the Sonoran Desert, and the Mojave Desert gets less rainfall. Consequently, the vegetation in the Chihuahuan Desert is sometimes perceived as having a lusher look than the Sonoran Desert, and that of the Mojave Desert as being very sparse in comparison to the Sonoran Desert. (2) In addition to those three deserts, there is the Great Basin Desert that is located in northwestern Arizona and parts of three other states. This last desert is classified as a cold desert, and presents environmental and climatic considerations that greatly differ from those affecting Tucson.

Tucson is located in a valley and is surrounded by three tree-covered mountain ranges, reaching elevations as high as 2900 meters. Figure 1 shows the landscape of Tucson as seen from the ridges of the surrounding mountains. To the right of this figure appears the saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), a very unique plant (cactus) that has become a symbol of the state of Arizona. The saguaro plant is commonly found in foothill areas around Tucson. It can reach a height of over fifteen meters, and is by far the tallest feature of the natural vegetation in that area, most of which is less than three meters tall. The majority of the remaining plant community in the area has a rather scrubby appearance and is referred to as “desert scrub.”


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