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Rethinking open space

A community garden or growing space, an ADA-accessible outdoor classroom or a farmers market are among the options considered for a collaborative project between UNM’s Design and Planning Assistance Center and Bernalillo County. (Illustration Source Courtesy of Bernalillo County)

Bernalillo County is looking at urban open space in new ways.

In collaboration with the University of New Mexico’s Design and Planning Assistance Center, the county is exploring concepts that go beyond walking trails and parks to bring agriculture to vacant properties in the heart of the city.

Concepts developed by the UNM students after a public workshop held last month will be presented at an open house scheduled for 2-4 p.m. April 7 at Whittier Elementary School, 1110 Quincy SE.

“We provide an entry into the project in which we generate a lot of really interesting ideas,” said UNM professor Alf Simon, director of UNM’s Landscape Architecture Program.

The focus is on three city- and county-owned properties: an undeveloped portion of Phil Chacon Park near Louisiana and Gibson SE, three vacant lots known as the former Stark property at Española and Marble NE, and part of an abandoned shopping center at San Mateo and Anderson SE, where the city plans to build a police substation.

Options include a functional but beautiful growing space at San Mateo and Anderson that could involve students from nearby Whittier Elementary School and offer a place for people to enjoy – “kind of a fusion of a park and a farm” – a demonstration herb or medicinal garden at the Stark property, and a more full-scale farm adjacent to Phil Chacon Park, Simon said.

The public meetings and planning effort are part of a larger urban open space and agriculture initiative focused on education and creating markets for local food producers, said county Parks and Open Space Planning Manager John Barney.

A community garden or growing space with a hoop house to allow year-round growing, an ADA-accessible outdoor classroom that could allow the county to extend its backyard farming series to an urban context or a farmers market or food hub are among the possibilities, Barney said.

A food hub “provides a place where food can be made ready for market. For example, washing produce and packaging it,” he said. “It functions something like a business incubator … and we don’t really have one anywhere in the county.”

Residents of Albuquerque have expressed a desire for urban open space, and they deserve to have access to county open space programs, said County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins. She added that “some parts of the International District are food deserts” where residents struggle to find fresh fruits and vegetables and would welcome the ability to grow some of their own food.

“I think it’s really exciting,” she said.

Working with the neighborhoods is an important part of the process, and the public meetings aim to jump-start a conversation. “It’s fun,” Barney said. “It gets the community engaged.”

By this time next year, the county should have a strategic master plan put together for the Stark property and possibly other sites. Concepts developed by the Design Center will be used to apply for grant funding, he said.

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