What’s happened to Albuquerque? Part 4: A city of edges

Is it time for a complete revamping of the goals Albuquerque has set for itself as a city?  Are we ready for a genuine city-wide discussion of what the current economic and environmental conditions mean for our future?

The great goals setting exercises of the l970s and l980s took place in an atmosphere of intense public interest and involvement in city issues.  By comparison, 21st century Albuquerque seems asleep at the wheel.

Today we have something called the “Indicators Progress Commission,” started by Mayor Martin Chavez in 2006, updated a year before he left office in 2008 and updated again during Mayor Richard Berry’s administration in 2010, when a goals forum of some 300 citizens was held. The latest update was in the form of a “community report card,” last year.

The city doesn’t seem to be buzzing with news of the results.

I’m sure those involved in these forums and updates approached their work with extreme seriousness. But the news of their efforts didn’t go very far. Perhaps it’s because we’ve only had one daily newspaper for the last five years.  But even in the l970s, that paper gave front page coverage to the work of various goals committees and commissions.

The “report card” dealt with such matters as public safety, “human and family development,” public infrastructure, environmental protection and “enhancement,” economic vitality, community and cultural engagement, and “governmental excellence and effectiveness.”

I’m a pretty close observer of what goes on in our city, and I have to admit the report card and these “goals” made little lasting impression on me.

I think it’s time, this mayoral election season, to call for a new Albuquerque Goals Convention. It should have thousands of people participating, people representing every neighborhood, every urban sector (downtown, north and south valleys, Atrisco, West Mesa, the Northeast Heights, Nob Hill,  the Zuni District, and the like), every economic development group from all political persuasions, every environmental NGO, all major industrial, military, and research organizations, and all regional jurisdictions, from Pueblos to irrigation districts, occupations of all sorts,  schools and institutions of higher education and representatives of all cultural institutions and art forms.

Thirty to forty years ago, goals efforts like that catalyzed a dialogue across the whole metro area. It was passionate. It was enormously useful. And it was unifying in the sense that people from all walks of life and all locations worked to process the city problems together.

And much good emerged from it – from open space protection to historic preservation, from neighborhood activism to downtown renovation, from parking lot forests to the creation of superb public museums and natural history enclaves.

But decades ago, and even two years ago, we were not aware that we are at the beginning of a life-changing alteration in the nature of our climate, an alteration that renders unreliable our greatest natural resource, water.

The question we have to ask today is does Albuquerque have the kind of leadership it needs to transform itself into an efficient, nurturing city that lives within its natural resource means, fosters well-paying local businesses, and celebrates its cultural and scenic wonders?  Those are certainly major questions for this year’s election.

But I wonder, sadly, sometimes if this is all just a hopeless dream of the l970s?

And then I realize that the ethos of growth at any cost is so ingrained in all of us that it causes me to forget that climate change has actually made creating a new kind of Albuquerque an absolute necessity.

We are living in an increasingly dystopian climate, and perhaps the way to survive it is to entertain what might have been seen as utopian 40 years ago, but has become very practical today – acknowledging our limitations and using them as a stimulus for innovation.

The first time I flew over Albuquerque more than 50 years ago, the city had a definite edge. From my window seat in a TWA Constellation, I could see the actual last light bulb before the timeless, black ocean of night spread out below me.

I’ve never forgotten that moment. I was used to living in Los Angeles which, even 55 years ago, never stopped its eastward march.

Writing about Albuquerque in the l970s and l980s, I came to realize that reclaiming it as a city with definite edges was probably not in the cards anymore. Few people in power seemed to understand that Albuquerque’s greatest asset as a city was that it exists in the magnificently wild land of New Mexico.

At the same time, I came to see that the edgelessness of the city represented to me a spectrum of  waste,  of undisciplined expansion and lost chances to craft Albuquerque into a unique modern place,  based on its venerable traditions and its  staggering natural beauty, rather than the Anyplace I feared it was becoming.

The basic question four decades ago is still the same today. Do we want to remain a failing replica of the Eisenhower era rooted in myths about endless oil, endless water, and endless growth, or do we want to become a city that is consciously crafted to meet the challenges of increasing heat, increasing gasoline prices, and increasing periods of withering dryness?

I’d opt for an Albuquerque whose residents are deeply attentive and involved in how the city is being developed, citizens who have learned how to live vibrant, well informed lives within limitations and constraints tied to the imperatives of landscape and water, citizens who care enough about where they live to overcome depression and cynicism about politics and take on the burdens of losing many but winning some urban battles that are important to them, citizens who want to know each other well enough to forgo bitter nastiness and embrace a true civil discourse.

If a new goals convention were held, I’d ask everyone to bring short list of goals most important to them to be tabulated and used as the first map of the discussion.  My short list would include:

• a mass transit system that works so efficiently many of us would give up using our automobiles and dispense with buying gasoline for anything but long hauls and travels;

• a city that creates attractive incentives for developers  and contractors to work on infill developments as opposed to sprawl, incentives that would honor craftsmanship and creative design in the context of existing buildings, neighborhoods and infrastructure;

• a city that devises a means to tie its population growth to its water supply and charge water customers a fair market value, in other words a high price, for water on a sliding scale of means;

• a city that recycles its gray and black water at least twice and perhaps three times before it goes into the river. As Albuquerque still is drinking only 20% to 40% river water and is likely to use less in an extended drought, it must recycle its precious groundwater as much as possible before adding it to the downstream flow. Recycling ground water three times would triple its availability  and reduce pumping an equivalent amount while still eventually adding groundwater to the surface flow of the Rio Grande;

• a city that focuses on ending childhood homelessness, poverty, and malnutrition, a compound of miseries that afflict thousands of our young people;

• a city with a civil, psychologically mature, well paid, and accountable police force;

• a city that gives its cultural institutions and libraries high priority in its funding cycle;

• a city that is solar and wind power friendly, giving incentives to install personal decentralized energy systems;

• and a city that is pedestrian friendly where each major intersection, such as Stanford and Central, or Louisiana and Menaul, or any  major roundabout, is designed as much for walkers, fast and slow, as it is for cars and speed abatement.

I could go on, of course. But this is my short list for a goals convention.

Now is the time for a major public airing of ideas and concerns. The world is changing around us. The overwhelming question is are we going to change fast enough to adapt to these new conditions? Are we going to prevail as a vibrant center of culture and commerce, or will great parts of Albuquerque become sand-blown ghost towns from which astute residents, aware of the times, have fled?

This piece was written by:

V.B. Price's photo

V.B. Price

V.B. Price is editor and co-founder of New Mexico Mercury. He is the former editor of Century Magazine and New Mexico Magazine, former city editor of the New Mexico Independent, and long-time columnist for the late Albuquerque Tribune. His latest book is The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project. He retired as the editor of the Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series at UNM Press in 2010. He has taught in the UNM Honors Program since l986.

Contact V.B. Price

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