How Developers Can Preserve and Enhance Colorado
Urban redevelopment and land conservation are two sides of the same coin
Preserving the mountain landscapes surrounding Crested Butte and redeveloping the urban core of Colorado’s capital city may seem like disconnected acts. I’ve spent much of my adult life doing both because they instinctively seemed like the right things to do in these very different places.
And what I’ve come to recognize is that land conservation and smart urban redevelopment are not only the right things to do, but also interrelated, rational responses to two of the most powerful forces shaping our state: population growth and resource limitations.
In 1973, when I took a job waiting tables in Crested Butte, Colorado was home to 2.5 million souls. That has more than doubled in the intervening 45 years to reach 6.5 million, and demographers predict that number to climb to over 8.5 million by 2050.
Much of that growth has happened in sprawling neighborhoods in the suburbs and exurbs along the Front Range, where vast shortgrass prairie habitats and forested foothills were swapped for single-family homes whose lawns need scarce water and whose cars need carbon-intensive fuel for long commutes.
Land conservation is about keeping the built environment out of the natural environment. But protecting land benefits those of us in built environments, too.
Aside from the very real benefits of spending time in nature, nature provides a long list of ecological services, ranging from pollination to carbon sequestration to air and water purification. Researchers have pegged the global value of these services at $125 trillion a year – though that number is falling with human-caused environmental degradation. Really, that $1.25 trillion is just an actuarial restatement of what we already know: preserving natural environments isn’t just the right thing to do for the planet; it’s the right thing to do for us.
Smart urban redevelopment is also essential to keep the built environment out of the natural environment.
It’s not only about keeping bulldozers out of natural habitats. Living in a city is good for the environment: residents of apartments and condominiums in buildings with five or more units use half the energy as those in single-family homes. A walkable and bikeable city with convenient transit options means less driving, better air quality and lower carbon emissions. Among many other methods, cities can steer smart development and redevelopment by providing incentives to harness geothermal energy, adding vehicle charging stations, and mandating green roofs (both literally, through the addition of rooftop greenery, and figuratively, through solar panels).
Equally important, though, is the question of how to harness urban redevelopment to optimize cities as livable spaces that continue to attract the sort of cultural, economic and ethnic diversity that make cities attractive. Jane Jacobs, the great urbanist and activist, said, “a city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethnic processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies.”
How do we shape those “physical-economic-ethnic” processes that keep cities attractive and, by extension, minimize our environmental footprint even as our population grows?
The answers might include providing incentives for urban developers to offer meaningful numbers of low-income housing units, thereby helping preserve the economic and cultural diversity inherent in successful downtown neighborhoods. They might include some degree of future-proofing urban redevelopments by recognizing that parking structures may not stay parking structures in the coming era of vehicle autonomy. They might include providing ample spaces for people to meet, congregate, and just hang out – be it in a ground-level pocket park or a rooftop garden above an apartment complex. The common denominator for all of these is embracing urban density and taking meaningful steps to foster it.
In the end, urban redevelopment and land conservation share the common goals of sustainability and livability. We must create livable urban spaces capable of hosting more people amid a declining natural-resource base. The preservation – and, I hope, enhancement – of the state we call home will depend to no small degree on governments, developers and citizens taking the long view of what’s best for our cities and the natural environments that sustain them.
Jeff Hermanson is the founder of Larimer Associates and the owner of Larimer Square.