January 8, 2000
Over the next twenty years the Denver metro area is projected to grow by nearly a million people, with a doubling of our developed land. This growth is zoned to model the suburban sprawl that currently predominates our landscape. This is a mistake. It's past time for Colorado to get creative with land use planning and encourage growth that is sustainable and offers a high quality of life for all residents. With an expanded vision of our possibilities, we can set an example for other states to admire and replicate.
For the past fifty years the entire front range of Colorado, and elsewhere, has been designed for an automobile dependent society. Planning has rarely included mass transit, much less the possibility of a walking commuter. Low density, spread out, homogeneous zoning is the root cause of frustrating traffic congestion and excessive pollution. None of the major legislative and transportation plans of today will reverse this predicament.
Our development pattern has resulted in economic segregation and expensive service provision. Of the whole metropolitan area, there are relatively few neighborhoods that are aesthetically pleasing and pedestrian oriented, the mark of great cities. Many will argue that our concrete urban and homogeneous suburban lifestyles are boring and the breeding grounds for the type of alienation and hatred that led to the Columbine massacre. Segregated, exclusive neighborhoods lead to a discriminatory mind frame.
Our front range problems will get worse before they get better, even with every aspect of the DOT's and Gov. Bill Owens 'smart growth' proposal being enacted in a timely fashion. Numerous states have pioneered 'smart growth' policies for years and traffic is still horrendous, housing prices are exorbitant, and new growth still devours prime farm lands.
Our state government can promote a far more comprehensive and effective plan in addressing the ecological and quality of life issues for Coloradans. Colorado can become a leader in sustainable growth, not a follower of inadequate, piecemeal policies.
Growth issues are both local and regional in their effect and scope. Simply drive home from the mountains on any Sunday afternoon and the regional effects are quite obvious. Imagine that drive in ten years when several hundred thousand new residences are added to the Denver metro area.
Our challenge is to have growth and a high quality of life. We can learn from the best principles and examples in North America, Europe and Asia to create a far more dynamic and livable Colorado front range. The following six points are a visionary yet a practicable starting point to accommodate future growth:
1) Preserve prime farm land. By whatever means necessary, stop the loss of the prime farm land that exists in Colorado. State agencies have concrete reports of what farm lands exist. Whether it's through purchases, tax credits, or trades, quality farm land should not be converted to other uses.
2) Preserve wildlife corridors and migratory routes. Migratory birds flying across Colorado need to have large, pollution-free fields to rest and feed. To ensure a healthy gene pool, extensive wildlife corridors must exist. These preserved lands should form a large network so animals and people can coexist in our beautiful state.
3) Establish urban growth boundaries. The establishment of an urban growth boundary and a surrounding greenbelt will reduce pollution while providing a preserved area for wildlife, farms, and recreation. Current landowners must be reasonably compensated through purchases, tax credits or development trades for developable land elsewhere.
There comes a point of diminishing returns with continued outward expansion of cities. Denver, Colorado Springs and Ft. Collins reached that point many years ago. When big cities spread and merge into outlying towns, any sense of uniqueness disappears. Everything starts to look the same - ugly!
The additional development that will surround C-470 will do nothing to enhance the quality of life for the bulk of current residents. Amazingly, this land will develop in the same unsustainable pattern as the rest of our suburban landscape. No plans have been made to create transit villages with light rail leading to downtown. We keep developing in the same manner that is causing our urban headaches.
The powerful developers, land speculators, financial institutions and a few others are benefitting financially from uncontrolled, spread out growth, but the rest of us simply suffer from increased traffic, pollution, and other costs. We already have a wonderful art complex, an aquarium, plentiful malls, and sports complexes galore; what will the average Denverite gain from a few hundred thousand more homes around our megalopolis? When will we say "enough is enough?"
4) Preserve scenic vistas and historic areas. Most front range residents are proud to look west and see the majestic mountains, not tract houses. Though various laws exist to prevent developments in scenic areas and the other lands specified for preservation above, it's clear that more forceful state legislation is needed to overcome loopholes and the powerful development industry.
5) Encourage growth in sustainable, outlying areas. This proposal is not anti-growth, but it is in favor of sustainable growth in appropriate areas. Once we identify and preserve farmland, wildlife corridors, and greenbelts, a careful assessment should be taken of the remaining land for its carrying capacity, especially with respect to water availability. Growth should be directed toward large parcels of land outside existing city greenbelts.
Portland, Oregon, has urban growth boundaries, but they have enormous pressures to accommodate new growth within the city boundary. There is a limited amount of infill growth potential within existing cities and it is nice to leave some empty lots in cities, especially if they are converted to community gardens and pocket parks.
New growth should be directed outside existing cities, but connected to high density areas with rail. New growth should also be a model of sustainability and livability, what one might call 'ecocities.' Ecocities are an alternative to suburban schlock.
Through the development of new, relatively self-sufficient ecocities, Colorado can really set a remarkable example for the rest of the nation and world. We can boldly go where no state has even contemplated while addressing a myriad of long-range issues, such as pollution, crime, economics, education and elderly issues.
Amongst the features of such ecocities would be mixed-use zoning, fiber optics and recycling pantries in all residences and businesses, passive solar designs, super insulation, nontoxic building materials, xeriscaping, and a traditional city center with public attractions. Upgradable computers in every residence could allow two-way access to employment services, health information, education, banking, shopping, and direct democracy.
A variety of housing should be encouraged, including affordable cluster, co-housing, hospice, senior, foster, and other specialty housing. Rooftop gardens, greenhouses, and solar shingles should be incorporated. Bird-safe windmills and active solar panels would help reduce dependence on non-renewable energy sources.
Community garden plots and neighborhood parks would allow a natural means to socialize while offering increased food self-sufficiency and healthy hobbies for the young and old. Community centers, sculpture gardens, and meandering neighborhood greenways would offer people an alternative to the alienating attraction of the television and computer, and the materialistic allure of endless shopping. See Livable Cities #5.
The center of the ecocity would be high-density, with residences above shops, and aesthetically pleasing pedestrian pathways throughout. Further from the city center would be lower density single family homes, townhouses, and a variety of other developments. People would be encouraged to have businesses within their homes, a practice illegal in most new developments today.
6) Promote alternatives to automobile dependence. To be truly sustainable, healthy, and non-discriminatory toward the elderly, children, disabled, and poor, these ecocities should limit the presence of automobiles, ideally confining them to the city outskirts. Alternative transportation could include light rail, trolleys, smooth bike/blade paths, pedicabs, electric golf carts, and separated walking and horse paths. Just imagine, communities geared for people, bikes, and yes, horses.
From the center of these ecocities would be a high speed rail linking it with other cities. So, for example, a high speed rail would run from downtown Denver to DIA, then outwards into the plains where there is clean air, an adequate water supply, and no traffic congestion. Here would be some of the worlds first sustainable, ecocities. Such ecocities could incorporate the best of the past with desirable technology of the future. The ideal of a vibrant urban life would be in close proximity to sizable park lands and an encircling greenbelt.
The ideal population for these ecocities would be between 10,000 and 90,000, on between 2,000 and 10,000 acres. With a mix of businesses, culture and residences, most residents would be able to live, work and recreate within their communities. Compare that with the auto-dependent and culturally sterile Highlands Ranch or Rock Creek.
In these new ecocities, those whom would need to commute to Denver or other existing cities could sit on the comfortable high speed train in the morning, read a paper and have a meal, and arrive downtown in less time than the average commuter from Aurora to Denver. These commuters would avoid construction zones, gas stations, and road rage.
Nearly every country in Europe has commuter rails allowing convenient access from city to city, and throughout their cities. Even the East European cities of Prague and Budapest have a far greater variety of transportation options than any American city, except, perhaps, San Francisco.
A history of court cases shows that America's love affair with the automobile and suburbs is not based on purely market forces, but rather, on the purposeful destruction of our trolley and rail lines from the 1920s to the 1940s. Federal government policies throughout this century have encouraged outward city expansion at the expense of existing cities. Very slowly the tide is turning. After decades of funding highways that encouraged sprawl, the Federal Highway Administration is helping to fund transit villages around commuter rail stations in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area.
It's beyond time to promote first class public transportation and pedestrian oriented communities. High speed rail between Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, Longmont, Ft. Collins and the ski resorts is long overdue. It's truly amazing that progress on the few light rail lines slated for Denver have been so difficult. We should have rail transit from downtown to Cherry Creek and outwards to Parker, from downtown to Arvada, and certainly, rail should be slated for the new developments around C-470.
It's a real tragedy that officials with mediocre visions, or no vision at all, tend to regulate so many important aspects of our lives.
This proposal is not pie in the sky nor more expensive than our existing development pattern, depending on how one quantifies all the costs associated with our current lifestyles. While drawing from them, this proposal goes far beyond even the most ambitious proposals for smart growth, the New Urbanism, neo-traditional developments, or most other piece-meal land use plans. It aims to be comprehensive in addressing the seemingly unstoppable suburban and exurban growth that is devouring our precious open spaces while contributing nothing to our quality of life. This proposal considers the quality of life of all residents, including children and seniors.
Those living in the new ecocities would benefit from a far more civil and healthy lifestyle. Additionally, through high speed rail, they could visit the wonderful features of downtown Denver and other front range cities without the growing hassles of finding a parking space. Ecocity residents would be able to walk the walk and talk the talk of a sustainable lifestyle. They would be true trailblazers for long-term livability and environmental respect. Colorado could set an example for others to emulate, rather than falling in the horrendous development footsteps of Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta. We can do much better than the mediocre community designs that predominate across America.
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