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‘It’s a lost art’: Cooling down Albuquerque’s streets in the face of climate change

 A tree shadow along one of Albuquerque's downtown neighborhoods
Bryce Dix / KUNM
A tree shadow along one of Albuquerque's downtown neighborhoods

During Albuquerque’s summer season, some neighborhoods clock almost 17 degrees hotter than others. That’s according to a report released by CAPA strategies last month.

From planting trees in lower-income neighborhoods to changing the ways we build and design our streets, there are a number of ways the city can cool down these neighborhoods in the face of climate change.

Journalist Sam Bloch spends a lot of time thinking about shade. It’s the title of his upcoming book and he's been reporting on heat from climate change and its effects on our daily lives—specifically, how urban shade in Los Angeles reflects income disparities.

“Urban heat inequalities are all over America and all over the world," Bloch said. "The major factor has to do with greening and vegetation and tree shade.”

This is just as obvious when driving around Albuquerque. Wealthier neighborhoods see vastly more canopy tree cover, like in Huning Castle. In contrast, just across the Rio Grande, tree cover is minimal.

So, what do areas look like without shade?

“A lot of asphalt, a lot of concrete, a lot of cars, and a lot of sun,” Bloch said.

Data from a report released this past month from the city of Albuquerque corroborates this. The hottest areas were lower-income neighborhoods near downtown and interstate corridors, places that have lots of infrastructure for vehicles, not people.

“Shade is not prioritized in the planning of cities,” Bloch said. “You see that when you walk around. You see the way there are not enough trees, the way that roads and streets are way too open even in parts of the world like Albuquerque where, for a long time, people were designing for quite the opposite.”

Albuquerque’s Parks and Recreation Director David Simon agrees that trees play a major role in the city.

“Planting trees and expanding canopy coverage is one of the most effective ways we can help against the negative impacts of climate change and help cool down our cities,” Simon said.

The department contracts and employs teams that are dedicated to planting and maintaining a list of drought tolerant trees scattered throughout the city. They said the investment is worth every penny.

On the surface, planting trees can be fairly inexpensive, ranging widely depending on the tree type and area. But, it’s after a tree is planted in the ground that things get pricey.

“Trees are nature, but nature isn’t free,"Bloch said. "We need to treat nature like any other infrastructure and that means maintenance and that means money."

Inequities in tree cover are also on the radar of the Biden administration. The proposed Build Back Better Plan dedicates $3 billion to get more greenery planted across the country.

But Bloch said it’s not enough.

An urban forest equity report in the city of Los Angeles shows that it would take more than $664 million dollars to plant more trees on public land.

By that measure, $3 billion dollars won’t go far across the whole country.

Bloch suggests we need to think bigger when we fund green infrastructure, like a sales tax that would contribute to funding tree plantings across the city.

It’s not all about the trees, though.

Moises Gonzales is an associate professor of urban design at the University of New Mexico. He says Albuquerque’s older architecture and design is a textbook example of areas centered around civic spaces that also cool people down.

“Whether it’s a Spanish-Mexican plaza or it’s a little placita or courtyard… Cities aren’t doing those sorts of design features that would have been a classic urban design more from a historic sense,” Gonzales said.

Along with the modernization of building techniques, some older, mostly lower-income, multi-family neighborhoods were forgotten when planning for infrastructure. Gonzales uses Albuquerque’s International District as an example.

“You have a lot of apartment buildings with parking lots and then you have the non-investment from the City of Albuquerque from the public realm because there’s less parks there,” Gonzales said. “It doesn’t have the infrastructure to support pedestrian activities.”

It’s a tough sell, but there is some hope of fixing the city’s historical neglect of these areas.

Gonzales said there are a number of areas near the International District that can be used as “detention ponds' or areas that provide drainage and greenery. He said we also need to create requirements for apartment owners to maintain their buildings and help develop an urban forest street canopy by planting more trees on their properties.

Kit Carson Park near Tingley Beach in Albuquerque, NM is a great example of a "detention pond"—providing shade, drainage, and greenery for the area.
Bryce Dix / KUNM
Kit Carson Park near Tingley Beach in Albuquerque, NM is a great example of a "detention pond"—providing shade, drainage, and greenery for the area.

“Everything from building orientation, the way we organize streets, the way we organize courtyards, the way we organize vegetation,” Gonzales said. “It’s a lost art”

And, as warming continues and our summers get hotter, the clock is now ticking for us to find ways to live in a world that’s quickly changing before our eyes.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.