If you’ve lived in Albuquerque for a while, you might think the adobe and concrete color palette that dominates our city is normal—we do live in a desert, after all. But there are plenty of species of trees and plants native to this part of New Mexico that have simply been pushed out of the city because of development. This means that, despite our city’s proximity to the mountains, the Rio Grande and the Bosque, many kids who grow up in inner Albuquerque have limited exposure to nature. This is especially concerning given the proven benefits of time in nature on the healthy development of young children.
The Dolores Gonzales Elementary School, though it’s just across the street from the ABQ BioPark and Tingley Field, has historically been a very grey and concrete-filled campus. For a long time having all-concrete school campuses like this felt like progress and modernity, but that mindset is slowly starting to shift as the environmental and health benefits of having green space in the city are becoming more understood.
“When I was growing up [in California] I had tons of places to go where I was in the creeks and I was catching frogs and doing all of those things in nature that you want kids to do. And I wonder if these kids get those kinds of experiences,” says Sarah Hurteau, the Urban Program Director at The Nature Conservancy’s new Albuquerque office. “On a campus like this where you have no shade, no way to connect with a natural space, where there’s no sense of wonder being created about nature, it becomes something that is out of reach for [the students].”
As a part of their Urban Conservation Program, The Nature Conservancy recently spearheaded a project to build a rainwater catchment system for the Dolores Gonzales school garden. With donations and volunteer labor from Plant World and the local General Mills plant, TNC installed the system in about an hour and a half, according to Hurteau. The 6 tanks, once used at the General Mills plant, hold a total of 2,500 gallons of water—which means that the school could stock water through the summer and into the drier months. Assuming the summer rains come as usual, which, after the record low snowpack of this winter, doesn’t seem like a guarantee.
But whether they can water from the rainwater tanks or have to use aquifer water for the gardens, the students in the Dolores Gonzales Gardening Club will be going home with not only some fresh fruits and vegetables from their beds, but also with some plants they can continue taking care of at home. The idea is to not only provide the kids with nutritious, organically raised fruits and veggies, but also to teach them about nurturing and being stewards for nature. As Hurteau says, “people need nature, and nature clearly needs us to be working for it right now, too.”
If the rainwater catchment system works well at Dolores Gonzales, it’s very possible that TNC will try to integrate the system into other community gardens, too. “We have an opportunity here to replicate this in many places throughout the city, whether that’s community centers, fire stations and police substations, libraries or other schools; there’s a lot of possibilities where this can be part of the context of additional green space close to where people live, so they can have an easy time engaging with nature in ways big and small.” But they’ll have to measure the effectiveness and impact of this pilot program over time before they start implementing it in other places; TNC is, above all, a science-based organization.
Later in the year, Hurteau hopes to get the community’s input on another urban conservation project at Dolores Gonzales. TNC would like to do something with the 1/4 acre on the eastern end of the campus—which had temporary buildings on it before the new wing of the school was built—that’s currently bare, sun-baked earth. It’s to Hurteau’s credit that she can see potential in the small, dusty plot: another garden, she thinks, or maybe set it aside for native plant species and wildlife forage. “We have this big picture goal of changing the way cities interact with nature: bringing nature back into the cities to solve some of the environmental problems that we’re faced with. Each one of these gardens is a piece that we’re going to put on the ground that will add up to that big picture.”