Mapping the Future of Urban Sprawl

Dave Theobald fights sprawl by charting it, one ranchette at a time.

"It was received pretty well," Theobald says. "It helped ground the discussion. It's always hard to say that something concrete came out of it, but I think it helped lower the acrimony."

Ouray County Commissioner Dave Batchelder says that a committee is still studying Theobald's work. Some critics of the study want a degree of certainty in planning tools that just isn't feasible, he adds, but others appreciated the analysis: "People don't usually think about the number of trips a day and how that affects quality of life. For those of us who are demographics junkies, information like this is always helpful."

Regardless of how the county's current growth quandaries turn out, Batchelder appreciates Theobald's willingness to inject some objective figures into the fray. "The original mission of land-grant universities was to help local governments," he says. "Over the years, it's gone to working with large agricultural businesses, more of a corporate relationship. To Dave's credit, in this effort he has pushed for the university to fulfill its mission. That type of attitude, it seems to me, could have significant benefits for rural communities across the state."

Dave Theobald has seen Colorado's future — and it's not pretty.
Anthony Camera
Dave Theobald has seen Colorado's future — and it's not pretty.
Theobald oversaw the creation of CoMAP, which charts protected areas across the state, including parks, private conservation efforts and federal lands.
Theobald oversaw the creation of CoMAP, which charts protected areas across the state, including parks, private conservation efforts and federal lands.

Location Info

Map

Colorado State University

Main Campus
Fort Collins, CO 80523

Category: Schools

Region: Northern Colorado

Theobald hopes to get more involved in local planning issues even as his research leads him to a more national and even global view of the land. He's currently embarking on an EPA study that will attempt to incorporate data on land use in the western United States in a study of projected climate change stretching to the year 2100. "A lot of climate-change models are making assumptions about the surface of the land and how it will interact with the atmosphere," Theobald explains. "But they have very simplistic assumptions about land use."

Linking up GIS work to the complexities of computer-generated climate models seems to be the logical next step. But trying to crack the global-warming problem won't prevent Theobald from attempting to map ranchettes in rural Larimer County, too.

"It deepens your understanding if you can work at multiple scales," he says. "I can't possibly know how growth is occurring across the United States. But I do have a deep rooting in certain places, and I like to keep grounded in the data."


Class is almost over, and visiting lecturer Theobald is trying to squeeze a few more key points into his presentation. He wants the students to understand that the notion of a protected area has less to do with whether it's owned by public or private interests than the type of management and activities allowed on that land. He brings up an oft-cited government figure that 90,000 acres of agricultural land in Colorado are lost to urban development every year. He says it's more like 154,000 acres, but nobody is quite sure where it's all going.

As the clock runs out, students start throwing their notebooks into backpacks and eyeing the door. Theobald says there's still lots of land to inventory, that the whole process is "a huge opportunity to advance the landscape," or at least man's understanding of it.

The students applaud, then pile out, on their way to urgent appointments with other classes, friends, snacks, cell phones, iPods. But a few linger, waiting to talk to the professor about maps and places and the changes to come.

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