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Lessons from Vancouver

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Vancouver, BC as part of the Downtown Denver Partnership‘s urban exploration program. Our group included about 60 downtown leaders and officials, and the purpose of the trip was to learn about different design and policy initiatives used successfully in Vancouver that we could potentially adopt to improve Downtown Denver.

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Downtown Vancouver is an amazing place. A city and metro area almost identical in population to Denver, their downtown is covered by (literally) hundreds of residential towers, along with office towers, all the usual civic buildings and cultural amenities, exceptional parks, and substantial retail.  Over 90,000 people call Downtown Vancouver home in an area 1.75 miles by 1.0 miles—about the same size as in Denver bounded by the South Platte River to the State Capitol, and Speer Boulevard to Park Avenue. Here’s Downtown Vancouver via GoogleEarth with 3-D Buildings:

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How Downtown Vancouver transformed over the course of about 20 years into a dense, residentially oriented and livable downtown was the result of a convergence of many factors, including worldwide exposure from hosting the 1986 World Expo; a flood of investment capital in advance of the 1999 transfer of Hong Kong to China (and, since then, investment capital from throughout the world); a strong pro-environmental and progressive cultural ethic; a vibrant local economy; anticipation over hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics; a geographically constrained urban core; and municipal leadership that’s unapologetically and aggressively pro-urban. Imagine a city Denver’s size with dozens of One Lincoln Parks and Glass Houses coming online every year for over two decades running (with no slowdown in sight). That’s Vancouver.

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It’s impossible for me to recount the hundreds of great ideas, key decisions, and influential policies that we learned about on the trip in this blog post, but I’ll share with you a few that really stood out to me:

When asked about the city’s policy and spending priorities within the public realm, the Vancouver planning director said in a very matter-of-fact manner:

1. Pedestrians
2. Bicycles
3. Transit
4. Movement of goods
5. Private automobiles

…in that order, period. And this is not just a planning department priority order, but one shared enthusiastically by Public Works, Parks & Rec, and everyone in the city from the Mayor on down. That priority order permeates everything they do in Vancouver, and it shows. It’s no coincidence that Vancouver routinely ranks as one of the most livable cities in not only North America, but the world. In Denver, we are slowly coming around to those priorities, but we have a long way to go before it becomes an institutionalized way of thinking.

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Vancouver requires a lot from their development community. Parks, plazas, promenades, civic projects, transit improvements, schools, day care centers… you name it, if it’s something that adds to the livability of the city, the city requires developers to help pay for these things (what they call the “common wealth”) if the developers are going to be granted a building permit. But in exchange for all of that civic investment, the city rewards the developers with substantial density bonuses and a streamlined review process. The city’s strategy is that a successful project must be a win-win for both the developer and the community. The city will work whatever deal is necessary to make the project profitable for the developer while also making sure the project contributes to the vitality of the city. Now, to be fair, this is a strategy that works because there is such a tremendous demand to build projects in Vancouver, that the city is in a position of calling the shots. But, one of the reasons why demand to invest in Vancouver is so strong is because of the high quality of life that has resulted from all those amenities that were built with help from the development community.

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Vancouver is known for its “point” tower: a thin structure rising up from a podium base that extends to the property line. In Vancouver, each tower above the podium must be at least 80 feet from its neighbor. This results in a checkerboard-like distribution of towers across the downtown with plenty of air and sun and nice views in between while, at the sidewalk level, the podium provides a strong street wall punctuated only by the carefully placed public park or plaza. In Vancouver, those tower podiums are usually only two or three stories high and consist of various activities such as retail, lobby functions, offices, or community uses. Parking? It’s all underground. Above-ground structured parking is not allowed.

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Towers in Vancouver are not allowed to have a flat boxy top. The developer/architect is required do something interesting at the top. The city doesn’t dictate what the top must look like and it doesn’t have to be fancy, it just can’t be a box.

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There are 14 full-service grocery stores in Downtown Vancouver (plus urban versions of Home Depot and many other big-box retailers). Want retail? Need lots of people.

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Vancouver is known for its family-friendly downtown. They made the decision that their downtown wasn’t going to be for just young professionals and empty-nesters. Not only do they have an affordable housing requirement (as does Denver), but they also have a family-housing requirement: each development must have a certain number or percentage of three- or four-bedroom units to accommodate families. That, combined with plenty of downtown schools, day care centers, and kid-friendly public spaces, has mostly eliminated the “gotta move to the suburbs after the kids are born” routine that is so typical here in Denver. In fact, the demographic that has been a big part of the city’s population growth has been suburbanites with kids moving into Downtown.

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Ground-floor retail is required in buildings only along certain streets (primarily those with transit). Otherwise, the ground floors of buildings must be visually permeable with interesting/engaging designs to the pedestrian, nice landscaping, etc., but retail isn’t forced to be everywhere.

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I could go on, but that’s enough for now. Each of these topics have clear applications for Denver. As a result of this trip, I’m even more committed to advocating for more progressive thinking about how Downtown Denver should grow and prosper. Vancouver’s experience can help us get there.

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29 Comments

  1. Kyle says:

    I was able to spend a couple nights in Vancouver a couple of years ago and I still tell people what a beautiful city it is. While being there, you just have a “sense” that this city is on the right track and now Ken has pointed out several of the reasons why. I will always love Denver the most and it has a lot to offer but Vancouver could be a good sibling to look up to.

  2. Chris says:

    Ken,

    I’d argue that a lot of this is happening in Denver now. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I can think of hundred’s of examples in Denver where Public Works and the rest of the City are making excellent decisions about pedestrians, bikes and cars. Whether it’s in Union Station, the building of the bridges over the Platte and I-25, the coming changes on Bannock, the finished changes on 14th, the bike lanes down 7th Avenue, b-Cycle, the reclamation of parks. The list is long.

    I’ve never been to Vancouver, but I’ve never heard anything but good things. Denver is embracing this sort of urbanity. (Although, maybe not the height.) Slowly, but surely.

    • Ken says:

      Chris, I agree, we are making good progress here in Denver. What’s amazing to see is what happens when a city jumps in with both feet.

    • Derrick says:

      Chris (or anyone that knows),

      What are the changes coming on Bannock?

      -DB

  3. Justin says:

    Amigo,
    Vancouver is a great city, one that is verging on world class. However it is my opinion that a significant amount of Vancouver’s growth has been predicated on its geographical circumstances. If any Canadian city should be compared to Denver, it should be Calgary. Downtown Vancouver is limited by a finite amount of space and has more in common (although smaller in population) with a city such as San Francisco.
    Denver, like Calgary can grow in just about any direction with limitations to the west due to the mountains. In addition, I do concede the point that Denver’s metropolitan growth is limited to the south by government held land. I just am having a hard time with comparing Denver to Vancouver. The reason why Denver has not experienced a similar amount of vertical growth at its core is due to the market. The prudent choice and more profitable choice in the Denver metro area is to build out, as opposed to build up.
    In any event, I do appreciate your mention of grocery stores in Vancouver/ lack thereof in Denver. This is an element that downtown Denver is missing.
    On a side note, I have been a long time follower of your blog and appreciate your enthusiasm for Denver.
    -J

    • Ken says:

      Justin, you’re absolutely right about the geographic limitations. That’s a big factor. I’m not attempting to compare Vancouver to Denver directly, but there is enough in common between our cities for Denver to investigate some of their policy and design decisions to see how we could apply them in Denver.

  4. Brian says:

    I would guess there would be some economic factor behind it all, like relatively cheap condos for some period of time in the core. What kicked it all off, Do you have any context? Is denver already too pricey to get massive growth or are our prices still affordable?

    I think it would also help if half of hong kong moved here.

    • Ken says:

      The condos in Vancouver are roughly twice as expensive on a cost/SF basis and half as small in square footage as Denver condos. Average two bedroom is like 700 SF. People don’t seem to mind and they follow the “sleep at home, live in the city” type lifestyle. We certainly can’t replicate all the unique conditions that got Vancouver to where they are today but we can study and learn from some of their policy and design decisions.

      • scott says:

        regarding. “sleep at home and live in the city”

        While this is a pretty common mentality in places like NYC, SF and Vancouver it hasn’t really seemed to have taken hold in Denver. Or has it but the number of full time downtown “CBD, lodo and CPV” residents isn’t enough to really notice a difference. Restaurants, Bars etc seem eerily quiet on Sun-Wed nights compared to some of these other cities mentioned. Are we living in places that are just too nice we don’t want to leave, or does it have more to do with the affluency of the residents or just lack of population? Just kind of curious why we aren’t there yet and how we get there. It would just be great in helping add a real vibrancy to the city which is certainly a great recruiting tool for new residents.

        • Troy says:

          Scott,
          I think the primary contributing factor that makes present day Vancouver happen is land use policies. Strongly encourage density, parks, and non-auto transit and then you’ll have lots of people. Then retail follows and all the magic of a vibrant city.

  5. Will says:

    I visit Vancouver and it is a fantastic place. (The pictures don’t ever do it justice.) What to me is most remarkable is that there are no interstates in it. Its population moves daily with a reliance on mass transit. On a personal note, after my first visit to Vancouver in 2003, I decided I no longer wanted to live in the city I lived in back east. After a long search, I moved to Denver. Best thing I ever did for myself.

    • Troy says:

      Will,
      I’ve heard presentations by long time Vancouver planners who said that plenty of people advocated highways years ago but the people fought it. They somehow had a correct vision in my view (kind of like how Toronto unlike just about all of NA kept its street car system which is lovely… ride the Rocket!). This of course is reinforced with their current city planners comments that Ken mentions.

  6. SC48 says:

    I think the people of Denver play a part in this as well. Having moved out here from the New York area almost four years ago, I was amazed at the number of people who were fellow 20-somethings (at the time) who actually wanted to live in places like Broomfield or Highlands Ranch. Not that there weren’t people in the northeast who didn’t want to live in cities, there were. But the numbers were much lower – there was a premium placed on living in the city. I see that in a small, dedicated group of people here (small relative to the metro area population), but it feels like the minority here. Fast-tracked permitting, incentives, new zoning, fancy architecture, etc. are only going to do so much when you’re dealing with a demographic that wants five bedrooms (even for just a couple! What are you going to do with all that space?!), wants to drive everywhere, and enjoys being surrounded by suburban sprawl. For many, Downtown is just a place to go get drunk on Friday and Saturday nights. I think us folks that read this blog are a self selecting group that shares a common vision about what Denver can and should be… unfortunately, I’m just not convinced that a majority of people in the Denver metro area share that vision and I think that’s a big part of the problem.

    • Julio says:

      I just don’t think what you’re saying is bore out by demographic information. In fact, Denver’s growth rate is pretty high (more than 10 percent during the last decade) and recent census estimates say there are more than 610,000 people living in Denver (56,654 people moved to Denver). Suburban growth has been more mixed: Lakewood and Centennial actually saw declines while some suburbs are growing.

      And I do think that some of the Denver growth is in places like Stapleton and Lowry (which our somewhat urban), but a lot of it is downtown and there are a lot of people interested in and moving to the downtown area. It will be really interesting when the census is done and is broken down by neighborhoods to see if this is correct, but I have a feeling at least half of the population growth is in the center city neighborhoods.

  7. Steve Beam says:

    Fantastic education on the city of Vancouver. I hope our city planners take a serious look at what they are and have been doing and use this as a road map. My family enjoys downtown but it still has a very hard feel and look to it in many places. Great informative post BTW.

  8. Mc1844 says:

    One thing Vancouver has going for it is great natural amenities directly adjacent to the city. And, as was pointed out above, no freeways entering the downtown. Denver? The greatest natural amenitiy (Platte River Valley) was industrialized and then paved over with I-25; then I-70 run east-west through established neighborhoods. Witness Globeville, surrounded by the triangle of three highways.

    For those who want to “sleep at home and live in the city” in downtown Vancouver, you have everything from grocery stores to some of the best beaches on the west coast within walking distance. (Admittedly grey and short winter days if you want to be outdoors).

  9. matt.pizzuti says:

    Vancouver has 70K people living Downtown, which is great. I’d love for Downtown Denver to see that kind of population.

    But both cities have roughly 600K people within their city limits, meaning that over 4/5 of the population is living in the core city but outside Downtown. Is Vancouver any more successful in making those neighborhoods livable than Denver is? What kind of things are they doing with those areas?

    I think there are a lot of people who are unable to live downtown (due to prices or pets or interest in hobbies like gardening, which require a yard) but still want everything a city has to offer: walkability, access to transit, proximity to retail, urban-style parks, and diversity. I’d say that in Denver, Capitol Hill and similar neighborhoods are a perfect balance (for me, anyway) with drastically mixed density, drastically mixed income, and huge trees. There are large apartment buildings literally next door to 100-year-old single-family homes that have been remodeled five times since they were built, decks added, garages added, kitchens added, next door to smaller apartment buildings, row houses and duplexes – the one feature that unites all Capitol Hill buildings (and separates them from suburban buildings) is that they all represent a very long-term investment in the space.

    How far from the city’s core does Vancouver extend this kind of philosophy toward urban planning, and what is the ultimate product of the neighborhood these policies produce?

    • Ralph says:

      I was in Vancouver 1.5 yrs ago and made it out of the city core. There are plenty of single family homes and expressways just outside the main area of downtown. In relation to Denver, maybe equivalent to park hill? I measured on google earth and the area I remember was 3.5 miles from their CBD. Their core neighborhoods are all the size of CPV, Cap Hill, Golden Triangle, etc. except they are all filled in without the missing teeth found here in Denver. Like Ken said, nothing but OLPs, and Glass Houses as far as you can see. Something like Solera wouldn’t even be noticeable. We’ll get there. Denver is still young with history to make.

  10. Dirk Gently says:

    SC48, I think part of what you’re seeing is a structural aspect: Denver’s layout, the market, and the history of development. There is a fairly large and dynamic contingent of young adults who want to live in Capitol Hill/Highlands and adjacent areas, but this is starting to be pricey. If you can’t afford to live in the areas that are already “good living” in that respect, where is the next best value? There is a large circle around Denver that doesn’t have the vibe/verve of the “cool” neighborhoods downtown, but still costs nearly as much to live there (Montclair, Hale, etc.: still good places, but not outstanding). As of yet there just isn’t the density to bring prices down in the inner circle—outside of some stuff coming online now, and a few around Capitol Hill and so on, it quickly becomes refurbished homes from the 1910′s—1940′s: smaller, less functional, and more expensive than houses in the burbs (albeit in proper neighborhoods and having a bit of charm). So I think people *want* to live in places like Highlands Ranch because they can get a modern castle for the same price as a two bedroom apartment or aging house in that middle ring—note that they want to live in these places, and definitely not Aurora, Lakewood, Englewood, etc.. And if you’re into the outdoors (as many young Denverites would be), why not be out there closer to it, and where the trails and parks are larger and more isolated (and often, “natural”, with prairie, cattails and creeks)? Not to mention, in this economy twenty-somethings won’t necessarily have jobs in downtown locales that pay enough for them to afford to live downtown.

    You could be completely right about the mentality, of course, but my sense has always been that younger adults prefer the “cool” neighborhoods first, THEN go after the burbs, and then if really forced will move into still good but not top tier neighborhoods in that middle ring.

    Also, taking up an earlier point: speaking as someone with a young family, we couldn’t really consider anything close to downtown because there’s not much that’s *affordable* which is family-friendly. If you want a 2-4 bedroom place near a park/playground that’s relatively safe, you’re competing with the whitebread neuvous riche in places like Wash Park, Cheesman/Congress Park, etc.. For middle class to lower middle class families, the best value is therefore in the outer burbs (and let’s also consider: DPS’ abysmal performance lately is a factor in terms of schooling).

  11. Marcos says:

    Vancouver is a great city and it plays upon what it has geographically: mountains meeting the ocean. I went to the Expo in 1986 and it really opened my eyes. I flew into Seattle, took a float plane to Victoria for a couple of days, a hovercraft from Victoria to Vancouver (passing through the US fleet which was being harrassed by Canadian activists due to a nuclear aircraft carrier in the fleet), and rode the Sky Train (light rail) from the dock to my hotel in Vancouver. At the Expo site I rode the monorail and buses.

    I remember there was a monorail station on the second floor of a hotel on the Expo site which was directly contiguous to the top row of an amphitheater and on the opposite side of the train. Its arrival and departure made no noise and was virtually unnoticed during performances.

    The area seemed to have innate transportation diversity. When the light rail finally began operating on I-25, Denver became a player in my mind. However, transportation has to be about more than just getting from one place to another. It needs to be memorable and enlightening. I could easily see an environmentally correct and respectful monorail along and in the Platte or in the Cherry Creek creekbed (downtown to the reservoir) offering effecient transportation and a visual tour of what makes Denver the Queen City of the Plains. I know, call me crazy. But lets get out of the box a little and be very creative.

  12. Ota says:

    Seeing all the issues in Denver – weed-overgrown lots in prime locations, acres and acres of parking lots, blocks upon blocks of street level attractions made up of nothing but walls and parking garages, general disregard for pedestrians (try crossing a street on a crosswalk on green while drivers try to do a right or left turn and think they have the right of way – I’ve just been cussed at by some punk for doing this the other day) and multiple lanes of car traffic in prime areas (try Colfax at Broadway), there is so much need to change things that I cannot be optimistic Denver would ever rival a place like Vancouver in livability, but clearly some things can be achieved here.

  13. Aaron says:

    I think geographic constraint is THE issue. If you look beyond Vancouver at more vibrant downtown’s in North America all of them have some geographic constraints nearby that caused a scarcity of land. Even with automobiles the scarcity was still there as the area could only build so many tunnels/bridges across wide bodies of water which limited how many could cross. With this scarcity a greater need for management of existing resources emerged and since developers lacked a viable alternative nearby they where more willing to accept the restrictions.

    Obviously the closest thing we have to a geographic constraint is the mountains but even that is about 10 miles from the CBD and in and of itself does not mean the land on there cannot be developed it is just harder and more costly.

    If you compare us to other North American cities that do not have nearby geographic constraints our urban core is one of the best if not the best. Absent some big mistakes that we are still living with from the early days of DURA I think we are doing pretty well considering our geography. We could probably learn from Vancouver but due to those lack of geographic constraints some of those same restrictions that helped downtown Vancouver would hurt the core of Denver as they could more easily drive would be developers to the nearby burbs.

  14. UrbanZen says:

    Great review of things that make Vancouver a remarkable city. I’d have to agree that 2 of the biggest things working against Denver are (i) lack of geographical constraints and (ii) a very family unfriendly environment. Denver is missing out on a hudge, and lucrative, demographic by not bending over backwards to get families downtown. Not all families are wealthy, but they do spend A LOT of their disposable income. Build more plazas, parks, squares, riverwalks and you’ve just made land more scarce while providing places for mom and dad to play catch w/ jr. or share a gelato. And when I say park, I’m not talking about Skyline or Bennedict Fountain, I’m talking about a 3-4 block park/public square in something like the Arapahoe Square neighborhood. Vancouver shows us what’s possible when the city commits itself and jumps in with both feet.

    Oh yeah, and the schools. Who is really going to go out of their way to send their kids to Greenlee elementary and West High School? And also the idea that peds, bikes and transit come before the private auto. Kudos to Denver’s 14th Street project, but this needs to happen like 10 fold.

  15. Chris from Downtown says:

    Ken’s very informative post focused on Vancouver’s downtown, “about the same size as in Denver bounded by the South Platte River to the State Capitol, and Speer Boulevard to Park Avenue.” The comments about Highlands, Capitol Hill, and other nearby neighborhoods are interesting, but what we’re really comparing is this much smaller area.

    Having visited Vancouver last year, my first inclination is to share the pessimism expressed in some of the earlier comments. We should take from Vancouver any ideas that we can. But the density and vibrancy of their downtown really is far beyond what we have here. In 2010, Vancouver is to Denver as Denver is to Cheyenne.

    Where I find hope is in pre-DURA photos of downtown Denver. We may not benefit from the geographical confinement of a peninsula, but we do have a history of supporting a real urban core. We may never be Vancouver, but we are making good progress.

  16. Allen says:

    “Imagine a city Denver’s size with dozens of One Lincoln Parks and Glass Houses coming online every year for over two decades running (with no slowdown in sight). That’s Vancouver.”

    No end in sight? Speculation over Vancouver’s housing bubble bursting has been in the news. I wouldn’t say that no slowdown is in sight based on that alone. But it’s also a very unusual market in that a large portion, some say more than 50% of sales, going to Chinese. For various reasons Vancouver has become a focus city for them (it was long before the big boom of Hong Kong ex-pats snagging a Canadian passport when Britain said they were handing it over). So I’m a bit baffled as to why anyone would look to Vancouver as a model for urban planning in North America when a lot if not most of it’s growth has been driven by people coming from much more dense urban areas.

    “I just don’t think what you’re saying is bore out by demographic information. In fact, Denver’s growth rate is pretty high (more than 10 percent during the last decade) and recent census estimates say there are more than 610,000 people living in Denver (56,654 people moved to Denver). Suburban growth has been more mixed: Lakewood and Centennial actually saw declines while some suburbs are growing.” – Julio

    Julio, no need for speculation, the census is there for us to observe. The last few decades Metro Denver has seen @30% population growth per decade. That’s been slowing down but so has Denver’s. The City of Denver population shrank in the 1980s and 1990s. It was around 5-10% and then this last decade took off. But it’s wrong to imply that it’s a city vs suburban thing. Yes, Lowry and Stapleton are part of that along with downtown. But there’s a lot of the city of Denver that is suburban and growing (e.g. Green Valley Ranch). More so it’s a bit of a strawman to hold up 2 mature landlacked suburbs like Centential and Lakewood. Aurora’s still growing like a weed. Heck, a recent 5 year stretch in Brighton saw more population growth than downtown Denver’s seen during the last decade.

  17. Troy says:

    Ken,
    I’ve been waiting for this post a long time. Thank you! I was reading in a BC biz magazine recently about Vancouver planners wondering what they do now that the city is pretty much built out. They worried that the city would stagnate after the voracious growth ebbs. There are few corporate HQs, not tons of office space… so what does the start up do when it outgrows its personal condo? Except maybe for E. Hastings, they speculated that both resi and commercial growth would have to shift to the suburbs due to lack of land. Also not to mention the stratospheric real estate market in the city.

    BTW, one strong connection connection to note with Vancouver is Marijuana!

  18. Brian @ UCD says:

    One thing to keep in mind about the geographic constraints. The Denver metro region does have a lot of room to expand, particularly to the North and to the East. However, the City & County of Denver is almost completely landlocked, except for the northeast area out around DIA. I can see Denver utilizing much of what Vancouver has done to densify the Downtown area, allowing the city to grow without eating up any more land. The real challenge is reigning in growth on those northern and eastern edges of the metro region; for that, I’m no sure what our best solution might be…

  19. ohwilleke says:

    What is the economic engine driving Vancouver?

    Beautiful growth, or for that matter any growth, only happens if you have a thriving economy to support it.

    Denver accomplishments wouldn’t have been possible, for example, if it had had a manufacturing driven rust belt economy in the last three decades.

  20. ssnider says:

    I just visited Vancouver for the 2nd time in 3 weeks, for an urban-related conference sponsored by the Urban Land Institute. After learning from Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland’s best-practices, it is clear to me that of the three cities, Vancouver has the most momentum and energy behind their creation of quality places, great transporation, and great open spaces that are accessible to everyone.

    Housing affordability is certainly an issue in the city as residential units are inflated by foreign investors, but it is interesting to note that 86% of all housing in Vancouver is owned, not rented. The availability of quality grocery stores, good elementary schools in the heart of downtown, plenty open space to let your kids/dogs/imagination run wild, and a deep-seated national appreciation and recognition of environmental issues makes the city work the way it does. I agree that the geographic constraints of the area help, but it is hard not to notice the surrounding mountainsides close to Vancouver that are NOT built up and developed. This tells of strong policy in place to ‘guide’ growth in the right places (and prevent sprawl). This includes the strong agricultural land preservation policies that are in place. Driving up from Seattle, I was amazed at how much agricultural land was so close to such a dense city. I expected to see much more sprawling development than I did.

    For Denver and Vancouver alike, it will be a challenge in the future to encourage families with kids of all ages to stay in the city, instead of moving to the suburbs for housing affordability, school quality, and safety issues, just to name a few. But I agree with previous posts that there is a huge potential for Denver to make the city more family-friendly to increase overall sustainability. Could your middle-school-aged child take the bus/streetcar/light rail to school instead of a ride from mom or dad? How about instead of spending your commute from work stuck in a car for 30 minutes you spend it walking to your son’s soccer game after a short light rail ride?

    Let’s think big!