Pioneer Park: Mesa, Arizona
Pioneer Park, one of the oldest parks in Mesa, Arizona, was once a prized amenity for people living near the bustling downtown. But as families moved farther from the city center, the park, its surrounding neighborhood, and residents suffered.
By the end of the 20th century, Pioneer Park was neglected, filled with graffiti, and a site for unsavory business. One of its famed features, a historic train engine, was crawling with stray cats and locked behind an ominous steel tipped fence. But despite its dire state, long-time residents cherished Pioneer Park, remembering it fondly for what it had once meant to them.
In the early 2000s, the City of Mesa formally recognized the ongoing challenges that continued to plague Pioneer Park, but also saw potential. City leaders viewed the park as an asset — one that could attract new life to the still slumbering downtown, while providing greatly needed local, walkable space for lifelong neighborhood residents. In 2012, the city leveraged bond funding to improve the park space, but officials knew from early planning and discussions with community members that more must be done. A master planning and design process, led by Dig Studio, was launched.
To better understand the needs of the community, Dig Studio began an extensive public participation process that met residents where they were. Community members, including former Mayor Scott Smith, regaled the planning team with childhood stories from their days in the park, climbing aboard the great train engine or strolling through the lovely rose garden. Other community members saw the value in adding new features like one-of-a-kind playgrounds and splash pads as an opportunity to draw newcomers to the neighborhood.
Working together, the city and Dig Studio crafted a new vision for Pioneer Park that balanced the needs of longtime advocates with larger-scale revitalization plans for the downtown. But public engagement did not stop when the plan was complete. The design team worked closely with park champions, including Mesa's mayor, Mesa's park director, and neighborhood organizations to preserve special elements in the park.
Today, Pioneer Park is once again Mesa's signature public space, boasting "the mother of all water features," a draw for Mesa area youth looking to have fun in the sun. Another addition is a playground designed to celebrate the lush and unique tree canopies rarely seen in the southwestern United States. The playground, which incorporates play features that weave through the trees, is visible from the light rail station adjacent to Pioneer Park, inviting residents of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds to be part of the action. A plaza space designed for markets and other community events was also added to encourage a connection between Pioneer Park and nearby downtown Mesa.
Longtime neighborhood residents are pleased with the outcomes, describing Pioneer Park as "back" after many years. Since reopening in 2017, new community events have flourished, and existing events have been bolstered by Pioneer Park improvements.