Facing the recurring dilemma of change – building the bridge between the past and the future – is the responsibility that comes with the right to the city. In Denver, the redevelopment of the international airport into a model community for residential sustainability is labelled progress. But it remains haunted by its past.
When Denver’s first international airport closed its runways in 1995, the city was left with 7.5 square miles of nothingness, a wasteland abandoned by the call of progress. But instead of letting this land sit unused for future generations to resent, a small group of citizens, planners, and private foundations developed a plan to repurpose the land into a residential infill development. They aimed to develop the new group of neighborhoods into a model community for residential sustainability. Their blueprint was outlined in what became known as the Green Book, a comprehensive ‘how-to’ of DIY sustainable community development that is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2015.
The plans in the Green Book have today materialized into a community of over 8,000 total residences, including more than 5000 single-family homes. In addition, the community boasts scores of commercial and retail spaces, as well as eight schools in the immediate area and acres upon acres of parks and open space. Designed with sustainability in mind, the community’s parks, trails, and greenways make up 25% of the total land area, expanding the total overall acreage of park space in the Denver metropolitan area. The neighborhood streets are designed as a connected grid, rather than using those restrictive icons of inefficient land-use, cul-de-sacs, promoting walking and cycling. Combined with these are over 2 miles of greenways and trails within the community which all connect to more than 100 miles of regional trails for running, biking, or even a morning stroll. As we move toward a post-carbon society, this comprehensive view of mobility is increasingly important for new developments.
The community is also leading the way for new developments in terms of energy efficiency and conservation. Every home must be constructed to the Built Green standards set forth by the Denver Metropolitan Commission, and every commercial building within the community is LEED certified. Sustainable communities aren’t built only by green buildings, however. Free open-air concerts, movies in the parks on weekends, weekly farmers markets, and frequent community events are organized to help develop strong relationships among the neighbors.
This model of sustainable residential development is one that can be used in other cities to combat urban sprawl, which threatens to only get worse as the world continues to urbanize, if city officials and planners stay stuck in the old paradigms. Rethinking urban life by focusing on how people live can produce communities that become less dependent on fossil fuels and more connected to the environment, as the neighborhoods on the grounds of Denver’s former airport have done.
So what do you call such a place? What name can be bestowed on a community that embraces diversity, connects its residents with nature, and repurposes the past as a model for progressive urban development? This is where the Green Book appears to come up short.
Denver’s first international airport opened in 1929, during Benjamin F. Stapleton’s second term as mayor. He went on to serve a total of five terms between 1923 and 1947, with, ironically, a short interruption from 1931-1935, following the airport’s inauguration. Denver’s growth during Stapleton’s time is often credited with helping the city become the economic and cultural capital of the Rocky Mountains. The airport, which carried multiple unofficial names such as ‘Stapleton’s Folly’ and ‘Rattlesnake Hollow’ due to suspicions of corruption in its planning and construction, was officially renamed in honor of the still-serving mayor in 1944. It was branded the Stapleton International Airport for the next 51 years.
Stapleton was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He ran as the Klan candidate in 1923. He appointed members of the Klan to the city government, including the chief of police. And, when faced with a recall election early in his first term, he said, “I have little to say, except that I will work with the Klan and for the Klan in the coming election, heart and soul. And if I am reelected, I shall give the Klan the kind of administration it wants.” (For a powerful look at the Klan in Colorado, read Robert Alan Goldberg’s Hooded Empire.)
When the issue of naming the new community to be built on the site of the old airport came up during the early planning stages, the issue was raised and a compromise was reached: the name Stapleton would be used only as a locator, a tool for marketing, and the individual neighborhoods could develop their own official names.
That didn’t happen.
When citizens in August of this year distributed flyers asking that the residents of the community use their influence to find a new name for the development, the Denver Post determined that a name change was unnecessary because, well, nobody’s perfect.
The right to the city…is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is…one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
When we contacted the community to request permission to use photos for this blog post, the response was more conciliatory and constructive than the Post’s editorial. Currently, as we understand it, there is a group of community members surveying residents to find a way forward. We hope they do.
The objective of the POCACITO project is to help cities build a future that is environmentally, economically, and culturally sustainable. Sustainability demands accessibility, inclusiveness, and, perhaps most important, the desire to constantly renew and improve commitments to the environment and society. Denver’s community built on the site of the former airport is the kind of sustainable urban development project the world could celebrate—if only it had a name that represented those values.