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Eugenia Di Girolamo is no stranger to big cities with vibrant development scenes. The Italian-born New Yorker recently stepped into the brand new role of Denver’s chief urban designer, making the transition from her post as deputy director of urban design for New York City’s Department of City Planning. Now, as she takes the design helm of a city whose population has grown by about 15 percent in the past decade, Di Girolamo talks with us about her vision for rapidly changing neighborhoods, pedestrian love, and the rebirth of downtown.
5280 Home: What makes smart urban design so important?
Eugenia Di Girolamo: Urban design can help change how you feel when you’re walking down the street. Everything we can see at eye level is what keeps us engaged and interested. [This] includes elements like the window size and location of the shops along a commercial corridor and where the entrances to a building are located. Through urban design thinking, we can shape policies and design regulations so we can guide new developments.
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And there’s so much development happening in Denver. How does that influence your design vision?
The diversity that comes with [population] growth is what brings vibrancy to a city. This is a transformational time for Denver. Our city must adapt to the way that we live…so we always need to think about people first by making sure neighborhoods are serviced with places to eat and shop, grocery stores, and schools and jobs within walking distance.
Are you working on any new initiatives?
I’m currently focusing on our downtown revitalization efforts. Our working habits have shifted with the pandemic; more people work from home now. Downtown, there are a lot of opportunities to [transform] underutilized commercial or office buildings into residential space to foster more of a 24/7 neighborhood—a true central, mixed-use district where people can live, work, and play.
Is there a design aspect you wish would disappear from Denver’s built landscape?
Slot homes. [These multifamily properties] tend to have entrances tucked away on the sides of the buildings and place private, residential uses or blank walls adjacent to the sidewalk. Turning a building’s back or side to the street like this makes the street feel less welcoming and interesting.
What would you like to see more of?
Public open spaces—plazas, parks, well-designed public alleys (see: the Dairy Block downtown), pedestrianized streets, sidewalks—where people can gather and feel comfortable and safe are such key elements of a thriving city. I’d also like to see [buildings with] more active ground floors [read: ones that include businesses that are open to the public] that encourage people to walk more.