Denver: America’s Great Urban Canvas, Part II (A Temporary Sidetrack to Decide How I Decide)

The second part of Simmons Buntin’s exploration of new, mixed-use projects in Denver sidetracks to explore just how he determines that these projects are, in fact, good development. His decision is still based, in part, on a list of 14 properties of sustainable redevelopment he created for his urban and regional planning graduate school thesis more than a decade ago.

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In Part I of this two-part series, urban planner Carolyn Dooling and I visited some of the most distinct and environmentally sound mixed-use developments in the nation, which happen to be in the Denver metropolitan area: Stapleton, Bradburn Village, and Prospect New Town. One reader, however, asked why I was “glorifying tacky suburban sprawl,” suggesting that these communities are “garbage [and] what’s wrong with American society.”

So in Part II, rather than visiting the next locations on our walk down development lane, I thought I’d get right to this reader’s concern: how I figure these communities aren’t, in fact, suburban crap.

I’ve lived in what surely would qualify as tacky suburban sprawl, in a garage-fronted, single-family subdivision in Westminster, Colorado from which you had to drive to any services, in which the house at only four years old was already hemorrhaging. Though there was a surprising sense of community there—if not more sparse than what I’ve experienced living in the New Urbanist community of Civano since then—that suburban setting fell far short of what these new communities promise and deliver.

But by what scale do I judge them? It’s not so much a question of what right I have to judge tacky from non-tacky, sustainable from unsustainable, but rather how that decision is made. Can it be quantified as obviously as it is qualified?

Live/work units in Prospect New Town’s downtown area.

Back in 1997, I graduated with a master of urban and regional planning, writing my thesis on suburban downtown redevelopment using principles of sustainability. Though I focused on two redevelopment projects, I also looked at a number of new, mixed-use redevelopments across the country. The thesis, titled Community Redeveloped, first explored a broad definition, a theory really, for the good suburb. The chapter was later republished as “The Good Suburb” in the Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society (August 2000), and you may read it here. I then explored suburbs and suburban sprawl: definitions, costs and causes, and the unsustainable outcomes of sprawl. From there I delved into sustainable redevelopment—definitions once again, plus principles, properties, and indicators. After the two detailed case studies, I reviewed lessons learned, resulting in a 14-step methodology for redeveloping suburban downtowns. Nothing much came of the methodology, but the theory, analysis of sustainability, and case studies have endured.

For your sake and mine, I won’t rehash the thesis here, even as I just conveniently summarized it. Rather, I’d like to excerpt a few lists, because those—in addition to my visits to old and new projects across North America and experience tracking developments for—are what allow me to both qualify and quantify a “good” project from a tacky one, suburban or otherwise. Hopefully they serve as a resource for you, as well.

In the fall of 1991, some of the leading professionals in new town design—including Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides, Elizabeth Moule, Peter Calthorpe, and Michael Corbett—met at the Ahwahnee Hotel outside Yosemite National Park to develop a set of principles based on new and emerging ideas in community design and planning. The ideas included neotraditional development, transit-oriented development, and eco-village design, with the ultimate goal of “space-making rather than space-occupying,” according to designer Michael Freeman. The working group developed a set of community and regional principles, what they called “The Ahwahnee Principles.” These ultimately became the basis for the Charter of the New Urbanism. The Community Principles especially help guide my review of “space-making:”

1. All planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities containing housing, shops, work places, schools, parks, and civic facilities essential to the daily life of residents.
2. Community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs, and other activities are within easy walking distance of each other.
3. As many activities as possible should be located within easy walking distance and transit stops.
4. A community should contain a diversity of housing types to enable citizens from a wide range of economic levels and age groups to live within the boundaries.
5. Businesses within the community should provide a range of job types for the community’s residents.
6. The location and character of the community should be consistent with a larger transit network.
7. The community should have a center focus that combines commercial, civic, cultural, and recreational uses.
8. The community should contain an ample supply of specialized open space in the form of squares, greens, and parks whose frequent use is encouraged through placement and design.
9. Public spaces should be designed to encourage the attention and presence of people at all hours of the day and night.
10. Each community or cluster of communities should have a well-defined edge, such as agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors, permanently protected from development.
11. Streets, pedestrian paths, and bike paths should contribute to a system of fully connected and interesting routes to all destinations. Their design should encourage pedestrian and bicycle use by being small and spatially defined by buildings, trees, and lighting; and by discouraging high-speed traffic.
12. Wherever possible, the natural terrain, drainage, and vegetation of the community should be preserved with superior examples contained within parks or greenbelts.
13. The community design should help conserve resources and maximize waste.
14. Communities should provide for the efficient use of water through the use of natural drainage, drought-tolerant landscaping, and recycling.
15. The street orientation, the placement of buildings, and the use of shading should contribute to the energy efficiency of the community.

The commercial core in Belmar, a redevelopment of a decaying indoor shopping mall in Lakewood, Colorado.

It would be possible to quantify these principles—like Civano does with its IMPACT System annual reports—but I admit less to relying on numbers these days than on a sense of what’s working and not working, and asking those otherwise in the know.

Following the Ahwahnee Principles, and because I had to come up with something for the thesis, I created a set of 14 general properties of sustainable redevelopment, which I then used in a quantitative context to evaluate the case studies. The list was based on an extensive review of (1) those aspects of postwar development that attribute to sprawl, such as low-density segregated land uses, and (2) those aspects of older communities and neotraditional developments that appear to enhance economic, environmental, and social viability, such as regionalized architecture and pedestrian orientation.

For example, the negative costs of sprawl include harm to the natural environment from destructive site design. The property that counteracts this, and which therefore enhances sustainability, is regionalized site design—building placement and landscaping that respects natural drainage patterns, topography, vegetation, climate, and other biogeographical features. So the properties are fundamentally based on physical factors, and specifically those affecting redevelopment as opposed to new development, though there is much overlap.

Of the projects I visited on my recent trip to Denver, more than half are redevelopments: Stapleton, Lowry, Belmar, and the Holiday Neighborhood. Though I’m smitten by Prospect New Town, it is truly these redevelopments that exemplify both the Ahwahnee Principles and my own properties of sustainable redevelopment:

1. High-density, mixed-use core
2. Pedestrian orientation
3. Transit orientation
4. Regionalized architecture, site design, and landscaping
5. Public spaces
6. Protection, restoration, and enhancement of the natural environment
7. Energy efficiency and renewable energy use in buildings
8. “Green” construction
9. Integrated solid and toxic waste minimization
10. Water and wastewater reduction and reuse
11. Local production of goods, including food
12. Affordable housing
13. Building reuse and historic preservation
14. Integration with surrounding neighborhoods

A public plaza tucked among downtown buildings at the Holiday Neighborhood on Boulder’s northern edge.

It seems to me that the properties are also derived in large part from common sense—even if, in typical American development, they are still not commonly adhered to. For instance, high densities allow more land area to remain in natural and agricultural use, transit orientation reduces energy used for transportation and provides greater access for all citizens, and protection, restoration, and enhancement of the natural environment ensure that the natural landscape and its species are safeguarded.

Against these properties, as well as against an aesthetic for an enduring architecture and community design, the projects I’ve highlighted from the Denver metropolitan area far surpass “tacky suburban sprawl.”

And speaking of Denver again, finally, I solemnly swear that in the third and final part of this series we’ll explore Lowry in Denver, Belmar in Lakewood, and Iris Hollow and the Holiday Neighborhood in Boulder.

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