Archive for December 2011

Living at 9th and Colorado: The Residential Component

The Colorado Boulevard Healthcare District (CBHD) Board’s final meeting of 2011, on December 4, was  dedicated to a review of the site’s conceptual plan and a new presentation on the residential component.  Material presented at the last couple of meetings is now available online (site plan and renderings).

In response to lingering citizen concerns, project presenters reiterated that the Sembler plan has half the density of the original Shea plan, and less overall height compared to the Health Sciences Center.  The two Big Box retail pads are required for economic viability.  Attendees were reassured that the Nurses Dorm and Quad will receive historic designation. And, that the quality and character of the development will be appropriate to the surrounding neighborhood.

Residential Piece of the 9th and Colorado Development (Sembler Company and Davis Partnership)

The new report was a presentation by Alliance Residential on the residential part of the project, mapped to the left. Alliance specializes in luxury rentals. Its portfolio in Denver includes a finished project at 2101 Market Street and one in the works in the 2100 block of Blake Street just to the north.  For 9th and Colorado the plan is for three buildings of 3 or 4  stories each.  This amounts to 410 units at an average size of 918 square feet.  All units will be rentals.  About 55% of the total will be one bedroom flats and 35% will be two bedrooms. The remainder will be 2 bedroom/2 bath townhouses along Clermont Street. The average rent will be in the range of $1300-$1450 per month.  Amenities will abound, including a pool, fitness center, wifi café, and clubhouse/meeting room. The pool will be in the courtyard of the northwest building and offer views of the Quadrangle. A pedestrian passage between two housing blocks will connect the residential piece to the southeast corner of the Quad (center of the map).  Alliance imagines that this passage will serve as a public space for block parties, farmer’s markets, and other social gatherings.  It will feature art installations and allow people to linger.

As we’ve noted in previous posts, there are many admirable features in what Sembler and Alliance have proposed. The description of the residential piece generated additional concerns among neighbors about traffic, especially as it concerns the Birch Street access to the Parking Garage (Birch Street extends north from 8th Avenue in the lower right hand corner of the map). The developers emphasize that this is still just a concept that’s subject to the General Development Plan and other design guidelines.


Alliance Residential Development at 2101 Market Street, Denver (D. Saitta)

While citizens attending CDHD Board meetings have been generally reserved in their enthusiasm, others commenting on the last story in Life on Capitol Hill pulled no punches in criticizing project scale, connectivity, and content:

1. I’m hoping the downsizing has to do with economic worries and not just a bad  vision; this just looks like suburban sprawl in central Denver.

2. What an absolutely horrific, suburban (emphasis on the sub) design in one of the most important urban corridors in Denver. Shame on this NIMBY neighborhood not being to stomach [sic] anything over 4 stories in an area that already has mid-rises. Shame on Sembler for peddling this unsustainable, sub-par strip-mall layout. The only bright spot could have been the new road connections, but alas, even that was bungled. There isn’t a single road connection that can take you directly from 8th to 11th. 

3.  Where is Peter Park? Peter loves all that “Main Street” stuff.  This is nothing like that. This is Quebec Street at Stapleton transported southwest.  Awful.  Do we need more retail space?  I think not. Per Capita Retail Space Comparison: 

  • US                   46.6 square feet
  • UK                  23.0 square feet
  • Canada          13.0 square feet
  • Australia         6.5 square feet
  • India                 2.0 square feet
  • Mexico             1.5 square feet


Whether these critics are on to something is for others to decide.  Our concern here has been to document the public meetings and float the occasional suggestion about how this urban space can be transformed into an interesting place.   In light of what’s been heard from citizens, as 2011 closes out it’s worth suggesting that developers create a signature building of bold design and character (Koolhaas’s defense of generic architecture notwithstanding!), add elements that can foster interconnections to other places in a wider “network of proximity”, and enhance public space so as to create an “anything-can-happen dynamism.”

The CBHD Board meeting schedule has been set for 2012 and these meetings will likely continue to fascinate those interested in the dynamics of urban infill planning in Denver.

Denver De-Occupied

It happened around 11:30 PM on Monday, December 19th.  The Denver Post has the story and some pictures, including this one:

Eviction of Occupy Denver, December 19 (Daniel Petty, The Denver Post)

This was the scene at the eastern edge of Civic Center Park (where the occupation moved from adjacent Lincoln Park back in October) at noon today:

Civic Center Park, December 21, 11:30 AM

It’s difficult to disagree with the house editorial in today’s Denver Post asserting that Occupy Denver had “degenerated into a caricature of itself,”  and that the public sympathy that once existed had “frayed or dried up.”   The movement never seemed to regain its footing after the eviction of Lincoln Park protesters on October 15.  There have been reports of movement infiltration and infighting, and occupiers don’t help themselves by engaging in bad behavior.  Playing off of Peter Marcuse’s astute observations about the Zuccotti Park occupation we wondered back in October whether there would be a “Plan B” to sustain the movement once winter weather set in, perhaps involving alternative forms of protest and the occupation of different kinds of public spaces.

In the couple of months since the Lincoln Park eviction, and in light of the forcible dispersal of protestors at Zuccotti Park on November 15, Marcuse has continued to blog about Occupy strategies.  In one particularly compelling post (subsequently channeled in Salon by Todd Gitlin) he warned against “fetishizing” occupation spaces  in a way that makes permanent and round-the-clock defense of that space “the overwhelming goal of the movement, at the expense of actions furthering the broader goals that that space is occupied to advance.”  For example, goals like articulating a coherent way of looking at the world, formulating a platform of specific demands, and advancing a particular program for activating change.  And, modeling for the rest of us (via internal organization and procedures) what an “alternative form of democracy” that accommodates disparate groups and interests would look like.  For Marcuse the establishment and defense of occupied space is certainly important. However, it’s only one means to an end and not the end itself.

Eviction of Occupy Wall Street, November 15 (David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)

In another trenchant piece posted at about the same time Marcuse suggests a “Two Site” Solution for Occupation movements in New York that should be considered elsewhere. Namely, one site to be used as a Staging Area and symbolic anchor (e.g., Zuccotti Park, Lincoln Park) and another, closely-linked site to serve as a Political Incubator (e.g., an empty factory or warehouse, a college campus, an office building atrium, a church, a large empty storefront, etc.) for workshopping movement goals and methods.  All easier said than done, of course, given zealous campus police and reluctant clergy.

Still, for Marcuse “only the imagination (and the balance of power!) limits the possibilities.”  The extent to which the imagination lives in other cities is not clear. However, it seems to have tapped out very early here in Denver.

Urban Culture and the Intangible Heritage of Place: ‘Graffiti’ Removal and Preservation

ANARCHETIQUETTE: The removal and preservation of wall writings on public buildings before they are covered up or the buildings themselves are demolished or renovated; efforts to conserve an intangible heritage that would otherwise be eliminated.

Since at least the 1970s the nature of urban graffiti has, from time to time and depending on context, been actively debated.  Is it vandalism or artistic expression?   Last July The New York Times ran a story reporting that graffiti is on the upsurge in American cities large and small.  In Los Angeles, for example, the amount of graffiti removed from city structures was up 8.2% compared to 2010, amounting to 35.4 million square feet.  The primary message of The Times story is that the current upsurge in graffiti and the cost of its removal is putting  a strain on city budgets.  Why this has become a problem is unclear, but factors include anxiety and alienation stemming from the economic recession as well as the “glamorization” of graffiti in some areas of popular culture (for example, this exhibition at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art).

At the same time, the Occupy Movement has reignited interest in public space and the rights of citizens to use it to engage with the affairs of community. In this respect Peter Marcuse has noted a “deficit in the provision and management of public space” and issued a challenged to city leaders and planners to provide spaces that can “fulfill the functions of the traditional agora, places where free men and women can meet, debate, speak to and listen to each other, learn from each other, confront issues of public concern and facilitate their resolution.”  To this end, there is nothing in principle that would prevent cities from providing communication facilities, sanitary facilities, sound systems, connections to power lines, protection from elements, provision of food and water, and other considerations to people wishing to use public space in the interests of democratic governance.  In short, Marcuse argues that cities need a “Public Spaces Plan” to go along with other established plans for governing transportation, environment, recreation, and various social services.  A Public Spaces Plan might also provide—as others have suggested over the years—ample, socially-accessible space to accommodate the kinds of silent, continuous democratic expression and communication that’s represented by graffiti.

That kind of dedicated civic planning is likely some way off, but in the meantime it’s good to know that there are people doing things right now to not only preserve graffiti and the redemptive democratic messages that often lay therein, but also facilitate their removal.  Italian artist Daniele Pario Perra is one of them.  Since 2006 he’s been conducting workshops in cities throughout Europe to share a technique called “Fresco Removal.”   In this technique gauze containing a natural glue is laid over a frescoed surface to absorb a few millimeters of the substrate containing a message. The message is then transferred to a canvas, and preserved for posterity.  Perra is of course unable to deal with “tagging” or the large scale graffiti that focused the Times story. Rather, he’s focused on the smaller traces of “spontaneous communication” that speak to specific local issues in a community; i.e., messages that, in Perra’s words, comprise the “cultural DNA” of a given place. The overriding purpose is to preserve the memories of the city, the “testimonies of an intangible heritage” that would otherwise be lost.

Perra Workshop in Fresco Removal, Denver (Platte Forum)

Thanks to the work of my DU colleagues Christina Kreps and Roberta Waldbaum and several sponsoring organizations Daniele Pario Perra brought his work to Denver last spring.  An exhibition at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art introduced an American audience to Perra’s work, and workshops trained local students in his technique of fresco removal.  Just this past week Christina and Roberta participated in the final exhibition of the Anarchetiquette Fresco Removal project at the Sala Borsa in Bologna, Italy.  The message of a seminar associated with the exhibition dovetailed with those being sounded by others invested in preserving the city as a site of democratic expression and resistance; namely, that built public space must be made safer for spontaneous communication and creativity.  The exhibition in Bologna ends today, but more details about the Anarchetiquette project are available at

New Urbanism in Comparative and Intercultural Perspective

Denver is well-known nationally as a city dedicated to New Urbanist development.  Several projects in the city—most notably Belmar, Stapleton, and Highlands Garden Village (HGV)—have received lots of prominent press and some significant praise.  The Congress for the New Urbanism has visited Denver twice, most recently in 2009.

Denver’s New Urbanist projects have had a number of years to mature.  Accordingly, I sent students in my Culture and The City course to compare and contrast two of them.  Specifically, their task was to (1) discuss how each project conforms to New Urbanist goals and ideals; (2) critically evaluate their prospects for success in light of current ideas about urban ecological and cultural sustainability; and (3) identify the development that they would most like to live in, and explain why.

The class was an interdisciplinary and international extravaganza.  I had majors from across the Arts and Sciences, plus six foreign exchange students from Italy, Britain, and the Czech Republic.  Rounding out the class were one Hispanic-American student and an African student from Liberia. Of the 28 enrollees 5 were Sustainability minors.   Four were anthropology graduate students working in the field of museum and heritage studies.

I previously reported the lessons learned from assignments that asked the students to play the BMW-Guggenheim Lab’s Urbanology game and analyze  Civic Center Park.  I couldn’t very well let them get away without dissecting the urban phenomenon for which Denver is arguably most famous. The assignment takes on added interest in light of Christopher Leinberger’s recent New York Times piece suggesting that the “Millennial” generation of current college students is increasingly being drawn to compact, walkable cities like those promoted by New Urbanism (for some reader responses, go here).  Thus, the assignment was an opportunity to learn what kind of New Urbanist development most interested a group of international Millennials.

Students were required to visit Belmar  because it has been comprehensively described by Dunham-Jones and Williamson in chapter 8 of Retrofitting Suburbia.  They could choose one other project, either Highland Gardens Village, Stapleton, or The Streets at SouthGlenn. Next year I will likely give students carte blanche to compare any two projects of their choosing, with Central Platte Valley, Curtis Park, and Lowry also thrown into the mix.

In addition to the Belmar reading students were assigned The Charter of New Urbanism, an excerpt from chapter 7 of Phil Wood and Charles Landry’s The Intercultural City,  Jeb Brugmann’s chapter on  “Building Local Culture: Reclaiming the Streets of Gràcia District, Barcelona” in his Welcome to the Urban Revolution, and Mike Davis’s chapter on “Fortress LA” in City of Quartz.   They could also dip into a previously assigned classic from Jane  Jacobs. I steered them to some concepts in this body of work that struck me as especially relevant.  Foremost among these was Wood and Landry’s notion of “cultural literacy” and how the “basic building blocks of the city”—street frontages, building heights, set-backs, public space, etc.—look different when viewed through “intercultural eyes.”   I wanted students to consider the extent to which New Urban projects exemplified the Barcelona urbanist’s particular concept of espai public—defined as a distinctive “third territory of streets and squares where private interests and public uses are vitally interwoven.”   Davis’ book is a veritable cornucopia of useful and provocative concepts.  I wanted students to attend to his notions of “spatial apartheid” and the “archisemiotics” of built form–the latter broadly understood to cover the meanings conveyed by a project’s architecture, advertising images associated with the project, and other features of the designed environment.

The vast majority of students chose to compare Belmar and HGV.  Their analyses made for interesting reading.  There was a strong convergence of opinion as regards the virtues of these projects.  All students appreciated their commitments to building green and especially Belmar’s investment in harvesting solar and wind power. Belmar’s public square and restaurant patios—combined with the “Big Windows” of retail spaces that maximized the intervisibility of private and public space—were identified as the best examples of New Urban espai public.   A smaller number of students appreciated the significance of Belmar’s Block 7 Arts and Design district while expressing

Retail Space, Patio, and Street at Belmar

concern that there wasn’t more public art on Belmar’s streets (as promised by its development plan).  The Community Garden at HGV drew a lot of favorable comment. Europeans in particular liked the way that HGV’s winding roads and pathways broke up the older street grid. Americans and Europeans alike appreciated the preservation of historical structures dating to the site’s use as Elitch Gardens Amusement Park: the old 1891 Theatre building and the 1926 Carousel Pavilion.  The former is destined to become performing arts center and the latter is already serving as a site of

Community Garden at Highlands Garden Village

various community events such as concerts and farmer’s markets.  One graduate student who analyzed The Streets at SouthGlenn identified its branch of the Arapahoe Public Library as best exemplifying the “spaces of day-to-day exchange” that Wood and Landry have found to be among the most popular for intercultural populations in Britain.

Library (right) and Pedestrian Promenade at The Streets at SouthGlenn

Despite these virtues students were unsparing in their criticism.  Belmar was often described as a “packaged” experience, with students using words like “commercial”, “artificial”, “inauthentic”, and “branded” to make their case.  Some likened Belmar to an “outdoor mall” and the kind of downtown that’s more befitting an alpine ski resort than a Denver suburb that’s looking to become more urbane. One graduate student  wondered if Belmar’s Lily Pad Lane—a pedestrian path with rainforest motif and piped-in nature sounds—was inconsistent with the commitment to build a “real” downtown for Lakewood.  A similar sentiment was expressed with respect to the music that’s piped into The Streets of Southglenn—the feeling being that these should be chaotic, cacophonous spaces rather than clinical ones akin to the old indoor shopping malls that they’ve replaced.  A British student remarked that Belmar’s “High Street” was curiously empty on a lovely Saturday afternoon in autumn. American and European students alike commented that, at the time of their weekend visits, there was more activity in Belmar’s  “Big Box” store parking lots than on its streets.  Indeed, for all students the Big Boxes compromised the scale and intimacy of the Belmar and SouthGlenn developments.

Lily Pad Lane, Belmar

Students noted that investments in ethnic and cultural diversity  at Belmar were lacking aside from the annual Festival Italiano and the sprinkling of ethnic restaurants.  No one mentioned it, but Wood and Landry’s use of the term “cultural cross-dressing” to refer to these (superficial) indicators of interculturalism would have been appropriate.  One student was struck by the police presence at Belmar, contrasting it with the “eyes on the street” that would be the most important security feature of Jacobs’s “two-shift” city.  Several perceptive comments were made about the semiotics of built space at both Belmar and SouthGlenn.  Retail advertising in both places is targeted to white people, especially young, middle-class women. One student noted that the array of medical services available at HGV (where dedicated housing for seniors is one component of the residential complex) signaled not only something about generational makeup  but also the class and discretionary income of residents (e.g., a chiropractor’s office).  “Neighborhood Watch” signs at HGV did not escape notice.

Advertisement at The Streets at Southglenn

A large number of students focused on the Charter for New Urbanism’s call for developments that seamlessly connect to their surroundings.   Most students didn’t see it.   At Belmar the broad, six lane avenues that  border the project to the north and west were seen to function as de facto “gates”  separating it from the adjacent (and largely Hispanic) neighborhoods. HGV was seen to blend a little

Alameda Avenue, Belmar’s Northern Boundary (Belmar is to the right)

bit more into its context, but students still commented on how even here the project edges are a bit jarring.  One European student who visited HGV, Belmar, and Stapleton commented that the trip to these places by public transport (from their flat at the university) took about three times as long as by car.

View to the Northeast Edge of Highlands Garden Village

The other Charter ideal that drew comments was housing.  Many students noted the diversity of housing options available at both Belmar and HGV.  Affordability, however, was seen to be  another matter.  Some students provided comparative data suggesting that housing prices were likely prohibitive for people who weren’t urban professionals, and questioned whether people working at retail businesses in these projects could also afford to live there (a key New Urbanist ambition).  One student sought an answer by interviewing a (non-white) person working at a Belmar Information Desk. This woman had been a resident at one time, but now lives elsewhere.  Interestingly, she reported that Belmar is being increasingly occupied by aging Baby Boomers and college-attending Millennials. This observation is consistent with the realtor survey data reported by Leinberger in his New York Times piece.

Student preferences for the development in which they’d most like to live were interesting and, to some extent, surprising. American student opinion was decidedly mixed, favoring Belmar by 58% to 42%.   The case for Belmar turns on it being viewed as a livelier place, with access to a greater variety of activities and services.  American Millennials  also preferred Belmar’s modernist architectural aesthetic over the more traditional pitched roof and front porch aesthetic of HGV.  Conversely, European Millennials favored HGV over Belmar by a decisive 80% to 20%.   Key to the European students’ evaluation was HGV’s location and surroundings.  Although HGV has an older demographic young Europeans liked the easier bus access to Denver’s downtown, the project’s fit with other parts of the renewed Highlands area, and the overall greater feel of community. Some liked the pastel colors and “folk” character of  HGV architecture that reminded them of small towns in Europe.  One liked HGV because the Carousel Pavilion reminded her of the gazebos to be found in many city centers in the Czech Republic. Apropos the “wider context” consideration, one British student very perceptively said of Belmar that “I don’t feel that the local area understands it well enough to welcome it properly” and that it lacks an identity (the subtle attempts to “brand” itself reported by Dunham-Jones and Williamson notwithstanding). Finally, my four graduate students expressed four different preferences (opting for Belmar, The Streets at Southglenn, HGV, and Stapleton, respectively).   My Hispanic American student reluctantly threw in with Belmar.  My Liberian student refused to make a choice, as he was put off by both alternatives (I’ll be posting something about African Urbanism very soon).

Theatre Viewed from the Carousel Pavilion at Highlands Garden Village

The main lesson of this exercise is that Denver’s New Urbanism is decidedly mixed in its appeal to a diverse group of Millennials.  The European result suggests that New Urbanism is on the right track in terms of appealing to at least Western Anglo and Continental intercultural tastes and values.  It also enjoys some success in meeting its goal of fostering community. Attracting diversity is another matter altogether.  Denver’s New Urban projects still signal–to Americans, Europeans, and ethnic “Others” alike–homogeneity and exclusivity.  This gives one pause to wonder whether New Urbanism can really succeed in accomplishing, at the same time and within the same program, its diversity and community goals.  Wood and Landry challenge architects and planners interested in intercultural city-building to either structure space so that different cultures might see and use it in a variety of ways, or create more open-ended spaces to which a broad variety of intercultural “Others” can adapt (perhaps along the lines of an entropic urbanism).  Some students wish to challenge New Urbanism in the same way.  Alternatively, one student questioned whether New Urbanism is capable of producing an intercultural city at all.  As she put it, perhaps an intercultural city already exists in the urban fabric and just needs some poking and prodding—using other varieties of urbanism as a guide—to draw it out.

Peak Water, Urban Sustainability, and the ‘New West’

Water is a key resource constraint in urban development, especially here in the West.  Because of projected population growth—anticipated to double to 10 million people by 2050—Colorado is predicted to have a municipal and industrial water gap by at least 2030.   The gap is already emerging.   Climate change and the significant probability of drought add uncertainties that further complicate urban hydro-sustainability.  Moreover, aging infrastructure  will need replacing if the water that’s already available is to be efficiently delivered to its intended destinations.

Collaboration between state entities that deal in water will be key in meeting future water needs.  A major step in this direction was taken in 2005 with the formation (courtesy of Colorado HB 05-1177) of the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC).  The IBCC broadens the range of stakeholders actively participating in the state’s water decisions and creates a locally driven process where the decision-making power rests with those living in the state’s river basins.  The committee is committed to working with four strategies for creating a sustainable water future, encapsulated by a “4 legged stool” metaphor: (1) local projects involving  already developed water, (2) consumer conservation initiatives, (3) tapping of new water sources, and (4) agricultural-urban transfers.  Sustainability will depend on how well these strategies are mixed and matched. Other state bills like HB-08-1141 mandate that developers receiving building permits provide local government with better and more complete information regarding adequacy of the project’s proposed water supply.  Finally, earlier this year 35 water providers, towns, and ski resorts signed a historic Colorado River Cooperative Agreement to partner on a holistic approach to responsible water development that will benefit both the western and eastern slopes of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

As reported elsewhere in this blog, Business School colleagues and I have a research grant from DU’s Institute for Enterprise Ethics  to examine urban hydro-sustainability along Colorado’s Front Range.  Our team has been combing the literature and interviewing subject matter experts as a way to get a handle on the issues, and with the ultimate aim of making policy recommendations from a particular interdisciplinary perspective that integrates anthropology and real estate.  In deference to our sponsor we’ve also been thinking about the ethics of water management as it pertains to the four strategies identified above. Are some strategies better ethical choices than others?  To organize our research and reporting we’ve established a website called Peak-Water. Although describing Colorado’s current situation as “Peak Water” is perhaps overly alarmist given the current supply (which by some estimates is capable of supporting the basic needs of three times the current population) the concept is nonetheless useful for reminding people about the importance of careful water planning and collaboration.  As several interviewed experts have noted so far, too often there’s a serious disconnect between planning for people and planning for water.

My personal interest in our project focuses on the relative merits of different urban design and built environment models for supporting hydro-sustainability.  Western cities are known for sprawl, and we’ll likely see more of it in the future given the tenacity of the particular cultural values that have driven it in the past. As the  Center of the American West reported in 2005:

…there’s reason to believe that a lot more development is coming. The West has grown faster than the country as a whole for much of the last century, and is likely to outpace national growth for the foreseeable future. The “New West” [emphasis added]  is increasingly attractive to migrants and to investors. Western land owners will certainly continue to respond to market forces, and to their own preferences, by transforming lower value land uses, like agriculture, into more financially-rewarding options like subdivisions and shopping malls. Finally, Westerners will continue to buy homes in suburbs distant from city centers and to build second homes in the forests and on ridge tops. They will demand highways, water systems, and other utilities. They will also continue to complain about the sprawl, traffic, interrupted views, and lost sense of community that growth brings.

In other words, people captivated by what David Brooks has called the “Paradise Spell” will continue to seek freedom and fortune in the American West.  The result may not be your granddaddy’s sprawl, however.   We’re beginning to see planning for exurban development that is much more environmentally conscious and water-wise.  The project at Sterling Ranch located southwest of Denver is foremost among them. The plan for Sterling Ranch is akin to what Ebenezer Howard described as a Garden City.   It’s nearly identical in size (around 30,000 people) and broadly similar in form.  A dense, mixed use town center will softly transect outward into tightly knit villages and end in rural, hillside ranchettes.


Howard’s Model of the Garden City

Sustainability is the explicit design principle at Sterling Ranch.  The development will employ pioneering  water conservation measures, including rainwater harvesting (as per Colorado HB 09-1129), to support its 12,000 housing units and 31,000 people.  The estimate of water use per household is approximately one third of that traditionally required by Douglas County (.22 acre feet per household per year compared to .75).  At present Sterling Ranch developers are partnering with Denver Botanic Gardens in a “Community Supporting Agriculture” test case for evaluating whether the community’s fresh produce needs can be met locally instead of bringing fruits and vegetables in by truck.  In keeping with New Urbanist commitments local landscape and history will be respected in the project’s development, and a range of housing types and prices will be available (35% of the house product will be priced below $200,000).  Promotional material for Sterling Ranch riffs on a New West theme:

The New West retains the rugged personality, and natural beauty of the Old West, but has evolved to suit the lifestyles of today’s Westerners. Sterling Ranch provides plenty of opportunities to ride, run and play in natural settings, along with the sense of community that was once necessary when neighbors survived by working together. At the same time, it offers conveniences of modern life and a community that reflects today’s society and real-world conditions.  From a comprehensive water plan that ensures enough water for all; housing options that meet the needs of today’s buyers; public spaces that bring communities together; schools that teach skills the next generation needs to succeed; and Community Supporting Agriculture that grows food for our tables–Sterling Ranch creates a vision for the New West.

Sterling Ranch Conceptual Drawing

Sterling Ranch represents a noble vision and is an experiment worth monitoring.  Other Front Range developers certainly will be watching.  Assuming some success, the question will arise of  how many Sterling Ranch-style garden cities can the Front Range accommodate?  And, will this land use pattern promise any greater long-term environmental and social sustainability than, say, mid-to-high rise densification projects in the urban core, especially those that choose to experiment with vertical farming?

Front Range urban hydro-sustainability prospects are also complicated by the fact that water isn’t the only relevant variable affecting Western development. Peak Oil suggests, at least to some, that efforts to preserve our current way of occupying the landscape through technological innovation are doomed and that urban contraction is the only sustainable planning choice.   If there’s no significant energy savings associated with  transporting water horizontally to a population distributed in exurban Garden Cities as opposed to one that’s distributed in a high rise (Radiant City?) urban core, then contraction and vertical densification would seem to be the better bet.

There’s also the matter of Peak Population, especially as concerns ethnicity and age.  Sterling Ranch will undoubtedly attract a particular demographic that is white, middle-class, and nuclear family-based—and that’s OK.  But Colorado is clearly becoming increasingly diverse in terms of ethnic makeup.  As recently reported by North Forty News, Colorado’s Hispanic population increased by 41% over the past decade.  The African-American population rose by 19%.  The Asian population is up 45%.  In contrast, the white non-Hispanic population grew by 10%.  These increases occurred throughout the state and not just in metropolitan areas.  Will domestic minorities be drawn to communities like Sterling Ranch, or any other urban development, if cultural diversity is not a central planning and design concern?

We’re seeing the aging of Colorado’s population as well. The number of people over age 65 is predicted to increase 78% over the next 15 years, with the proportion of the total population moving from 9.8% to 17.4 %.  According to a survey by the National Association of Realtors that was reported in a recent New York Times op-ed, this aging “Boomer” population (born between 1946 and 1964) favors walkable urban downtowns, suburban town centers, and small towns.  Interestingly, the Times piece reports that the coming-of-age “Millennial” population (born between 1979 and 1996) appears to be favoring (by about one-third, according to various estimates) precisely the same kinds of settings for lifestyle reasons and for the convenience of not having to own cars.  These data suggest that we’re witnessing a major structural and demographic event: “the convergence of the two largest generations in American history” in preferring walkable, mixed-use, and centrally-located neighborhoods.

Thus, Peak Oil and Peak Population, insofar as Colorado is concerned, may be recommending a future that is traditionally urban and Old European, rather than exurban and “New Western.” It remains to be seen whether Peak Water is pointing in the same direction.  If it is, then urban planners and architects are facing a significant planning and design challenge for a Peak Planet age: how to make a time-honored, traditional form of settlement much more environmentally and interculturally attractive and sustainable.