Moving Images – Part 3 – Terminator Urbanism

Terminator Urbanism

A couple of years back, a colleague of mine took me on a tour of a project he was working on out at Mesa del Sol, a new development on the South side of Albuquerque beyond the airport. With only a vague knowledge that our firm was involved in some planning there, I rode shotgun South through town to the last highway exit before the Indian reservations and empty desert take over. The road up to Mesa del Sol is one of those works of civil engineering that look like a Michael Heizer landform sculpture, with long flowing embankments on both sides that cut dramatically through the terrain. The surreal effect is enhanced by a huge tile covered snake sculpture in the median, but none of this prepared me for what I saw a little further up the hill. Along the side of the road there were several burned out car carcasses scattered indiscriminately. More sculpture?. “They are filming for the next Terminator movie up here”. The effect was chilling. As we topped the mesa there was a moment when the dead cars, the vast horizon and scale of the scene completely confounded the idea that any development was going on. Was this a growing civilization or an enclave in the desert, a last thirsty gasp of a society on the way down?

When I was in architecture school in the early 90’s, one of our main debates was around New Urbanism and the place of Neo-Traditional town planning in the profession. The founders of that movement had successfully created a community called Seaside on the Florida gulf coast with all the elements of a traditional small town: a town square surrounded by shops, with pedestrian friendly streets and relatively densely packed housing with front porches. It still is a pilgrimage site for architecture students and the initiated, but there is no need for you to go out of your way: you can see this community up close from the comfort of your living room. It serves as the setting for the movie The Truman Show, where Jim Carey is held captive in a picture perfect faux community, raised from birth for a television show from which there is no escape. The town is vibrant and telegenic to the extreme; reality but more so, well suited to this nightmare vision of perfect community where everybody is your good neighbor and the town throbs like Mayberry on steroids.

Back in the real world, what are these communities really after? Getting us out of our cars is one main objective. A quote from Jeff Spec, one of the movements main advocates characterizes the current situation as follows:

“How, by any possible stretch of the imagination, could it be considered efficient, healthy, or even acceptable to have spent the better part of a society’s wealth constructing a national landscape in which most citizens require a one-ton, poison-belching prosthetic device to satisfy their daily needs?”

We have built a society in which we are trapped by our cars, and New Urbanist development seeks to free us. But in our current development process, the hard part is always the jump start. Whether you are trying to just build a few houses or to plan a new way of living, if you don’t have the power of a Housman in Paris or a Robert Moses in New York it is much easier to jump out to the fringe, where the NIMBY’s aren’t lined up to stop your every turn and connection. So even when looking for density, we tend to jump out to the perimeter, where the land is cheap and you can start fresh.

Even with the best of intentions, once you are away from the crowds the question always becomes what to build first: the housing? Retail and commercial? The transit connections and parking? In Santa Fe alone (a metropolitan area of 100,000 or so) we have a Petri dish of New Urbanist fragments including Rancho Viejo, Oshara Village, Las Solares, Zia Station, The Railyard, Aldea, Tierra Contenta, and The Galisteo Basin Preserve. The variations in type include: 4 with commercial plazas struggling for tenants; 3 with rail stations planned, but with limited ridership possibilities; and 2 with sustainable design themes, but difficulty selling density at their remote sites. All are fragments with major parts of the equation missing: planning only gets you so far.

But no single development in the Santa Fe area could match the scale or ambition of the Mesa del Sol project to our South, which is planned to be bigger than our entire city. From their web site:

• 20 square miles of land
• 18 million square feet of office, industrial and retail space.
• Thousands of new jobs for the Albuquerque metro area.
• 37,500 homes for 100,000 residents.
• 3,200 acres for parks and open space.
• Numerous schools and ongoing education facilities.
And one chance to do it right.

Noble sentiments, but a very long road. Is this type of development really the best option in our current situation? One indication is that neither Mesa del Sol nor any of the New Urbanist communities around Santa Fe seem to qualify for LEED points associated with good site selection – the densities are just too low. And by LEED standards, planning alone doesn’t cut it: you must have real, built density with actual businesses, housing, and institutions in place. With urban infill sites, people get out of their cars right away, whereas countless car trips will take place to these remote outposts before the walkable visions become reality.

I can’t time travel in my Terminator skin to know for sure, but if your new sustainable development has elements that look like a set for a post-apocalyptic thriller, something is probably wrong, at least for the foreseeable future. But in 50 years, who can say?

Mesa del Sol

Jeff Spec in defense of New Urbanism

The Truman Show