Community-Based Conservation in Tucson's Rincon Heights Neighborhood

By Joe Silins

Walking or driving the streets on the eastern side of Rincon Heights two years ago, the average person wouldn't notice a stark difference between that neighborhood and several others surrounding the University of Arizona. Many of the neighborhood's homes were built before 1950, a high percentage of homes are rented to students, and many of the streets have parking restrictions because of students' parking needs. Rincon Heights shares with other neighborhoods the challenges of cut-through traffic that often speeds through neighborhood streets and street flooding from intense seasonal rainstorms and a lack of adequate stormwater infrastructure.

On those same streets today, however, a pedestrian or driver would find traffic calming and landscaping features that address those challenges and make Rincon Heights a model for the successful integration of green infrastructure into neighborhood streets. Recessed rainwater harvesting basins (Figures 1 and 2) have been retrofitted into public rights-of-way to capture rainwater runoff from individual properties and neighborhood streets, while traffic calming features designed to capture rainwater have the added function of slowing drivers in the neighborhood's interior.

A typical Rincon Heights right-of-way in November 2008, including some two-year-old plantings from previous neighborhood efforts
Figure 1    
A typical Rincon Heights right-of-way in November 2008, including some two-year-old plantings from previous neighborhood efforts.

The same right-of-way in March 2009, after a curb cut and bio-retention basin were installed
Figure 2    
The same right-of-way in March 2009, after a curb cut and bio-retention basin were installed.  

These features were completed during the course of a three-year collaboration between the nonprofit Watershed Management Group (WMG) and the Rincon Heights Neighborhood Association (RHNA). What began with one impromptu workshop aimed at improving neighborhood tree planting efforts has grown into a sweeping initiative that engaged the local community through a suite of projects promoting environmental conservation, neighborhood beautification, and citizen engagement.

While physical rainwater harvesting features may be the most visible products of the WMG/RHNA collaboration, from a community development perspective the most valuable benefits are the relationships developed and the environmental education gained over the course of the three-year partnership. This successful collaboration demonstrates the effectiveness of community-based conservation as a community development tool.


The WMG and RHNA collaboration began when neighborhood leaders asked WMG for assistance with a tree planting campaign. Neighbors saw that the trees they were planting were not thriving and sought help in pairing their plantings with rainwater harvesting strategies to improve plant growth. Two RHNA members had learned about Watershed Management Group and rainwater harvesting when they participated in WMG workshops at water harvesting demonstration sites.

As a Tucson-based nonprofit possessing technical expertise in water harvesting, WMG frequently provides technical assistance to neighborhoods and community groups. In 2007, WMG's executive director held a spur-of-the-moment workshop with the Rincon Heights residents to teach them the techniques of building water harvesting structures like earthen basins and swales. This led to a series of planting and rainwater harvesting workshops that WMG and RHNA did together during 2007 and 2008. Figure 3 shows one such workshop.

WMG staff teaches workshop participants how to prevent erosion of dirt driveways while creating low-water use rain gardens
Figure 3    
WMG staff teaches workshop participants how to prevent erosion of dirt driveways while creating low-water use rain gardens.

Residents demonstrated significant interest in rainwater harvesting and native plants through their increasing participation in these workshops in the first year of the collaboration, and this interest prompted WMG and RHNA to consider including additional activities. At this point, WMG had been interested in expanding the scale of its projects beyond individual sites to undertake a broader rainwater harvesting initiative that would span an entire neighborhood. This broader project would have a much greater educational and environmental impact by creating a neighborhood-scale public demonstration site.


The first step in undertaking a larger initiative was to secure the additional resources for staff time and project materials needed to sustain such an effort. WMG applied for a grant from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) in 2008. WMG's proposal focused on applying rainwater harvesting and small-scale stormwater harvesting as a means to reduce non-point source (NPS) pollution levels and improve water quality in riparian areas. This focus on stormwater quality provided a fresh perspective for rainwater harvesting in the Southwest, where water harvesting is most often employed as a strategy to increase water supply rather than improving water quality. By engaging neighborhood residents through workshops on the popular topics of water harvesting and growing native vegetation, WMG proposed to educate the public on the more technical issue of using water harvesting to improve water quality and build understanding of best practices for reducing nonpoint source pollution.

In 2008, Watershed Management Group was awarded the ADEQ grant and began a two-year project to lead a series of educational, hands-on public workshops to install stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs) like bio-retention basins, berms, curb cuts, and infiltration trenches on 10 neighborhood blocks to improve local water quality. Bio-retention basins and infiltration trenches are depressions in the ground that are placed along neighborhood roads and sidewalks to capture rainwater runoff. Earthen berms slow and direct rainwater runoff from adjacent properties, while stormwater from the road enters basins through gaps that are cut into curbs.

Even though Rincon Heights residents displayed continued interest in BMP techniques, RHNA leaders proactively recruited new partners and volunteers to avoid resident burnout. When the neighborhood reached a "saturation point" of volunteer projects, neighborhood leaders targeted University of Arizona student groups and people from the larger community who were interested in learning and contributing. Recruitment consisted of making presentations to other neighborhoods and organizations to talk about the project's success.

After showing university administrators that students were interested in taking part in workshops, WMG and neighborhood leaders convinced the University of Arizona to install similar features at seven of its parking lots and facilities in the neighborhood (see Figure 4).

Thanks to advocacy from WMG and RHNA, the University of Arizona created stormwater BMPs — like this swale that catches parking lot runoff — at several of its properties in the neighborhood
Figure 4    
Thanks to advocacy from WMG and RHNA, the University of Arizona created stormwater BMPs — like this swale that catches parking lot runoff — at several of its properties in the neighborhood.
Additionally, neighborhood leaders received Pima County bond funding to install some 80 traffic mitigation structures incorporating rainwater harvesting features along two main neighborhood streets, which were then planted by volunteers at neighborhood workshops. Figure 5 shows one such chicane incorporating rainwater harvesting techniques.

A traffic-calming chicane, installed by the City of Tucson and planted by volunteers from Rincon Heights, filters and infiltrates stormwater during a 2009 summer storm
Figure 5    
A traffic-calming chicane, installed by the City of Tucson and planted by volunteers from Rincon Heights, filters and infiltrates stormwater during a 2009 summer storm.
Over the course of the many BMP workshops organized by WMG and RHNA, approximately 200 volunteers were trained in the design and implementation of water harvesting BMPs. To further accelerate the dissemination of these Best Management Practices, WMG developed a Neighborhood Leaders Program to train leaders from 13 other Tucson neighborhoods in community organizing and BMP design and implementation. Additional projects completed through the WMG/RHNA partnership include the cleanup of a local wash and creation of a natural "pocket park" (see Figure 6) within the neighborhood to provide outdoor community space for residents.

Volunteers install BMPs and a straw-bale wall at a pocket park in Rincon Heights
Figure 6    
Volunteers install BMPs and a straw-bale wall at a pocket park in Rincon Heights.


This initiative's rapid growth into a successful, broad-based community initiative was not the result of luck or happenstance but came largely from the dedication and knowledge of WMG staff and RHNA leaders. These factors, together with the following lessons learned, made the Rincon Heights collaboration a model project that is helping WMG and RHNA advance their long-term vision of community prosperity and abundance.

Use a Grassroots Approach to Community Development

Contrary to the provider-client dynamic employed by some organizations working in community development with a unilateral decision-making process, WMG employed a neighborhood-centered approach to determine the extent and form of the projects. While WMG staff provided technical guidance, along with workshop leadership and implementation, neighborhood leaders were involved in the design and implementation of this initiative from its inception. The impetus, authority, and responsibility for the improvements all fell to the neighborhood residents who installed them and are prepared to maintain them. Rincon Heights residents even lead BMP workshops, as shown in Figure 7.

A Rincon Heights neighbor instructs volunteers on how to use native plants in a stormwater-harvesting chicane
Figure 7    
A Rincon Heights neighbor instructs volunteers on how to use native plants in a stormwater-harvesting chicane.

If the goal of a project is empowerment and permanent change within a community, then there is a limit to the amount of assistance or decision making an outside agency can provide for a community. In the case of Rincon Heights, RHNA's organizational sophistication and institutional experience enriched the design and implementation of this initiative, but collaboration and true partnership is critical even when working with community organizations that are still in their early developmental stages.

Community Participation Is Sustained by Communication, Camaraderie, and Confidence

Central to the success of the grassroots approach to green infrastructure was the neighborhood leaders' ability to continually engage Rincon Heights residents. RHNA used a combination of methods to keep residents involved, which its leaders have termed the Three Cs: communication, camaraderie, and confidence:

  • Communication. Neighborhood association members keep in touch through personal communication (i.e., phone calls), more general announcements (i.e., newsletters, mailings), and social media (e.g., Facebook).
  • Camaraderie. While neighborhood leaders and participants work hard during workshops and behind-the-scenes activities, the social aspect of these different events is constantly emphasized, with an entire team of residents dedicated to obtaining the refreshments used to begin and end meetings.
  • Confidence. This is developed through strong planning and preparation, with each site being meticulously prepared prior to workshops (plants being placed in their exact planting location). Planting events begin with a brief training and an explanation of the greater significance of the day's activities. Knowledgeable residents are placed in each planting group to answer questions and give directions. The progress of participants is noted repeatedly, along with appreciation for their contribution. By reducing uncertainty, using volunteers' time wisely, and letting people see how their contribution makes a difference, neighborhood leaders promote confidence and interest in future activities.

Organizations with Complementary Goals/Missions Make Good Long-Term Partners

Another major factor that contributed to the longevity of this initiative is the fact that WMG and RHNA have complementary goals. WMG's stated mission is to improve livelihoods by integrating community development and conservation, which is accomplished by providing residents with the knowledge and skills necessary to sustainably manage their natural resources. RHNA's main goals (as explained by one neighborhood leader) are to "build relationships among [RHNA] members and to build pride in the neighborhood." In addition to building relations among neighborhood members, residents also build relationships with local businesses and organizations that share similar interests. Neighborhood beautification supports the goal to increase neighborhood pride, and beautification is accomplished in part through the use of native plants and water harvesting. By creating a more attractive space, promoting neighborliness, demonstrating environmental awareness and respect, and creating a strong neighborhood identity, Rincon Heights leaders hope to attract more homeowners for a more even balance between renters and homeowners.

Given these common interests, it's not surprising that these two organizations collaborated on this project and that they formed a healthy partnership. This isn't to say that organizations with disparate goals and missions can't or shouldn't work together, but organizations with shared interests frequently form productive relationships.

Green Infrastructure Is a Multi-faceted Solution

In addition to this project's unique community-based approach, this project pioneers the installation of "green infrastructure" to address and integrate stormwater management, water conservation, and neighborhood livability and beautification goals. The installed stormwater BMPs remove pollutants, reduce flooding, and provide moisture for native plantings without creating a long-term need for additional irrigation. The plantings in turn shade neighborhood streets and sidewalks, mitigate the urban heat island effect, calm traffic by reducing perceived (and actual, in the case of vegetated chicanes) street width, attract native wildlife, and beautify the streetscape.

Make Green Tools and Technologies Accessible to All

WMG staff and RHNA leaders purposefully engaged people from a variety of different backgrounds over the course of the initiative. All WMG workshops in Rincon Heights (with the exception of the Neighborhood Leaders workshops) have been free and open to all members of the public. The number of participants is limited to ensure that attendees have the tools and supervision necessary to make the workshop a success. The 200 participants trained represent a variety of age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds, and include homeowners and renters both from Rincon Heights and the greater Tucson community.

The diversity among workshop participants is evidence of the broad-based interest in sustainability and conservation in the community, and it is one of the reasons WMG has structured its programs to make them as affordable and accessible as possible to all interested individuals. Encouraging diversity among participants also helps engage new partners. The University of Arizona's involvement in this initiative was largely due to student groups' participation in neighborhood workshops, which would not have happened if neighborhood leaders hadn't recruited those groups. Figure 8 shows university leaders meeting with WMG staff and neighborhood leaders.

University of Arizona President Robert Shelton visits with WMG staff and Rincon Heights neighbors at WMG's pocket park installation event for Earth Day
Figure 8    
University of Arizona President Robert Shelton visits with WMG staff and Rincon Heights neighbors at WMG's pocket park installation event for Earth Day.

Hands-on Environmental Education Develops Healthy Minds, Bodies, and Communities

While the implementation of green infrastructure and water harvesting features is certainly a topic that lends itself to hands-on learning techniques, this applied alternative to traditional classroom education techniques has a range of benefits beyond merely sharing information with workshop participants. For the purposes of this article, these benefits can be divided into three categories: minds, bodies, and communities.

  • Healthy Minds. The content presented at workshops went beyond water harvesting methods to include the range of benefits of water harvesting and green infrastructure practices, thus connecting actions with a purpose and leaving participants feeling that they are doing something important. The immediate application of new skills and knowledge strengthens those skills and builds confidence among participants. Experts from WMG were readily available to provide information and guidance during the hands-on sessions, which gave participants a chance to ask questions and apply answers. These strategies make workshops safe and fun. Organizers don't criticize participants for mistakes, rather participants are given opportunities to improve and see the immediate impact of their efforts. Additionally, this teaching method prepares participants to implement these strategies at their own homes, effectively reducing the trial-and-error period needed to translate theoretical knowledge to action.
  • Healthy Bodies. In addition to its stimulating effect on the mind, the exercise gained while digging and planting improves the physical condition of workshop participants. Also, being outside during these workshops helps strengthen the connection between residents and their neighborhood environment, which is a goal shared by both WMG and RHNA. While participants may not be so eager to experience this connection during workshops conducted in the heat of Tucson summers, they can feel the difference in temperature created by the shade of a streetside tree.
  • Healthy Communities. During BMP workshops, residents and other community members are forced to interact with each other, thereby creating and strengthening the relationships that are integral to having healthy communities. Additionally, the projects completed during the hands-on workshops support neighborhood beautification and environmental quality, and eliminate the need to use WMG and RHNA resources to hire someone to do the work that community members are willing to do.


In Rincon Heights, the next big challenge will be maintaining the BMPs that have been installed in dozens of locations across the neighborhood during the past two years. WMG and RHNA are working to mobilize and organize support for this effort not only from inside the neighborhood, but also from the greater community. WMG is exploring developing a community-based volunteer "Green Streets Stewardship Corps" that could help provide maintenance to these sites across the city.

Since the inception of this project, WMG has worked with several other Tucson neighborhoods seeking to use Rincon Heights as a model for implementing green infrastructure features on their streets and rights-of-way. What started as a collaborative project between WMG and RHNA has grown into WMG's Green Streets–Green Neighborhoods program, for which WMG is building the expertise and resources to assist many neighborhoods in both Tucson and throughout Arizona.

WMG is now working with the City of Tucson to develop official standards for green street/stormwater BMP practices that can be used in neighborhoods citywide. The project is being funded by a grant from the Arizona State Forestry Division.


The Watershed Management Group and the Rincon Heights Neighborhood Association are the joint recipients of the Arizona Planning Association's first annual Making Arizona Competitive for the 21stt Century (MAC21) Award, which recognizes their innovative approach to community development and green infrastructure in the Rincon Heights neighborhood in central Tucson.

The community-centric and innovative approach used in Rincon Heights is typical of WMG's programs. Founded in 2003 to help individuals and communities manage their natural resources more sustainably, Watershed Management Group is convinced that communities themselves are the key to ensuring the long-term quality of life on a local and global scale. The various WMG programs described below demonstrate the organization's commitment to working with communities to develop sustainable solutions to resource management challenges:

Green Streets–Green Neighborhoods Program

Using the lessons learned in Rincon Heights, WMG is working with other Tucson neighborhoods to integrate community development and green infrastructure practices.

WMG Co-op Program

This program employs the "barn-raising" model of community action, where members share their skills and labor to convert their homes into models of beauty and sustainability. This enables homeowners to install rainwater harvesting systems, graywater systems, native vegetation, and edible gardens after building up "sweat equity" during workshops at other members' homes.

Schoolyard Gardens Program

With an integrated approach incorporating hands-on educational activities such as creating water harvesting gardens at schools, this program provides K-12 students with an applied understanding of their environment with a focus on water resources and native plants.

WMG's International Programs

In India and Burkina Faso these programs apply WMG's unique approach to program development by helping communities in need solve their resource challenges through grassroots action, collaborative partnerships, and community empowerment.

Editor's note: A version of this article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of Vision: A Publication of the Arizona Chapter, American Planning Association. Reprinted with permission from the chapter.

Joe Silins is a member of Watershed Management Group's board of directors. For additional information on the Watershed Management Group and its programs, visit

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