Planning Magazine

Debra Stark Guides Phoenix Growth with Decades of Planning Leadership

The longtime planner and city council member discusses zoning reform, Vision Zero, and why we need more planners in politics.

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In 2020, Council Member Debra Stark was named one of Phoenix’s exceptional women by the Phoenix Arts & Culture and Women’s Commissions. Photo by Claudia Johnstone/

"Regulations are making building difficult," says Debra Stark, Phoneix city council member. "We have to find ways to make housing easier to build."

A planner with decades of experience, Stark says an influx of new residents is putting stress on the city's existing housing stock and car-centric infrustructure. That's translated, in part, to an increase in housing costs and a decrease in pedestrian safety.

Amid these challenges, I caught up with Stark to discuss the potential of zoning reform, a new Vision Zero program, and the value her planning knowledge brings to elected office. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SAUNDERS: Tell me about yourself.

STARK: I'm a planner by trade who's spent many years working in the Phoenix area in municipal government. I started as a planner with the city of Phoenix out of graduate school. I left there to become planning manager for Maricopa County, where among other things, I worked on the Maricopa County Comprehensive Plan. Later, I became the community development director for the city of Peoria, before ultimately returning to Phoenix as planning and development director. I retired from that position in 2012, then came out of retirement to return to Maricopa County serving as planning and development director before leaving there in 2016. I was appointed as a Phoenix councilmember that same year and elected by voters in 2017. I won reelection in 2021.

SAUNDERS: What's your district like?

STARK: District Three is an interesting and diverse part of Phoenix. It includes Sunnyslope, and when you go over the mountain preserves, areas around Paradise Valley Mall. My district is largely middle class with a mix of income levels, a mix of racial and ethnic groups, and a strong sense of community. It's also the middle-aged, more developed part of Phoenix, and we're seeing problems associated with that: water lines are hurting, roads need repair.

SAUNDERS: How did your interest in planning come about?

STARK: I joined Volunteers in Service to America, an anti-poverty program, right out of college and was assigned to a regional planning office. It gave me an interest in planning. I decided to go to graduate school in planning at Arizona State, got my master's, and never looked back.

It's interesting, because there was so much growth, so much happening, that there was never a dull moment. Phoenix is a relatively young city, and at the time, planners like us felt like we were laying the groundwork for a new kind of city. The issues were challenging, but I loved those challenges. I developed a real interest in infrastructure and did a lot of work with large, master-planned communities.

SAUNDERS: Which came first, your interest in politics or planning?

STARK: I've always been interested in politics, even in high school. But my career took me to planning. My political interest was mostly at the national level, but working with local government representatives, I saw how they were involved in the lives of constituents. Local elected officials get the day-to-day, and I did much of that in my planning role.

SAUNDERS: Planning can involve a wide range of sub-disciplines: land use policy, housing, infrastructure, development review. Which one intersects most closely with your political role?

STARK: What I think is most important and relevant is affordable housing. In Arizona, we have a lot of Californians moving here, and they have more money to play with. It's pushed the market upward. Regulations are making building difficult. We have to find ways to make housing easier to build. I think we can improve our zoning ordinance and our regulations to address affordable housing.

SAUNDERS: What's the most pressing issue among your constituents, and how does your planning experience inform your response?

STARK: Along with housing, traffic safety. Phoenix is one of the nation's leaders in traffic and pedestrian fatalities. Our roads were built for fast travel and don't fully take pedestrians and people on bikes into account. We've embarked on a Vision Zero program, and the city council just approved a roadway safety plan.

SAUNDERS: How can planners help elected or appointed officials build understanding and trust in the planning process?

STARK: I've been pretty lucky in my career. Most of the elected officials I've worked with want to understand planning. They value what planners can bring to a city. I often joke with Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, "you're a frustrated planner." Planners are pretty good about bringing constituents together to solve problems. We're particularly skilled in public participation and engagement, and we can help elected officials do their jobs more effectively.

Pete D. Saunders is a practicing urban planner and a community and economic development director in suburban Chicago. He has been the editor of the urbanist blog Corner Side Yard since 2012 and is currently an urban policy columnist for Bloomberg.