An interpretive desert education center that has been envisioned for nearly 30 years at the perimeter of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve has emerged with recommendations for a new name, a smaller size and price tag, a more sensitive location, and a partnership with Arizona State University’s Global Drylands Institute.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale (DDCS), the nonprofit organization contracted by the City of Scottsdale to investigate the feasibility of building the proposed desert interpretive facility at the Gateway to the preserve, submitted its report to the Scottsdale City Council yesterday after 18 months of research, planning and community outreach. Simultaneously, Scottsdale-based Swaback Partners PLLC delivered architecture programing and schematic designs. The guiding principle adopted for the project has been “Small footprint. Big vision.”

“The concept that came to life during the course of our work is something completely new, based on the feedback we received from the community and the collaboration of an amazing team of partners,” said DDCS Executive Director Sam Campana. “This new center is envisioned as the most important environmental education and research center in the world, focused on desert living and arid lands. But equally important is that it also will engage children, families and students in the joy of discovery.”

New Name
In an effort to distinguish the project from the similarly named Desert Discovery Center in Barstow, California, DDCS recommends the project move into the future with a fresh name that describes its mission: Desert EDGE (Encounters, Discovery, Global, Education). The name also reflects the site’s purposeful location on the edge of the preserve, looking out at the Valley and back into the Sonoran Desert and McDowell Mountains.

Desert EDGE Scottsdale

Smaller Size and No New Taxes
Although originally conceived in conjunction with the existing Gateway Trailhead, the site itself has been moved to the south to maintain the current Gateway Trailhead experience for hikers and mountain bikers. The 5.34-acre parcel borders an existing parking lot and incorporates a maintenance building that was constructed at the same time as the Gateway Trailhead building.

Architectural plans by John E. Sather of Scottsdale-based Swaback Partners call for a series of eight, low indoor/outdoor pavilions, occupying a total of 47,586 square feet and situated on the site to take advantage of stunning view corridors. The linked structures will be tied together with interpretive courtyards, and will have minimal visual impact from the street and surrounding neighborhoods, thanks to a sensitive design integrating with both the environment and the 10 buildings already located within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. An additional 5,400 square feet of off-preserve space is also recommended for operational uses and overflow parking.

“Remember, this is not a refrigerated box we’re bringing you into. It is not a museum,” said Sather. “It’s a living structure that is very much integrated into the desert, and fulfills many principles of biomimicry, where we’re really interfacing with the desert as one.”

The projected capital cost of the project is $61.2 million. DDCS is recommending a funding plan that involves no new taxes, using the bed tax, preserve tax funds and private sector donations. DDCS is committed to raise at least 10 percent of the project capital cost. This amount could fund additional expenses, such as pre-opening and start-up costs, plus operating reserves, which are not typically funded by the City of Scottsdale.

Education Through Global Affiliation and Local Experiences
Growing the next generation of environmental scientists is a core mission for Desert EDGE. In addition to establishing a Desert Learning Center aimed at educating and inspiring citizen scientists of all ages to value, thrive in and conserve desert environments, the center will house the newly established Arizona State University Global Drylands Institute (GDI). Research and training at the institute are expected to focus on understanding the many types of links within ecosystems in drylands, particularly how they are affected by human activities.

“Developing Desert EDGE as envisioned would improve worldwide understanding of arid ecosystems and improve our ability to preserve and sustainably manage our desert heritage in the face of unprecedented change,” said Wellington “Duke” Reiter, senior advisor to Arizona State University President Michael Crow.

Additionally, the center’s new concept is firmly grounded in communicating the “sense of place” unique to the Sonoran Desert and is based on showcasing sensory impacts that cannot be experienced on a typical hike in the preserve. Experiences and exhibits designed by Thinc Design in New York City answer the questions: What is this place? What don’t we see? What can we learn from living in the desert? What future do we want to create?

Examples of proposed experiences include:

The Pod: dispelling the notion that the desert is a barren, lifeless place and provides a multi-sensory introduction, including sights, sounds and even aromas of the desert.

The Wash – Water in the Desert: a drought/rain experience culminating in a walk through a desert wash.

City – On the Edge: teaching visitors how to live sustainably in the desert and how other parts of the world can benefit from this knowledge and adapt to new conditions.

Bajada: teeming with life and showcasing hundreds of species of desert flora and fauna that call the preserve home.

“This indoor/outdoor family experience features the Web of Life, the Nectar Corridor and a walk through the existing Bajada Trail,” said Christine Kovach, DDCS board chair and private donor to this accessible trail.

Eight outdoor teaching spaces will provide staging areas for local wildlife rescue organizations to show native mammals and birds to visitors. Meanwhile, Scottsdale Community College, working with other nonprofits, will care for resident tortoises, lizards, snakes, spiders and Gila monsters of the preserve.

A small café with locally sourced food and beverages, plus a gift shop with outdoor necessities, mementoes and educational materials, are also included in the plans.

To view the proposal in its entirety, please visit: