Albuquerque is a conundrum. As V.B. Price discussed recently in the Mercury, Albuquerque is “an invisible city, in reality a kind of Shangri-La of hidden natural splendors and cultural riches … still largely unknown to itself.” Yet even people who don’t know that New Mexico is a state have heard of Albuquerque, either from Bugs Bunny or just from the city having one of those peculiar names, like Timbuktu or Bora Bora. Quirky Albuquerque is on the map, even if some people don’t know where exactly.
Albuquerque is a city of possibilities and delusions. And all too often, it’s a drive-thru city for folks headed to Santa Fe or the ski slopes of Taos.
Mayor Richard Berry, to his credit, wants to remedy that situation. His office recently put forth a series of proposed projects and initiatives, called “ABQ the Plan.” Among these proposals are a renovation of the Bosque and a fifty-mile loop around the city. The City of Albuquerque webpage dedicated to updates on the Plan states, “This overall plan will honor our proud heritage while we move forward as a vibrant, modern city.”
Translation: it’s well and good that the people of Albuquerque have a cultural heritage, but that heritage restricts the city from progressing (read: growing) along with its peers across the West. So the Plan will tip a hat to our past, and otherwise try to ditch it like a bad blind date.
Implied meanings aside, the Plan’s front website actually gives a skewed impression of the Plan’s goals. Anyone who has been to Phoenix and reads the phrase “fifty mile loop” likely pictures a ring road with concrete walls that divides neighborhoods and rushes commuters past places of potential interest—all in the erroneous name of reducing traffic congestion.
But the proposed loop isn’t that at all. When I clicked beyond the front webpage for the Plan, I learned that the fifty mile loop would be, more or less, a recreational path around the city. Certain stretches would be amenable to joggers and dog-walkers, and most of it effective for bicyclists. The possibilities thrill me. How wonderful would such a network of trails and paths be for the residents of Albuquerque!
The problem with this part of the Plan is that its scope is both limited and misguided. Throughout the Plan, there’s some great stuff for cyclists and other outdoor movers—but not enough. There’s not enough there for the cultivation of Albuquerque, either! Not surprisingly, these two shortcomings are intimately connected.
I’m a recent convert to the two-wheeled lifestyle, and I’m still awakening to how I interact with an environment much differently on a bicycle than in a car. Every time I come back to Albuquerque now, I’m struck by how inaccessible my hometown really is. For serious cyclists to get anywhere in town, they really need a map of the convoluted bike routes, constant awareness of traffic, plenty of time, and cat-like reflexes to combat the notoriously inattentive drivers. People who aren’t so dedicated, but would still like to ride their bikes to the grocery store and work anyway, are up against the city’s sprawl and trademark gradient. Thanks to the slope and the distance, a regular citizen bicyclist must already be in excellent physical condition to ride a bike across town!
A recreational ring road is a fantastic idea. But so is enabling a resident to support her local economy, reduce her carbon footprint, cut the expenses on her automobile, and strengthen her physical fitness. (We could be a rockin’ bus community, if the service were only in place, but that’s another story.)
Yes, Albuquerque is a “bicycle friendly community,” with bike trails and even some occasionally-recognized bike lanes. But the city is not built to be a bicycling community. In a bicycling community, residences would be located near jobs. Employers would be located near markets and locally-owned businesses. Automotive traffic would be wildly reduced, because practically everything a person regularly needs would be accessible to short-range walking and riding. Using a bicycle for daily transport would actually be practical.
A city needs to make daily life more accessible, enriching, and supportive for its residents before it worries about catering to tourists. If each Albuquerque neighborhood could cultivate its own voice, style, sustainability, and economy through local businesses, local art, and local entertainment—all accessible to and purely for the sake of nearby residents—then we’d have a scene, man. We’d have several distinct and vibrant districts that would attract visitors and keep them coming back.
Such liveliness would keep Albuquerque’s various cultures thriving and even moving forward. It would provide more to the city’s residents than altering the Bosque or pushing our cyclists, joggers, and (yes) tourists to the edge of town would. More tourists would come to Albuquerque in order to experience each of our burgeoning boroughs, rather than driving straight through to other locales.
But the emphasis couldn’t be tourism. The happening local culture, on top of a catered recreational system, should be for the sake of the folks living here. I guarantee that New Orleans doesn’t have po’ boys and jazz just for the visitors, and that Nashville didn’t become the hive of country music just because of the tourist dollars.
A culture doesn’t happen because a marketing team draws up a new image for the city. Concepts like ABQ the Plan are delusional to think so, and some of Albuquerque’s recent “developments” have been similarly misguided. The whole ABQ Uptown project is a case-in-point for the imposition of a false “neighborhood” where the money spent goes to corporate offices in other states or countries. When the shopping district first opened, it wouldn’t even take lease applications from small local businesses! Furthermore, the district is pedestrian-friendly only insofar as people are free to window shop. Those who frequent ABQ Uptown are not free to shape the neighborhood. It is not truly theirs.
Cultures are natural human ecosystems, and for one to grow, individuals must be able to interact with their immediate surroundings. If they can’t interact with their urban environment as they pass through it... well, they just pass through it.
Albuquerque is a wildly unique place, and it has the potential to thrive in its quirkiness as much as New Orleans or Nashville. But the city would have to become, in a way, smaller, which I recognize goes against the pioneer spirit of many of our mayors, past and present. The city would have to grow back in on itself, become denser. It would have to make room in the zoning code for local restaurants, shops, salons, cafés, offices, and markets just around the corner from houses and apartments. It would likely have to address some of the main thoroughfares through the city to encourage walkers and cyclists to brave the clogged concrete arteries.
The best plan for Albuquerque may be to view itself as a living organism. Arteries and veins connect to the heart. The way the city is built now, the main roads serve to get from home to work, from school to store. But what if they simply connected Albuquerque’s many hearts? Imagine Burqueños contributing to their neighborhoods, each district its own pulsing, evolving community.
The diversity of our city could become a geographic reality, and our mayor could have his dream come true. All we need is the freedom to move around on our own two feet and our own two wheels! Albuquerque would become a vibrant, modern city: one that could sustain itself well into the future, drawing tourists and enticing locals to stay. However, the residents can’t truly begin the legwork until the city government takes on the heart-work needed to make the concept a reality.
(Creative Commons feature image via Flickr by Christopher Raff)