New Urbanism and Rainwater In Context: Making it Work in the Albuquerque, New Mexico region?



Note to Readers:

Formed in 2010, the Rainwater-in-Context Initiative is a sub-committee of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). In the United States, the CNU is the leading organization promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions.

“A key goal of the Rainwater-in-Context Initiative is to help get the United States on the correct path for sustainable rainwater/stormwater management practices,” states Colorado-based Paul Crabtree, a driving force behind the initiative.

In reflecting on key messages in Cross-Border Alignment: Connecting the Dots Between Land Use Planning, Development, Watershed Health AND Infrastructure Management, John Hooker offered his thoughts as presented below. He is a former mayor (2001-2004) of the Village of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico, a community of 6000. An architect, John Hooker is a member of the Rainwater-in-Context Initiative.


Albuquerque - aerial


Leading Change in Albuquerque

John hooker - mayor of los ranchos de albuquerqueI’m something of a hedgehog. I know my neighborhood. I expect that this story is fairly common,” writes John Hooker. “It is almost impossible to build a compact village center in the suburbanized (i.e. less than 3 dwelling units per acre) river valley north and south of Albuquerque due to stormwater management standards among other problems.”

What “Hedgehog” Means: Isaiah Berlin, a 20th Century English philosopher is famous for an essay he wrote called “The Hedgehog and The Fox”. Berlin based the essay on the writings of the Greek poet Archilochus, who said: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. To learn more, click here.


Development and Drainage: An Historical Perspective

Mainstreet is old US 66/85 that has not seen significant investment in 50 years. Property values are too low to justify large conventional stormwater management improvements to encourage compact commercial development like a traditional mixed-use village center – piping, retention facilities, lift stations, etc. It will take a long time for rainwater-in-context to change development patterns here though we make incremental improvements.”
“We have been very conventional in our approach to managing rainwater. Albuquerque was founded in the Rio Grande valley with mountains to the east of the city that can discharge an immense amout of water after a summer thunderstorm, and relatively high volcanic mesas to the west. The water from the mountains has to cross the city to reach the river.”

Albuquerque - concrete channel (180p)“To solve that problem, the city, county and flood control authority have built miles of concrete-lined channels which threaded through the largely developed city in the 1960s and 70s. The diversion channels reach the river upstream from Albuquerque. Many shortcuts were taken to minimize costs and land acquisitions.”

By and large the system has worked to protect older parts of the city in the valley from periodic flooding. One large remaining arroyo swings south of the city through a relatively undeveloped area and is only partly channelized. River water quality drops dramatically after each rainstorm.”
“Up through the 1920s to the 1950s, platting typically did not accomodate natural arroyos and drainways, forcing channelization and lining. Impervious paving increased the amount of rainwater to manage.”
“Post-mid-1970s on the newly developing west side of the river, several arroyos were left in a more natural form, but were channeled using terraced gabions to reduce and stabilize their paths and widths, slow the water and increase infiltration. New thinking.”


The Situation Today

“At the same time, the northeast area continues to build out. By some projections, the paved and impervious surface area will eventually overwhelm the drainage system and cause flooding in the valley north of the city again.”
“Where the rainwater management capacity is limited or already ‘full’, on-site detention ponds are favored, but some parcels use their parking lots for retention (mosquitos are a problem with standing water) – some of the east-west arterials are in the 100-year flood zone up to the top of curb, even with underground storm drains.”

“Grading, drainage and hydrology are a significant part of site plan reviews and approvals. One expensive project in the older part of Albuquerque uses large-diameter pipe under the parking structure for rainwater detention.”
“Most of the urbanized and suburbanized valley is too low and flat for gravity-run underground stormwater systems so on-site retention is the standard response. This will maintain suburban densities of less than 22% floor-area ratios (FAR) with large single-use, fenced, ponding areas.”

“Parking expectations will also limit densities. with 5 to 7 spaces per 1,000 square feet demanded by commercial developers, even with minimum parking standards eliminated.”

“The two biggest agencies involved in stormwater management across metro Albuquerque are the Albuquerque Arroyo Flood Control Authority, and the Albuquerque – Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. Irrigation and drainage in the valley is managed by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. The District accepts some stormwater in their drains, but very liitle overall.”


What Next?

“So back to being a hedgehog. I have worked for several years to get the zoning in my suburban village updated to approach New Urbanism and Transect concepts for a ‘village’ but we are far from creating a compact, walkable, mixed-use village center.”

“It is an infill and redevelopment challenge. Developers keep hitting the wall with the requirement that they detain ‘their’ rainwater on their parcels. Larger, cooperative areas could be created, but with existing development it is difficult to reach an agreement of shared improvements. Small lot owners are out of luck,” concludes John Hooker.


To Learn More:

Click on Cross-Border Alignment: Connecting the Dots Between Land Use Planning, Development, Watershed Health AND Infrastructure Management — We are working to better match rainwater/stormwater management to the development context through the integration of rainwater into all planning scales from the region to the building.


Posted February 2011