Monday, April 8, 2013

Transportation and urban form in Denver

The history of growth and urban form in Denver, Colorado offers an interesting microcosm of national trends. Denver’s growth has taken different forms in different time periods, but some signs point to an evolution toward a more compact, transit-oriented pattern after many years of dispersed, auto-oriented development. 

From 1950 to 1990, Denver’s population grew from 500,000 to 1.5 million, a threefold increase. At the same time, the total land area of metropolitan Denver increased fourfold from 105 to 459 square miles. Population density decreased by 30% over this period, dropping from around 4,700 persons per square mile to 3,300. The share of the population living in the city of Denver dropped from 81 percent to 31 percent. (Goetz 2013) The driving factors behind this sprawling development reflect many national trends, most prominently interstate highway construction and automobile ownership.

However, beginning in the 1990s, after two decades of mostly unsuccessful attempts to curb sprawl with anti-growth policies, public and private groups coalesced around a new vision the region inspired by the ideas of smart growth, new urbanism and regionalism. The Denver Regional Council of Governments adopted a growth boundary, and while not legally binding, it represented a step to limit sprawl. New Urbanist influence can be seen in award-winning projects like Stapleton, LoDo and Belmar.

Perhaps most importantly, the region adopted $6.8 billion expansion plan for a regional light rail network, coupled with an expansive program to foster transit-oriented development around light rail stations. While Denver’s density has climbed back to 4,000 persons per square mile (Ratner & Goetz 2013), the popularity of low-density residential housing, especially in the foothills of the mountains on the western edge of the city, will continue to challenge the city’s vision of a more compact, sustainable urban future. 

High density residential development in Stapleton


Ratner, K. A., & Goetz, A. R. (2013). The reshaping of land use and urban form in Denver through transit-oriented development. Cities, 30, 31–46. doi:10.1016/j.cities.2012.08.007

Goetz, A. (2013). Suburban Sprawl or Urban Centres: Tensions and Contradictions of Smart Growth Approaches in Denver, Colorado. Urban Studies. doi:10.1177/0042098013478238

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