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New Mexico was better at city planning before it became a state
Pueblo Indians and Spanish settlers built some of the most sought-after, walkable, and communal urban areas in New Mexico. Why did we stop building like that?
Across New Mexico, you can see the remnants of thought-out urbanism developed by the native Puebloan people and Spanish settlers. The old Pueblos and Spanish cities in New Mexico were built with efficiency and community in mind. To this day, the communal and aesthetic way in which old New Mexican cities and Pueblos were built gives residents and tourists a beautiful, walkable environment to explore the unique local culture.
Cities like Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Mesilla, Taos, and many Pueblo nations have a central plaza surrounded by mixed-use buildings, and human-scaled brick streets meandering through the district. The attention to community-shared spaces is, in my opinion, what makes old New Mexican cities so charming… European even.
New Mexico doesn’t build cities like this anymore. While the historic districts remain, and Pueblo Revival architecture is alive and well, cities expanded outward from their historical districts with large roads, fast food parking lots, and single-family detached housing. Just like the rest of car-centric America, New Mexico has become dominated by cars, and the thought-out historic districts are a mere Adobe Disneyland for tourists.
Today’s post is about what makes old New Mexican urbanism so charming, how New Mexico missed its opportunity to expand it, and what we can do to salvage our poor city planning from the last 100 years.
Spanish and Pueblo styles meet
When the Spanish first arrived in New Mexico, they found a network of towns they called ‘Pueblos’ that had been settled by the local natives for centuries. Spread throughout the Northern region of the state, the Pueblo people were sedentary - some of the only native groups in North America that didn’t migrate seasonally. The Pueblo Indians were also peaceful people - making them easy to mingle with and (attempt to) convert to Catholicism. The Pueblo people build their villages using nearby materials, and the Spanish learned how to build structures in New Mexico from the natives. The Spanish took these tools and constructed downtown Santa Fe, Old Town Albuquerque, and many other historic districts around the State that we still have today.
Now, let’s make no mistake about it - when the Spanish infiltrated the land we now call New Mexico, it was a mostly devastating ordeal. The Spanish killed thousands of native pueblo indians via war, disease, slavery, and plenty of other terrible ways. Many of their languages, religions, and cultures were diminished along the way.
Yes, this essay is about the good urban planning that came from that time, but I can’t glean the complicated history of New Mexico. To this day New Mexicans struggle with this land’s troubled past, and I don’t want to pretend good urban planning can fix this, but enhancing our communal spaces can only be a good thing for cohesion and cultural independence. In fact, the New Mexico Secretary of State's website acknowledges that “the intense independence and the strong sense of community of the Taos people helped to maintain their cultural integrity.”
There are several Pueblos, historic districts, and plazas around New Mexico built by the Spanish and Pueblo people - each with its own unique history, culture, and economy. What’s universal throughout them is the walkability and expression of New Mexican culture. There are communal areas, New Mexican cuisine, museums, hotels, gift shops, tap rooms, art galleries, and, if the local government allows it, housing - more on that later. The streets are narrow and winding - begging to be explored. And during fiestas and farmers markets, the streets are closed off to cars.
There is a lot to love about New Mexico’s historic districts and Old Towns, but it’s not all perfect. Building restrictions have made these popular urban areas expensive as housing is scarce. Hotel rooms outnumber long-term housing, and the historic districts have become tourism-dominated economies. Instead of grocery stores, there are gift shops. Instead of doctors’ offices, there are art galleries. Instead of homes, there are luxury hotels.
When these historic districts were first built, they were bustling economies of everything one might need day to day. You could live, work, play, go to school, hang out with friends, and go see your doctor all by foot.
There are many benefits to living in a city that fosters this type of lifestyle. Active transportation is good for your body, your mind, and the environment, and that’s something that I write about a lot. Instead of giving you the ‘housing policy is transportation policy is climate policy’ spiel for the umpteenth time, I’d like to focus on the economic, communal, and mental health benefits of living in walkable, community-driven spaces.
Loneliness is one of the leading epidemics of our time. Humans evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to live in villages with family and friends nearby and communal spaces in the center of their village - making it easy to socialize regularly. But today, most Americans live in spread-out, single-family housing away from friends, family, and social settings. We went on a spree of suburbanization over the last 100 years, and the American suburb has turned out to be one of the loneliest places in the world. Furthermore, New Mexico is one of the loneliest states in America.
Americans, whether they know it or not, are craving social contact. The suburban spread and lack of a ‘third place’ - as in somewhere you can hang out that isn’t work or home - aren’t ideal for social animals that evolved to live in tribes.
What’s more, our drift away from our ancestral New Mexican cities has made child care harder to secure for families that need both parents working, or only have one parent present. A recent study found that child care is the toughest to secure for middle-income and rural families. The upper class can simply pay for someone to watch their kids, and the lower class more commonly lives in multi-generational households with other adults available to babysit.
The effects of suburbanization spread into family finances, child-rearing, and community health. Affordable child care is easier to secure in a village with friends and family living nearby or with you. New Mexicans used to know that.
Albuquerque’s Old Town area went through a long period of under-investment and decay, but the city has done a good job of reviving the area. With cool new taprooms, live music, and a Breaking Bad store, the Old Town Plaza is a bustling scene most weekends. Much like the historic district in Santa Fe, the economy of Old Town is aimed at tourism. It’s great for small businesses and tax revenue.
Study after study shows how walkability is great for local economies. The University of Wisconsin-Madison states that walkability favors small businesses that cannot compete with big box stores in advertising or prices, but they can make up for it with convenience and experience. Tourists love a good walkable area. Think about where people like to vacation - Disneyland, European cities, all-inclusive resorts, etc. - they’re all walkable.
Walkable areas like this are in high demand across the country, but of course, it’s terribly difficult, and in most cases illegal, to build dense housing near New Mexico’s communal spaces. The housing that exists is single-family homes and the occasional apartment building on the other side of a busy intersection. This housing scarcity makes it harder for poor and minority New Mexicans to live near their city’s plaza. Albuquerque and Santa Fe historic districts are the most expensive, with most of the homes available exceeding $1 million.
Housing, community, and culture
Okay, maybe I will get into a short ‘housing policy is transportation policy is climate policy’ spiel. It’s a little depressing to look at our cities and think about what could have been, but we can still recognize our mistakes and learn from them. We could strengthen many aspects of our New Mexican cities by expanding upon the narrow streets and dense mixed-use buildings that already exist in the ‘historic districts’ and ‘Old Towns’ around the state.
Doing this would strengthen our communities by giving people availability to each other. It would give retailers a venue to capture foot traffic. And it would make our cities more climate-friendly.
The ‘Old Town’ vibe can be recreated anywhere. Line any park with mixed-use retail and dense housing, and you’ve got yourself a livable environment. Spanish cities have grand plazas in nearly every neighborhood bustling with art, music, food, and people that live close by. It’s a culture built around community and socializing - a culture that New Mexican cities have failed to foster.
New Mexico still has the ability to build beautiful buildings and livable spaces. Take the Inn & Spa at Loretto, for example. Santa Fe built this Pueblo-style hotel in the 70s that fits into its historic district like it’s been there forever:
The hotel was designed with the Taos Pueblo in mind and is not only beautiful, but it’s practical. You can house a lot of people in an energy-efficient manner, and it’s an homage to the cultures that have existed here for thousands of years.
Housing restrictions, parking minimums, wide streets, and NIMBYs have kept us from building our cities like New Mexicans did centuries ago. We should be celebrating New Mexican culture by expanding our historic districts and building new walkable areas that foster sustainability and community. Our climate, economies, and mental health will thank us.
The good news is we don’t have to start from scratch, and minor urbanist projects are taking place around the state. If you look at New Mexico’s oldest developments, there are great examples of sustainable development everywhere. But good urbanism shouldn’t be constrained to the historic district of your city like some museum-esque replica of New Mexican past. Good urbanism should be the standard that all New Mexicans can afford to live in again.
Before you get back to your day, here are some photos from well-planned historic areas around our beautiful state: