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Could Denver look like this someday? —Shutterstock

Denver’s Growth Must Be Addressed From All Angles

Now that the secret is out about our quality of life, are we ready for what comes next?

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Here’s something you already know: The Front Range is a pretty great place to live. Our cities and suburbs have been landing on these lifestyle lists for some time, and the latest one, from the market intelligence firm Powerlytics, names Boulder as the best community in America according to its live-work metrics.

Meanwhile, stories abound detailing the construction of new homes throughout the area, a desperately needed (partial) remedy for our ongoing housing inventory problems. And new apartment complexes seem to be popping up all over Denver as developers prepare for a surge in population that’s projected to increase 87 percent over the next 35 years. (This particular forecast extends the Front Range into a “megaregion” that stretches all the way to Albuquerque, and if you’ve ever driven that far south you’ve seen how much available land there is.)

We can’t blame people for wanting to move here. (After the winter they’ve suffered through from basically Kansas to the Atlantic Ocean, we couldn’t blame those folks for relocating here starting tomorrow.) The question we need to ask ourselves—not eventually, but now—is how are we preparing for this explosive growth?

If you’ve lived here for more than five years, you’ve witnessed radical changes in the Denver metro area alone. This has produced emerging economic opportunities and tremendous quality-of-life enhancements such as bustling scenes around art, food, drink, and culture, a bolstering of our so-called “creative class” that’s usually seen as a positive sign for any community.

It’s also resulted in noticeably more big-city nuisances such as worsening commute times and skyrocketing rents. In at least one case, it’s created a market opening for local developers of “micro-apartments,” affordable and tiny rentals that allow more people to live in this increasingly unaffordable area. It’s a clever concept that would appeal to minimalists who want the urban lifestyle. But it’s important to note that micro-apartment complexes are common in the ultra-dense cities of Asia, a part of the world that isn’t exactly known for its robust worker satisfaction rates.

This is why, as the Front Range becomes more desirable and thus more densely populated, we’ll need to monitor and plan for this growth not just economically but existentially. If we’re going to add between two and five million people to the area over the next five to 35 years, do we want to add at least half that many cars, or should we be thinking about making it easier for the newcomers and holdovers to use buses and trains and bikes? If we don’t do that (or even if we do), can we be sure that our bridges and roads can handle the influx? Are we going to continue to ensure that the metro area is a viable option for our teachers, first responders, and blue-collar workers to live, or are we going to become another Manhattan or San Francisco, exclusive islands attainable only to the elite? And are we going to do all of this while protecting our surrounding environment, the primary reason most of these newcomers are relocating here in the first place?

Preparing for this boom will require the ingenuity and cooperation of business and civic leaders from the municipal level all the way to the state Capitol—and occasionally, to our representatives in Washington. Most of us arrived here, or have chosen to stay, because of the unique opportunities Colorado provides and our unparalleled quality of life. It’s on us to not screw it up.

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