Friday, January 30, 2009

Thoughts on Denver

After a week of sub-zero temperatures and seemingly endless driving through the Great Plains, we were really looking forward to this bastion of civilization in the endless expanse of middle America. We were a good 30 miles away from any area marked as "urbanized" by the map were were using when the corn fields and high density feed lots gave way to cookie cutter suburbs.Denver is an enormous city in an unlikely place. Its population is considered extremely health conscious and as far as we could tell, people were more active in this city than in any we had visited (we were in town during unseasonably warm weather...). This former cattle town's population has tripled over the last 50 years. The accommodations built for the new residence have shaped the entire city.

The Great Plains stretch endless to the North, South and East. To the West, the towering Rocky Mountains beckon. It's quite a view, especially to a couple saddle sore midwesterners. It seemed like every place in the city enjoyed some nice views of the mountains, from the swankiest condos to the parking lots of big box stores.Denver (and Colorado in general) is a colorful place. The older buildings seem very much influenced by the southwestern building tradition. Many employ stucco and a handsome brickwork that is often painted with great detail. The pre-WWII developments are laid out in the typical pseudo-suburb pattern that planners of the time would have referred to as "best practice". Some of the homes are nice, some are less so and they all sit in quiet neighborhoods with little pockets of commercial activity.The newer buildings are unremarkable and aside for some scale differences (i.e. double left turn lanes, six lane roads...etc), much of Denver is indecipherable from the suburb I grew up in outside Lansing. The downtown is packed with towering office buidings. Perhaps the architects in the area were attempting to convey the endlessness of the Great Plains when they designed these giants.Downtown Denver is very much the central business district advertised on the transit maps. A couple buildings stood out though, holdovers from another era.We were surprised to find street cars in Denver. They are oriented towards the downtown area and it seems like they were intended to reduce highway congestion during rush hour. In no way do these street cars attempt to increase the mobility of Denver residents or allow any person to get by without a car. The Denver bus system is incredibly highly developed, but since the development blocks are so large, multiple transfers--and lots of time--are needed to get around on the public transit system.Denver has a very highly regarded transit system. In my totally amateur yet critical opinion, the only reason anybody would use it is fluke route placement or economic necessity. Forcing under-privileged people onto an inconvenient and time consuming bus system only makes it harder for them to get a leg up in the world. This is an issue of social justice and as a society, we need to address it as such.

Denver is essentially in a desert, but you wouldn't really know it. It was astonishing the waste that is tolerated in a place that has such scarce water resources. They also make recycling practically impossibly for most residents. The critical concepts laid out in the "Reduce, Reuse and Recycle" slogan don't seem like they've caught on here.

Denver does take an interesting approach to bicycle transportation, one that we've seen repeated in other places across the west. There is enough space in cities of this sort that bicycles don't always need to share road space, instead they have their own rights of way where they hurtle over clean asphalt complete with on and off ramps. More on this in the Boulder piece.

We didn't see all of Denver, and allegedly we missed some interesting parts of it. Even so, I have no problem leaving the place thinking that rapid growth usually ends up being unsustainable growth.

It's a difficult challenge for a city to accommodate a burgeoning population. Most would argue this was the challenge that lead to the field of planning in the first place. From observation, the first 100 years of planning practice has accomplished much, but left even more to be desired.

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