Building for the Future

Peter Park is in the urban-planning game for good.

But despite all of its attributes, or perhaps because of them, Parktown violates the standards of many of today's municipalities. The higher density and the traditional main street abutting the block pattern of housing contrasts starkly with contemporary city-planning style, which advocates separating residential and commercial uses into self-contained clusters and connecting them via large arterial freeways. After World War II, Park says, planners began writing zoning laws that would, among other things, make car travel more efficient and segregate uses into increasingly finite categories. "It's what we know today as suburban sprawl," he says.

Sprawl -- there's that dirty word. In the public mind, it translates to big-box centers surrounded by acres of parking lot and maze-like subdivisions. Sprawl is the main reason that other word, "growth," has taken on such a derogatory meaning with many Coloradans. It signifies more of the same -- or, to be precise, more of the sameness. It's America's rural daydream set in an increasingly cookie-cutter urban nightmare of long commutes, smog and loss of open lands. In most places in the United States, jumping behind the wheel isn't so much an option as a requirement, and buildings are designed to be abandoned or demolished every few decades in favor of greener pastures -- or the pastures that used to be there before the suburban development.

The new-urbanism movement, with architects, planners and developers in the lead, started in the early '90s as a reaction to the type of sprawl patterns in which most American live and work. James Howard Kunstler calls it "the Geography of Nowhere" in his 1993 book of the same name, which describes the collective amnesia created by these non-places and the devastating effect it's had on the civic realm. Kunstler was assigned reading in the "Solving Urban Sprawl: Smart Growth and the New Urbanism" class that Park taught last semester at the University of Colorado at Denver; he's teaching another planning class this semester. His graduate students read an Atlantic Monthly article in which Kunstler rails against current zoning. "Laws," he writes, "prevent the building of places that human beings can feel good about and can afford to live in. Laws forbid us to build places that are worth caring about."

A fictional town from Sim City.
A fictional town from Sim City.

For planners such as Park, the first order of business is to understand the character of the community they're trying to create -- "like what we're drawing here," he says, pointing at the screen. "Even just a main street, even just neighborhoods" -- and then refine the zoning laws to reflect that vision. This was one of his prime accomplishments in Milwaukee, and if Sim City had more specific zoning functions, he would allow the development of mixed-use buildings (retail on the bottom, offices and apartments up top) and transit-oriented development hubs. The idea is to use public-transportation focal points not only as a way to move people around the city, but also as a way to foster development that has "a unique sense of place." With the passage of FasTracks, such transit-oriented development opportunities abound not only in Denver, but in the entire metro area, which gets a new-urbanism evangelical like Park really worked up.

"Think of the best cities in the world," he says, "the most famous, the most renowned, the most beautiful." This is a question he persistently poses to business leaders, architects and neighborhood groups; the answers usually include New York, Paris, London and San Francisco. "The common traits of those cities is that they all have transit," he continues. "Many of these cities are actually much older than Denver, and they have transit systems that not only help maintain the densities, but also the value and the quality of the places." On the other end of the memorable-city spectrum are the ever-extending megalopolises of Phoenix, Houston and Los Angeles, built largely post-WWII and all noteworthy for their 24-hour traffic jams.

"Denver is at the point where we can look at other cities that are growing and say, ŒWell, do we want to grow like that? Or do we want to be smart now and make proper investments and infrastructure, and balance in between automobiles and transit?' We're going to grow," Park says. "There's no doubt about it. More land is going to get covered over, more of the environment is going to get eaten up, more habitat is going to be replaced. But do we have to tread so heavily as we normally do when we're auto-dependent? We can put in the bone structure to accommodate growth in ways that don't require so much land."

It's a good thing that Park is concerned about the environment, because while he was talking about FasTracks, the pollution indicator on the screen turned red. "What's that?" he says, squinting. A click on the air-quality chart shows that an intense cloud of smog and fumes has formed above the industrial area, which, it turns out, was zoned too close to the town. As a result, the buildings in south Parktown are beginning to look run-down. Property values have dropped and crime has increased. Park has two options: bulldoze the worst polluters and lose a significant portion of his tax revenue, or raise taxes on dirty industry and hope it will eventually be replaced by a lighter form of manufacturing. But since his budget is already in the red -- and because eminent domain is like crack cocaine for planners -- Park opts for the latter, raising the tax for that sector to 10.9 percent. This solution doesn't satisfy him, but he doesn't have time to dwell on it. Elementary school teachers are threatening to go on strike because -- what else is new? -- they are underpaid and understaffed. Park bumps up funds for the school and zones six plots along Main Street for medium-density commercial. Businesses spring up almost as soon he opens the land to development. "That happened quickly," he says. The jobs rating makes a jump, as does Parktown's population. "I'm going to give the development director a bonus this year."

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