Longform

Mapping the Future of Urban Sprawl

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Yet he was interested in the visual arts and in how natural systems worked — seasons, the stars, how mountains were formed and other mysteries. In high school he filled out an aptitude test. The results suggested he should be a cartographer. At the University of Colorado, he started out studying environmental design, but the test was right: He took some geography classes and soon switched his major.

The concept of computer-based geographic information systems was just starting to infiltrate the university when Theobald arrived at CU. He signed up for a GIS class and was soon doing programming tasks for the professor. The new technology appealed to him instantly. "It's like a telescope or a microscope or a genetic sequencer for DNA research," Theobald says. "It enables you to think about big, broad landscapes in new ways."

The computer programs didn't simply allow geographers to crunch more data; they also allowed them to overlay details about human activity into studies of the landscape, and eventually to design models showing how those activities altered the land over time. Theobald viewed this as a major leap forward. Traditionally, he explains, ecology was about studying "square-meter plots in remote areas," unsullied by man's influence, in order to conduct pure science. Now researchers had a way of dealing with an increasingly complex set of variables while charting change on a larger scale.

"We'd basically ignored everything in our back yard," he says. "It hasn't been until the last ten or fifteen years that we've started thinking about changes in the environment in a more integrated way."

After completing his master's at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Theobald returned to CU in the early 1990s for his Ph.D. Travis, his doctorate adviser, remembers him as "one of the best students to ever come through this department." He was immersed in deeply technical GIS problems — his master's thesis dealt with "Delineation of Hydromorphology on TIN-based Surfaces" — but he'd also worked on land-use issues for Larimer County and was seeking to be something more than a GIS nerd.

"One day he stuck his head in my door and said he wanted to talk about other things," Travis recalls. "How the tool could help us see the world differently. He wanted to test some ideas about how landscapes in the West were changing."

At the time, few researchers were studying the effects of exurban development in any systematic way. Travis was one; CSU professor Knight, who also served on Theobald's dissertation committee, was another. "There wasn't anybody doing this stuff in those days," Knight says. "It's now become mainstream — thank God. We're finally waking up to the fact that one out of every four private acres in the lower 48 is now in exurban development."

Travis urged Theobald to pursue his interest in practical, far-ranging applications of his GIS skills — and to not get bogged down in the kind of minute data-quality quibbles that seem to consume techies. Among other things, the quest led to their mutual involvement in Atlas of the New West, a 1997 collection of maps, essays, photos and charts depicting the region's ski resorts, water wars, nuclear-waste dumps and other salient features. The project drew a team of contributors from CU's Center of the American West, but Travis says it had its origins in Theobald's work on a Forest Service grant, mapping development around Crested Butte. Heading back from one trip to the area, Travis and Theobald wondered if it was possible to find a cappuccino in Buena Vista. ("The answer was yes, but the place was closed," Travis says.) Theobald mused about doing a map of espresso bars in small towns across the West, and the idea steamrolled from there.

By that point, Theobald had moved on to post-doctoral research at CSU's Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory. (Since 2001, he's been a professor in the recently rebranded Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, formerly known as the Natural Resource Recreation and Tourism Department.) But he also worked with Travis and the Center on a startling report of what the West will look like by 2040. Drawing on census data, population projections and development patterns, Theobald developed color-coded maps tracing the expansion of major cities across eleven states and the even more rapid sprawl generated by exurban growth.

The maps of Colorado's Front Range — which can be found online at www.centerwest.org/futures — show a spreading pool of red, signifying high-density development, around the Denver metro area. But more remarkable are the blotchy yellow spores, representing development of one unit for every ten to forty acres, extending along the fringes of the cities like a bad rash, as formerly rural areas get devoured by exurbia.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast