Like many of you, I love living in Denver, and I focus my passion for planning and building great cities directly on the Mile High City. It’s my mission to help make Denver and cities throughout Colorado the best places they can be.
What is urbanism? It’s the culture and lifestyle of people living in urban areas. It’s the belief in the potential of cities to be the most efficient, equitable, and inspiring forms of human settlement. It’s people moving about and interacting with one another in an intensive, built environment. It’s promoting and contributing to the success and vitality of urban places. Urbanism is all of these things. So if you love cities, then congratulations… you’re an urbanist!
Why is urbanism important? We spent hundreds of years investing labor and treasure to build our nation’s cities into thriving hubs of commerce and culture. Then to neglect that huge investment, let our cities deteriorate, and construct new communities in undeveloped areas would be an incredibly wasteful exercise. Yet that’s exactly what we did in the United States in the post-World War II era. We turned our backs on our older neighborhoods and downtowns and spent trillions of dollars over several decades putting in new, less-efficient infrastructure and building new, less-diverse developments out on the edge of town. We ripped out our streetcar systems and punched massive highways through established neighborhoods. We yielded control of our streets to traffic engineers who believed that the primary function of the public right-of-way was to maximize the quantity and speed of cars traveling between points A and B, and screw the pedestrian. We demolished historic buildings and replaced them with ugly parking lots. We abandoned the planning and city-building principles of mixed-use neighborhoods and multi-purpose streets. We nearly destroyed the cities we spent generations growing and nurturing. We did this here in Denver and in essentially every major city in the country.
Not. Very. Smart.
Now for the good news! As a society, we have (mostly) realized the error of our ways, and we now embrace the planning and city-building values that originally gave us the cool urban places we find appealing. Particularly here in Denver and in many communities throughout Colorado, we are once again investing in public transportation, moderating the automobile’s share of the street, and installing wider sidewalks and new bike lanes. We are bringing back into our neighborhoods a mix of land uses that promotes economic vitality and encourages the repurposing of existing buildings. We are steadily replacing those ugly parking lots with new structures that draw people, stimulate activity, enliven the sidewalks, and help repair the urban fabric. We are developing higher-density housing, which fosters a more diverse and tolerant population and results in the more efficient use of infrastructure. We still have a long way to go to correct all of our anti-urban errors of the past, but we’re getting there.
Now, back to the question I asked above: why is urbanism important? It’s important because if enough of us embrace an urbanist perspective, we can greatly improve our chances of avoiding past mistakes and advancing our progress in rebuilding our downtowns and urban areas. It’s important in order for us to leave to future generations cities that they will be proud to inherit.
So, if you love cities, then you should enjoy this Denver Urbanism column! Going forward, I’ll be pondering urban-this and Denver-that, and exploring the reasons why we love cities and how we can make them better.