Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

The promise of public space

What’s not to love about April in New Mexico? The days are longer, the weather is warmer, and optimism is in the air. No surprise then that April – a time when more and more people return to enjoy parks, playgrounds, trails and gardens, is also World Landscape Architecture Month – a month-long international celebration of the landscape architecture profession.

As a landscape architect living and working in the Land of Enchantment, this coming month always reminds me of the deep and enduring connections that we, as individuals and entire communities, have to outdoor spaces and places. During recent periods of lockdowns and social isolation, many of us have relied on outdoor spaces for safe social interaction, shared experience and personal respite. From small residential courtyards to neighborhood parks, many of the outdoor spaces we cherish and depend on are created by landscape architects. Landscape architects also have a hand in trails in the bosque and trailheads in the Sandia Mountains.

The Trust for Public Lands reports that Albuquerque boasts one of the highest percentages of area devoted to parks in the United States: 23%! Our city has nearly twice as much public space as most other cities in our nation. But opportunities to leverage the potential of our existing public spaces are often overlooked. As many of our older spaces shrink or fall into disrepair, we must ask how we can make better use of existing spaces to satisfy emerging needs and demand.

Rehabilitating public space is an opportunity for local government, business and community partners to work together in reimagining outdated civic spaces while building community ownership and pride in the process. We’ve done it before. It was a community partnership that transformed Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza from a large expanse of empty, paved space into an activity hub and downtown destination.

When Downtown ABQ MainStreet received a grant from Southwest Airlines to modernize Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza, they collaborated with Project for Public Spaces, the city, the Albuquerque Convention Center, local residents, artists and University of New Mexico students. This grassroots community-driven effort set the stage for a major renovation led by city leaders. The various stakeholders worked together to identify what they wanted the new space to contain. The design, done in collaboration with community partners, created spaces of varying scales including space for spontaneous play and areas for more structured, planned entertainment.

After the renovation, Civic Plaza filled the void for a family-friendly public space for play in an area that had been essentially a “playground desert.” Now, visitors gather at the improved Civic Plaza for community celebrations, art and food markets, movie nights, performances, political marches and more.

Demand for quality public space in cities across the United States is on the rise and not diminishing any time soon. In 2020, New Mexico alone saw a 10% increase in outdoor activities. Engaging community-driven partnerships in the revitalization of existing public spaces can support our city to meet a growing demand for quality public space.

The task of creating a healthier city, and more livable neighborhoods within our city, belongs to all of us. On this month especially, I’m reminded that as landscape architects we are uniquely poised to rise to this challenge.

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