Number 4 in our list of Denver’s Top 10 Urbanism Achievements of the Aughts is the various progressive plans and policies the city has adopted in the past decade. OK, I know this one may not be as exciting as some of the others on the list, but it is just as important in the long run.
The reason why we find ourselves with urban development issues like buildings that are out-of-scale with their surrounding context or wide high-volume one-way streets or boring blank walls along whole blocks of Downtown is because the policies and plans we had in place at the time those things were constructed allowed, encouraged, or even required that those things occur. Change the policies, and you change the results you get.
For decades, Denver’s public rights-of-way have been under the control of the traffic engineers, because the only purpose of a street, after all, is to move the maximum number of motor vehicles from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, right? Denver was not alone in this viewpoint, of course. Pretty much the whole country went on a wild automobile orgy after World War II, ripping out historic neighborhoods to put in expressways, widening local streets in older areas to function as major arterials, tearing down buildings to put up parking lots, putting in double or even triple turn lanes at intersections and not bothering with cross-walks, designing new subdivisions with curvy and dead-end streets where nothing connects to anything and you have to drive everywhere to get anywhere, building new homes with a huge garage facing the street and with the dwelling hidden somewhere in the back… the list goes on. And then we wonder: why are we so alienated by our built environment?
Fortunately, the plans and policies that got us into this mess have been changing in Denver, and this past decade we made excellent progress on that front. The decade began with the completion of the new Denver Comprehensive Plan 2000 which established a broad vision and goals for the city. That was followed up in 2002 by Blueprint Denver, the city’s first-ever integrated land use and transportation plan that categorized all parts of the city into Areas of Change and Areas of Stability and focused on the mixing of land uses along with multi-modal streets. In 2005, the Downtown Multimodal Access Plan (DMAP) was adopted which identifies circulation patterns and routes in the Downtown area for all forms of transport and mobility, as well as cross-sections and streetscape designs for all of Downtown’s different street classifications.
The list goes on. Since 2005, the City of Denver has completed the Strategic Transportation Plan, Greenprint Denver, the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Strategic Plan, the Denver Living Streets initiative, and the Downtown Area Plan. And then there’s the new Denver Zoning Code which, while not quite complete yet, has been a massive—Herculean—effort over the past five years that will align our zoning regulations with all of our new land use, transportation, and urban design goals and policies.
Are any or all of these new plans and policies perfect? Hmmm… no. But what is important to recognize is that they are all fundamentally based on the same philosophies and principles of urbanism that created Denver’s original urban districts and neighborhoods that we so treasure today, and 180-degrees opposite the automobile-oriented and modernist philosophies and principles that created most of the mess we’re trying to fix. For that reason, Denver’s bundle of new “old urbanism” plans and policies ranks Number 4 on our Top 10 list.