Saturday, September 13, 2008

More Foresight, Please

As of next week, I will have been away for a full year. Needless to say, I am not fully in tune with the wheelings and dealings of city hall these days. However, I'm fairly sure that very little attention is being paid to the (enter green movement catchphrase/word here) of the city of Albuquerque. Mayor Marty sells the "Q" as some sort of city ahead of its time and ahead of the curve when it comes to being a green city. But what exactly does that mean?

From the outside, we're nearly a million people inhabiting an arid region that cannot supply the necessary resources. We're a sprawling sun-belt city living in single family homes with rock lawns while enduring commutes that rival those of larger cities due to our failure to plan. The shortfalls of our environment to sustain us is well documented so I won't delve into that aspect in great detail.
To this day, Mayor Marty has exhalted his successes in [reducing our use]. We have, in large numbers I might ad, converted to low flow fixtures, made xeriscaping into an attractive trend, built an expensive gray water system for municipal park use, and created an initiative to build LEED-certified municipal buildings. As part of the bike-friendly-city, there is now a bike-sharing program that could even be considered a part of this "green" movement.

Every single one of these initiatives are not to be belittled to any extent as they sum up to more than a metaphorical band-aid on the situation. I'll be optimistic and categorize it as more of a large gauze strip. But clearly the sytem is still broken and requires much more maintenance to heal. With population growth annually between 1% and 3%, we're adding more consumption than we're making up for with such eco-friendly initiatives. I don't have any concrete numbers on this but it doesn't take rocket science to come to this conclusion.

Reviewing recent census data estimates, the city of Albuquerque is adding approximately half of the metro area's total population growth. That means that the other half is moving into the suburbs and exurbs surrounding ABQ. I haven't seen much in the way of infill as compared to the rows and rows of tract housing in Volcano Heights, the SW mesa, Rio Rancho, Placitas (with their minimum 1/4 acre lots), and Valencia County. Therefore, it is clear an overwhelming majority of this growth is migrating to the detached, single family homes that most of us dwell in. Additionally, our job growth is mostly occurring in areas such as Mesa del Sol and the north I-25 corridor. This compounds our travel difficulties by funneling everyone onto our three major arteries, I-25, I-40 and Paseo del Norte.

Periodically, articles are written concerning our increasingly time-consuming commutes, high gas prices, and thickening brown cloud. But year after year, citizens grumble about the issues and do nothing to amend the situation. Instead of demanding more necessary measures, we demand more roads. And instead of altering our neighborhoods to accommodate larger populations and a mix of uses, we demand our government to fix what we are individually guilty of creating.

The perfect recent examples of this are the Sheffield condos near UNM and the decade-long downtown revitalization effort. Central Avenue has historically and forever will remain our most dense corridor. In an effort to balance growth among infill and growth at the edge, neighborhoods will have to adapt and accept such necessary change. The corridor from UNM to downtown, in particular, must adapt. No longer should neighbors be able to cry solar rights when one lives in the center of a metropolitan region. It is nothing short of selfish. Those individuals, who may or may not claim to be more environmentally green than their suburban counterparts is equally responsible for adding to our car dependant, brown cloud inducing society by subscribing to such misoneism.

In the case of downtown, citizens grumble that downtown isn't the success its stakeholders set out to create and unnecessarily blame it on the city and Downtown Action Team (DAT) for its shortfalls. But at what point did citizens contribute to the effort? Ten years ago, approximately $25 million (this isn't a precise number but an close guesstimation) of taxpayer money was used when then mayor Baca stated the desire for revitalization. With that money, a couple parking garages, the Alvarado Transportation Center, and a taxpayer subsidized movie theatre were constructed. In response to that effort, the private sector has pitched in approximately a quarter million dollars for renovations and new construction throughout the area. Part of that was the result of a larger, national movement but it still accurately conveys the relation amongst private investment to municipal spending and infrastructural/catalyst type public investment.

Now, how does downtown revitalization, NIMBY-ism, and expensive condos tie into the environmentally sustainable city we all want to see you ask? Well, density is the "evil" word that no politician is willing to utter but is, begrudgingly to many people, the simple answer. An increase in density and revitalization through the construction of mixed-income housing, offices and inviting public spaces will make it possible for us to grow and sustain healthy, future populations in our region. Energy consumption for dense city dwellers is a fraction that of the suburban dwelling set. The adjoining walls and multiple levels of multi-family residential construction result in greatly reduced utility requirements. Population density results in increased public transportation requirements which allow people to live free of motor vehicles.

Now, imagine an Albuquerque with 1.5 million residents living in single family homes. Picture Austin traffic and a Phoenix-like aerial view. Now imagine that same 1.5 million residents but lets take half of that growth (1/2 of 600,000 ) and place them in mixed-use, denser neighborhoods. The result would resemble a mix of what we currently have with less traffic congestion than Austin due to growth at the edges, several dense neighborhoods that might resemble the north side of Chicago or much of San Francisco, and interconnecting mass transit. The more density that can be created will correlate into a greater reduction in energy consumption. Judging by what I know about "Burque's" love of it's views and sunshine, the manhattanization of our region will never be an issue. But a reduction in lawns and yards, a reduction in building heating and cooling loads (due to less wall exposures to the outside air), and less of a population dependant on air polluting vehicles would have an enormous affect on our sustainability. It would be foolish to continue rejecting 4-story buildings that lie one block away from our major pedestrian and commercial thoroughfares served by public transportation. To do so would be selfish and short sighted.


Tino said...

I agree completely! I'm sick of NIMBY's trying to block anything that has anything remotely approaching 'high density', then in the next breath complaining that we use too much fuel and whining about traffic. Can't have it both ways, people!

Philly said...

Preach, Brother PREACH!!