Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Seattle Model

Having lived here for almost three months now, I have found it more difficult to relate the built environment of Albuquerque with the Seattle area. Dallas seemed much easier to compare. The relatively flat landscape, the pretty skyline but sleepy downtown, and the prevalence of suburban neighborhoods. Maybe it's the trees and varying geography of the Pudget Sound region? One thing that has shocked me, however, is the strong ties I have seen between my beloved Duke City and the Emerald City. First there is the empty box from Los Poblanos in the basement of my building at the UW. Next, there is the plethera of Land of Enchantment license plates. So many in fact, I'm pretty sure I have seen more NM plates here than I did when I was in Dallas. This fact shocks me considering Dallas is 1/3rd as far as Seattle. What was my point? Oh right, relationship.

Albuquerque seems to be right on the fence when it comes to economic and social issues. As a 20-something in Albuquerque, I tended to find other liberal, environmentally conscious, atheistic, gen x'ers which the Northwest is known for having in large quantities. Coupled with a rather sizable population of REI members who were ready to get out of the city to soak up some mountain and river goodness when there was free time to be had. But still, there was always an obvious presence of conservatism and almost Texas-like economic development defined by cheap land.

After my first quarter of courses, something I have learned is that a city represents the values of its inhabitants. I'm not sure how I feel about this given our overabundance of strip malls and parking lots. Our sleepy downtown. Our multi-nodal city with little to no relationship and seemingly zero planning. Too often I read about the local pride in our low density growth pattern that reflects the far-as-the-eye-can-see geography. These facts illustrate an abundance of opportunity for improvement. But what exactly are the values of the community?

While Seattle appears to be a pioneer of healthy, urban initiatives, it has quite a colorful history of political and social struggles. While the city claims to be diverse, it is similar to Albuquerque in that it's predominantly a bi-cultural city. The city actually has a quiet history of segregation. Until more recently, economic booms have tended to aid in the city's ethnic cleansing, if you will. Additionally, many people forget how spread out metro Seattle really is. The suburbs stretch north and south quite a long ways with typical low-rise sprawl. But this is hardly noticeable from the city proper where you're surrounded by dense, Capital Hill, Queen Ann hill, and the Sound. Much of this area is easily accessible by bike and by bus and much of it appears clean, safe, and again, dense.

As with every region in the country, and world, Albuquerque now has the opportunity to lay the framework for smarter, future growth in this slow economy. But this framework must be defined by the same community that has provided much of what we know as our ABQ. While the RailRunner provides the incentive and backbone for a positive shift, it remains to be seen if we've learned from our past. The knowledge of a warming atmosphere and straining natural resources exists. But will we choose a more equitable, livable, and environmentally sustainable form of development?

Models like Dallas, Denver and Seattle are prototypes for us to study our likely future. Each one of them is a dim reflection of our eventual city. So, instead of choosing to be stubborn and going through the growing pains of traffic congestion, social stratification, smog, etc., why can't we jump straight to the solutions these cities have begun to embrace?


abqdwell said...

Having lived in the east coast it's really evident that trees can mask a lot of poor human development. One of ABQs upsides — its far as the eye can see landscape — is also one of its downsides: hard to hide the miles of crappy car centric development. I think if you judge ABQ from 2000 or so on, we are heading in the right direction (two steps forward, one back of course). The just started development near the downtown transit center and the large project on 2nd and Lomas are encouraging. As is the conversion of Silver Avenue from San Mateo to 14th street. One more gas crises and we may really get it.

abqdwell said...

I meant to type "to a bike centric lane" after "14th street."