ULI Colorado Blog

Is density bad for the environment? ULI Colorado responds to the Denver Post ‘Concrete Metropolis’ series

Brooklyn Bridge Park, an 85-acre former industrial site in New York City, and Denver’s Northside Park, the site of a abandoned wastewater-treatment plant, offer two examples of reclaiming land to create green space for cities.

By Michael Leccese

Bruce Finley’s “Concrete Metropolis” series painted a picture of a city near environmental collapse, if not apocalypse. Though Finley made good points about the shortage of open space for a rapidly growing city, he missed the big picture about what makes a livable city and how cities fit into the context of broader environmental preservation.

Finley’s portrays dispirited citizens  clawing to get out for a breath of fresh air (and even wrecking Rocky Mountain National Park in the process).

He faults higher-density housing for overweight kids, possible epic flooding, and the destruction of natural areas, placing much blame on developers who, he maintains, have not  contributed their share for green open spaces.

He raises troubling questions: are dense cities bad for your health? Is Denver’s reputation as a livable city suffering? Are we destroying the natural environment while building a big city?

The answer to each of these questions is “no.” Here’s why:

Health:  Denver must be doing something right – according to the Centers for Disease Control, our city is among the top 10 “fittest” cities in America. Well-planned, socially and economically healthy urban neighborhoods may create a sense of connectedness that benefits mental and physical health, as well as to creative culture that allows for business innovation.

A 2017 study of nearly 420,000 adults by Oxford University and the University of Hong Kong found that people living in built-up, residential areas in 22 British cities had lower body-mass indexes and took more exercise than residents of more spread out homes in suburbs.

Livability. If Denver’s livability has taken such a dive, why do 10,000 people a year (including, recently, my son), continue to move here? Density is a hot consumer item. With it comes new jobs, opportunities, and customers for the arts, entertainment, food, and sports—important quality of life factors.

Finley only quoted those who dislike the “New” Denver. Many young professionals I work with are dedicated to Denver’s direction; not only because they enjoy the hipster factor, but because they want to settle and raise families in the city. They are devoted to the idea of creating a more walkable, transit-friendly city with much less reliance on the auto. This will not happen without urban density.

Environment. Missing from Finley’s discussion are the costs of suburban sprawl. What if all of Denver’s roughly 240,000 new residents had all settled in the suburbs in lower-density communities? We would surely see more natural areas plowed up; more traffic congestion and air pollution, and vastly more paved areas.

Densification is better for the environment. People in cities drive less than those in suburban or rural locations. Buildings in denser environments use fewer resources, especially energy. Clustering development makes land preservation and retention of natural features possible.

Many suburbs (Englewood, Westminster, Wheat Ridge, to name a few) are turning away from 1950s-70s sprawling land-use patterns and embracing urban density, especially around transit.

Yet Denver clearly needs more parks and open space. Finley also reports that the paved surface of Denver has increased dramatically. This is disturbing. There are only 204 acres of undeveloped land left in Denver. We are not to going to solve the open-space shortage by preserving 204 scattered acres.

So what are the solutions? We can look at the huge potential to create new parks and open space by reclaiming vast lands. I’m referring to the city’s 7,338 acres of paved parking lots. That is 11.5 square miles, or about 150 percent larger than the entire Stapleton neighborhood. That total asphalt surface exceeds all Denver’s green space by 1,100 acres.

The transition could be relatively painless. Some experts think driverless cars will soon make parking lots obsolete. Reportedly paid parking is losing business to ride-sharing. Already market forces are slowly making the asphalt Siberia of downtown parking disappear.

Many overly wide streets can be retrofitted with “green infrastructure,” which uses plants and soil rather than concrete to manage runoff, while creating green spaces for people and wildlife.

We can build on the success of recent redevelopments such as Lowry, Riverfront Park, and Stapleton. All added significant park space along with residents, businesses and schools.

Like many cities, Denver faces tough challenges: housing affordability, gentrification and struggling public schools. Rather than blaming density, we should look at how best to address these issues with thoughtful, inclusive development that better serves all residents.

By 2050, some 65 percent of our global population will live in cities. It is important for the environment and natural resources that we learn to live in compact communities that also provide a high quality of life. Denver has the opportunity to set a great example.

Michael Leccese is executive director of Urban Land Institute (ULI) Colorado. He worked as a consultant on the 2003 Denver Parks and Recreation Game Plan.

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