[Part of a series on urban design in Colorado]
Now that this series is beginning to come to a close (one more post left), it’s time to take a step back at look at the big picture in Colorado. Over the past five posts I’ve discussed some of Colorado’s sensible and innovative policies to create more vibrant cities that deemphasize the automobile and encourage a healthy, active lifestyle. One thing that I haven’t really mentioned up to this point is the massive amounts of sprawl occurring in Colorado today.
Sprawl has been a major problem in Colorado since the early Postwar era, and Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins are no exception. In spite of the cutting-edge policies toward pedestrian/transit malls, bicycling, and other urban design feats, these cities continue to rely on bland tract-style automobile-oriented suburban development.
Whereas sprawl in Fort Collins in the 1960s-1980s still generated a degree of urban form with open neighborhoods and an interconnected street grid, sprawl in the 1990s-present has been mostly walled in, cut off subdivisions which rely on a few major arterial streets. Old sprawl managed to still foster a strong bicycling culture, due to the wide, slow streets which were built across the city parallel to the fast arterial streets. However, new sprawl has eliminated these slow side streets, creating mega-blocks of subdivisions and strip malls in which major arterial streets are the only way to get around. So, while Fort Collins’ transportation policy is working toward becoming more bicycle-friendly, it’s development policy is heading in the opposite direction toward more automobile-oriented suburbs.
Above: Old sprawl in Fort Collins. The street network remains interconnected and slower, non-arterial streets still connect between neighborhoods
Below: New sprawl in Fort Collins. Not even Google Maps can keep up with the subdivisions and strip malls sprouting up on what used to be farmland. Notice the lack of connectivity in the street grid and the reliance on a few major arterial streets.
Boulder has met a similar fate, and recently instituted growth limits to reign in sprawl. However, the city has not been able to keep up with housing demand through infill development, leading housing prices to increase and more people commuting from neighboring cities.
Fort Collins, on the other hand, has continued to allow sprawl and consequently has remained affordable. It is important to note that sprawl in Fort Collins is still not nearly as bad compared to sprawl in the Bay Area’s outer rim (Antioch, Livermore, Fairfield, etc.) from an energy and environmental perspective–it’s almost impossible to make a trip in Fort Collins that’s greater than 5 miles, so the overall vehicle miles traveled is very low for the majority of its residents. Yet, while Fort Collins has not installed growth limits, concerns over traffic, consumption of farmland and open space, and loss of city character has driven the city to alter its development policy with the creation of the Mason Street Corridor.
Following a general trend across Colorado of improving transportation infrastructure, Fort Collins is set to turn its abandoned rail corridor into a new BRT line and multi-use trail. The $80 million dollar project will tie together Downtown, Colorado State University, and the southern commercial and business districts while at the same time serving as a guide for future growth (to see a corny video, click here). While this idea has been around for 30 years now, Fort Collins’ committment to opening the corridor by 2011 puts it way ahead of many similar BRT projects across the country.
While Fort Collins’ project might seem small, Denver’s ambitious $6.2 billion FasTracks program will fundamentally transform the region. In 11 seperate projects, Denver will add 140 miles of new light rail, commuter rail, and BRT in the next 7 years in an aggressive program that will give Denver the largest light rail system in the U.S. and one of the first DMU/EMU commuter rail systems.
FasTracks will also bring a rail connection to Denver’s new Stapleton development. A Calthorpe project, the redevelopment of the former airport is the largest redevelopment project in the U.S., expected to add 13,000 new housing units (which is equivalent to probably 30,000 people). I unfortuneatly didn’t get the chance to visit Stapleton, but you can learn more about it here.
The last major project that will transform Colorado is intercity rail. Currently, the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority is studying the potential of a rail network spanning across the Front Range Urban Corridor and along the I-70 corridor to connect with major recreational destinations in the Rockies. The Fort Collins-Boulder-Denver-Colorado Springs corridor could potentially be high-speed (meaning at least 110mph+). Either way, a good intercity rail network in Colorado is badly needed, and would further aid Colorado in better managing its growth in the coming decades and developing more sustainable and livable cities in the future.
In spite of its continuing struggle against sprawl, Colorado is well on its way to becoming a leader in Smart Growth and transportation planning. In the next post, which will be the last of this series, we’ll look at what lessons the Bay Area and California as a whole can take away from Colorado.
And more pictures at the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr