LOOKING TO THE PAST FOR SOLUTIONS FOR THE FUTURE
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
I have looked forward to this day for seven years. Here I am, having just arrived in Mendoza, Argentina where I’ll be spending the next nine months of my life. This time will be dedicated to living, conducting research, and exploring countless aspects of environment, design, and culture that make this city and country truly special. I will be using this blog to share many of these experiences with anyone who has the patience to sit through my often, verbose, ramblings in hopes of illuminating the many parallels that exists between the cities of Mendoza and Albuquerque, New Mexico to help foster mutual understanding between nations and cultures. It will also serve to provide evidence of successful sustainable planning practices being utilized in an arid city to help support and promote the adoption of similar practices in arid regions of the U.S. and other arid regions around the world.
I invite you to travel with me on this journey. While most of the content will be centered around the theme of integration of water and natural systems (green infrastructure and sustainable development) into the urban environment, I invite you to participate in this cultural exchange as we discuss other aspects of culture and travel as well. So, please, feel free to leave you comments and questions. I’ll be keeping up an Instagram account where you can follow along with photos of my daily experiences and adventures (see link at the bottom of this page). I very much look forward to sharing this journey with you, and for now, I think it’s important to tell you about how the saga begins and how this day came to be to help set the stage for what’s to come.
In the moment I first saw it, I had no idea that it would lead to a life-long fascination with arid regions and would take me all over the world in pursuit of knowledge and inspiration. It was late and I was already a few hours deep into an exhaustive Google search when suddenly, as I was about to give up, it appeared. It was a photo of a city street flanked by small ornate water channels along both sides that appeared to support a network of massive street trees and a large green space, a condition quite different than that typically found in the United States. It is just what I had been looking for – evidence of an alternative model for developing arid cities that leverages the environmental benefits of natural systems to improve the quality of the urban environment. I had no idea that it would lead to a life-long fascination with arid regions and would take me all over the world in pursuit of knowledge and inspiration.
After some rough Spanish translations and a few Wikipedia consultations, I discovered that I was looking at a photo of a typical urban street in Mendoza, Argentina – a high dry arid city with many parallels to Albuquerque, New Mexico (USA) and these unusual water channels were called acequias (see photo below). This photo is unusual as acequias rarely exist in the urban context anymore and it demonstrates value for the integration of ecological systems in the built environment.
Acequias (pronounced ah-sek-yas) are networks of irrigation ditches, having names for each hierarchy and size, that have traditionally been used for diverting water from upland water sources to agricultural fields. They brought the water, provided cooling effects, and were often the passageways that connected communities. Often formed from earthen berms and lined with trees, this heritage infrastructure traditionally served as essential infrastructure for providing many agricultural, social, and environmental benefits to early settlements. The history and culture of acequias is a common link between arid cities around the world and a key component to mutual understanding. In New Mexico, acequias are typically relegated to the agricultural/rural areas and have been erased in urban areas by rapid urbanization. This continues to be a threat to their existence. See also the New Mexico Acequia Association.
The photo from Mendoza spoke to me because it offered some validation for supporting an alternative model that challenges the paradigm of development practices that has influenced the way we have designed cities in the U.S. for decades. This idea entered my mind during my work with the U.S. Geological Survey where I spent the majority of my time wading in urban stream channels across the country collecting water data. Many of these channels, particularly those in urban areas were quite repulsive, neglected, seemingly forgotten spaces (and in Florida, often filled with huge alligators!). These corridors, often closed-off by fences, seemed more like scary alleyways than streams. I thought to myself, “if I had a stream near my property, I would want to be able to see it” and “if I had a nice green corridor along a stream, I’d want to walk that way, not on the street”. As this thought lingered, I noticed each time I was in a new urban stream with these conditions, I was mentally visualizing what more it could be. I wanted to know more about how I could help change these spaces to be coveted public spaces rather than neglected alleyways.
The Development Paradigm
At this time, I had never really thought much about the development of cities or infrastructure, though I grew up wanting to design houses and courtyards. As I explored this notion, I learned a lot about how urban infrastructure is typically designed (like roads, drainage channels, etc.), why these conditions exist, and much more.
Basically, when it comes down to it, our built environment reflects cultural values and, in the U.S., there is great value placed on efficiency, liability (or protecting yourself from being liable), and public safety.
This is most apparent in the more arid regions of the country where there is a conundrum between the fear of not having enough water (drought) and having too much water (floods). This results in many urban conditions being highly-engineered, full of concrete, and placing water out of sight and out of mind. We construct elaborate systems for removing water from the built environment as fast as possible while at the same time we build reservoirs to store water nearby.
Most of these highly engineered systems perform their function incredibly well; however, to achieve such efficiency, other systems and functions are relegated as less important and are often damaged or destroyed in the wake of this practice. For example, most of the urban environment is paved with concrete or asphalt as they are highly durable surfaces that make driving around easy and prevent any water from remaining on the surface. But what is lost when we do this? Well, when we pave everything with impervious materials, we alter the natural hydrology of an area by cutting off or eliminating any percolation of stormwater into the soils and into the natural or ecological systems that depend on this water, like trees. As water has to go somewhere, it is pushed from one place to another resulting in flooding and eventually creating other damaging environmental effects downstream.
Additionally, these practices create very inhospitable growing environments for trees and often remove ecological systems entirely that could otherwise offer many benefits for improving the urban environment. When we do consider them, we do not often provide adequate conditions for them to survive. As unhealthy trees and vegetation are expensive to maintain and replace, the cycle continues to devalue these elements, condemning them as liabilities, and perpetuates this unsustainable paradigm.
As a consequence of many decades of development under these practices, or this current paradigm of development, many cities around the world have begun to experience major environmental problems such as increasing urban temperatures (otherwise known as the Heat Island Effect), decreased aquifer recharge and increased frequency and intensity of flooding (this is very evident in recent events like the massive floods in Houston, Texas several years ago), and a decrease in overall health and comfort for all urban inhabitants. I think it’s safe to say that many of our cities, particularly those in arid regions, have become less walkable, less comfortable, and less sustainable and are in great need of new ways of thinking to address the future.
Taking a Stance
With this knowledge I began to understand that the conditions I was observing in these urban streams was not so much the missed opportunity by any one group of people, rather, the result of a culture or paradigm of development. I wanted to know how I could help make a change in this culture. I then discovered that many others shared my interests in these issues. They are called landscape architects.
Landscape architects have the ability to help solve many of our most complex problems regarding the interface of the built and natural environment as they are trained to approach these issues from a multifaceted and interdisciplinary approach. This holistic view of an issue positions them as excellent strategists and leaders, whereas traditionally, solutions to these problems have been led by or heavily influenced by professions that have a much more narrow and exacting focus (also highly important none the less). Unfortunately, this narrow-minded approach has contributed to the paradigm we are talking about needing to change.
Today, landscape architects, along with allied professionals and agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), are leading the charge in influencing a shift in these outdated practices of development. This movement, most commonly referred to as green infrastructure (GI) or low-impact development (LID) is the intentional practice of integrating the functions of nature and ecological services with engineered functions (commonly referred to as grey infrastructure). This concept is often as simple as allowing water from the street to drain into a landscaped area rather than sending it into the storm drain first and can be as complex as planning an entire city around a green space that functions like a sponge to absorb stormwater runoff.
Change of Scenery
Building from my work in environmental science and coupled with a tendency to be a visual thinker, I found my calling in this field and decided to pursue a master’s degree at the University of New Mexico to join the GI/LID effort. When I tell people that I moved from the East Coast to New Mexico, they often ask why, in slight disbelief. There are many reasons for this (I may dig into these in later posts), but the primary driver for this decision brings us back to the photo of the acequia in New Mexico.
To me, the photo of the acequia reflected an ethic or culture that values the integration of nature and infrastructure as a community construct, much like the vision I had when I was standing in those gross streams. I began my studies in hopes of discovering new ways to use this heritage acequia infrastructure to serve as GI/LID within the urban context of Albuquerque, NM. I soon discovered several issues I did not expect.
Many of the acequias, which had once been an essential community asset, have long since been destroyed and buried as urbanization progressed. They are now relegated primarily to agricultural and rural areas and do not exist in the urban context.
Many of the principles of GI and LID that work well in other, more temperate regions (think Portland, Oregon, do not work well, if at all, in arid regions. This is mostly due to extreme differences in rain fall (very little and infrequent) and fewer organics in the soils.
The practices of GI and LID that are widely adopted in other cities, are not well established nor welcomed in Albuquerque. This is likely due to a shortage in reliable regionally-adapted case studies, precedents, and metrics. And, in my opinion, a culture of reluctance to try new approaches.
Several organizations had already been formed to promote these practices in arid regions as well as organizations that fight to protect the acequias, all of which seemed to have insufficient resources (data, funding, influence) to have a major effect on policy and face continuous battles to carryout out their missions.
It just won’t work here
During graduate school, I focused on identifying more arid-appropriate GI/LID practices to help support these efforts. I also became more involved in understanding the culture and traditions surrounding acequias in New Mexico. One day, these two interests converged and changed the course of my life. Can you guess what that moment was? Remember the first photo from above? That’s right – the photo of the street in Mendoza. The idea of applying the principles of this model and reviving the presence and identity of acequias in downtown Albuquerque quickly became the foundation for my thesis and academic path.
I had the great fortune of receiving a Tinker Field Research Grant (FRG) from the UNM Latin American and Iberian Institute (LAII) which allowed me to travel to Mendoza for a month in 2013 to see the urban acequias first-hand. There, I saw countless examples of urban design that intentionally integrates the built and natural environment, GI/LID, and sustainable design. There were also plentiful examples of water infrastructure celebrated in the public realm rather than hidden away from sight.
Perhaps more importantly, I began to notice many similarities between New Mexico and Mendoza. As discussed above, the acequias are a direct link between the histories of development and culture of both cities. Both cities are located in arid regions receiving very little annual rainfall and struggle with water planning issues. To me, this was the most important aspect of my experience there as it illuminated the potential of Mendoza to be a valuable case study for successful precedents of GI/LID practices in an arid city.
Upon my return to New Mexico, I gave a presentation at a local ASLA innovative-stormwater-event discussing the examples I brought back from Mendoza. Many in attendance were design professionals including architects and landscape architects, water managers, engineers, and others involved with developing the city and supporting sustainable practices. Although the presentation was well received, there were many questions about the mechanics of how and why the practices in Mendoza are performed. “What do they do about maintenance?”. “How do they prevent people from falling into the water channels?” Many questions about liability, maintenance, and rationale. At the time, I was armed only with knowledge of the concepts and was unable to answer many of these questions. I was left with a very clear message from the audiences’ feedback.
The message was, “these concepts are great, but we just can’t do that here”.
While many people in this position would just accept the feedback and move on with their life, I took it as a challenge. To me, what this message is really saying is, “we are afraid to try new things without having certainty they will work and we need data and proof to feel this way”. So, I got to work on getting this information. It was clear that availability and access to information on green infrastructure was needed in New Mexico if we were going to change things.
A group of folks passionate about ushering in arid-adapted GI/LID practices, “green infrastructure ninjas”, as we like to consider ourselves, took the first steps in addressing this need and created the Arid LID Coalition. The Coalition is a group dedicated to providing GI/LID resources for city planners, designers, and policy makers to advance climate-appropriate development practices. Similar organizations in arid regions of the U.S., such as the Watershed Management Group, have had great influence on their communities regarding GI/LID practices. We saw it as an opportunity to pull together the data and work being performed by many disparate groups in the area to formalize a centralized and comprehensive repository for all things arid GI/LID related to make the information we did have easily accessible to practitioners.
It was truly rewarding to watch this small group develop and slowly watch our efforts begin to warm the hearts of the neigh-sayers. Yet, I couldn’t get those questions out of my mind about the acequias in Mendoza. “What if I could answer those questions?”, I thought. “Would I learn something new? Would it make a difference?” “What more could we learn from each other?”