The Next Leader in Regional Connectivity: Denver?

Alex Schafran considers Denver's unique position as a trailblazer in suburban retrofitting and sustainable region-building, as an ambitious mass transit project grapples with a tradition of sprawl and fragmented politics.

November 21, 2012, 5:00 AM PST

By Ryan Lue


Denver may not be the first city that springs to mind when it comes to avant-garde urbanism, what with its sprawling suburbs and historic craftsmans – but it is precisely for those traditionally American qualities that is now poised to reshape the way we think about the structure and hierarchy of metropolitan regions. As the Denver Metro area moves forward with FasTracks, a far-reaching expansion of its mass transit system, municipalities are launching corollary planning initiatives to prepare for the needs of a more regionally connected population.

While Downtown Denver pursues more transit-oriented development, it is suburban retrofitting that promises to set a standard for the regionally-conscious adaptation of suburbs elsewhere in the country.

"Denver is, in many ways, the prototypical 20th-century American city," Schafran writes — "a 'city of homes' (as the urban historian Carl Abbott deemed it), a fragmented and sprawling metropolis where the single-family home dominates land use... most of the region is a phenomenally extensive grid of interlocking municipalities, some of which — like Aurora — occupy space in three different counties."

These patterns of geographic development have produced a complex political backdrop for cooperation between local governments. "The history of incorporation and annexation is like a municipal game of Risk, with the rewards being tax base and territory. Aurora... just east of Denver, is now more than half the size of its more famous neighbor, and prefers to call the region the 'Aurora-Denver metro area.' Given the unprecedented cooperation between rival municipalities needed to complete the lengthy planning process, as well as the popular vote across eight counties to raise tax revenue in libertarian Colorado, we have to thing [sic] of FasTracks as a borderline miracle in American planning."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 in POLIS

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