Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Denver Vision

Dateline: 12:45 pm June 11, 2009 Filed under:

You can see a long way out here in Denver, where the mountains meet the plains. Except when there is smog in the city, the Denver air has a desert clarity. Is it this clarity, or maybe just the altitude, that has resulted in some great urban visioning in the past few years? Certainly enough has occured for the Congress for the New Urbanism to return here for their 2009 annual meeting.

When I first came to Denver to explore the city, it was early in 2001, and I was on assignment to write an article on the downtown for ULI. I explored Coors Field and LoDo, and knew about plans for the Central Platte Valley beyond. At the time, there was hardly anything there but a lonely flour mill, recently renovated in to lofts by the original urban pioneering developer, Dana Crawford.

Today her renovated flour mill is surrounded by new lofts, and the core of the Central Platte Valley is a beautiful park, connected to downtown by a soaring pedestrian bridge and flanked by wonderful residential towers with ground floor restaurants.

I come back often, sure to ski in the mountains, but also to experience the urbanism of the Denver region. On subsequent visits I have toured other great developments; Holiday in Boulder, Belmar in Lakewood, the great transit-oriented station in Englewood, some great infill in Boulder, Highlands’ Garden Village, and of course…Stapleton.

I’ve written about Stapleton before for ULI and my own website. It deserves the attention it gets. As well, my favorite new urbanism story took place in 2003 at Stapleton. I was on a mobile workshop as part of the APA conference. The tour was progressing as so many others. We were being led through the first single-family neighborhood built there, pausing to take photos of porches and alleys, and pace off street and sidewalk widths.

We were passing a small pocket park when suddenly a young mother emerged from her house, dog and preschool daughter in tow, to let the two run around in the grass. Everyone in our tour immediately wheeled around to photograph an actual human being using and apparently enjoying new urbanism. I felt embarrassed for her, with 40 of us planning geeks photographing her dog take a pee. In today’s parlance, you could say we were all a-“twitter.”

Of course, she doesn’t care that it is new urbanism. She probably values a nice new home across the street from a park. For all I know, the mix of hosuing types, local school to which they can walk, nearby town center, and sidewalks were trivial to her. It was striking to me, for all the time we spend planning and dreaming up visions of how places might some day look and function, was how seemingly off guard we were to see a great plan being used the way it was intended, by JoAnne Urban, and with so little apparent thought.

Perhaps that is what is so important about getting new urbanism, and good urban development in general, built. Vision and leadership. The mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, Patrick McCrory, spoke last night at the CNU’s opening “plenary.” After buttering us all up with complements about our work, he leveled with us.

He said you can’t just create some designs and put them in a book that 99% of the public, including city councils and mayors, cannot understand. Show them how it will look. Sell a vision. Give the public an example like the young mom at Stapleton, stepping off her front porch and crossing a narrow street to an intimate neighborhood park to let her dog and kid run around, and suddenly you get public support. Leave the details to the planners and architects.

Suffice it to say, Stapleton has gotten much right. I returned in 2006 for a wonderful 4th of July celebration in the public pavilion near the 29th Avenue Town Center there. Again, the public was enjoying a great design without much thought. Show people how a gathering place like that looks and they’ll want one.

FasTracks is an inspiring example of garnering public and political support for a project. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper spoke last night as well, and he focused on regional collaboration. When he took office, he invited suburban mayors and exurban county commissioners from around Denver to his urban loft to proclaim that the days of the central city and suburbs working against each other were over.

Those words came to fruition in the 2004 election, when all 30-plus Denver area mayors united in support of a four-tenths of a cent sales tax increase to raise $4.7 billion (at the time) for regional light rail and commuter rail construction. The public passed the referendum, which gave Hickenlooper a lot of street cred on a national level.

From Stapleton to FasTracks, the Denver area has certainly embraced the ideas of new urbanism. The CNU conference is a great time to show it all off. Time will tell how it will be measured in 10, 50 or 100 years, but my guess is decisions made about the built environment today will benefit Denver in the future, giving this region a competitive edge over others.

Good design and good leadership must work together. It’s all about that clear mile-high vision.

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