Q&A with John Olson: Finding balance with urban planning

December 21, 2012
photo - “The observation of place is a critical component for professionals who plan our cities,” John Olson says.  Photo by
“The observation of place is a critical component for professionals who plan our cities,” John Olson says. Photo by  

John Olson, a landscape architect and urban planner, calls himself an “urban enthusiast.”
He has a keen interest and passion for buildings and the landscape, but says he also enjoys observing how people experience different places — from rural to the most urban.

“The observation of place is a critical component for professionals who plan our cities,” he said.  

Olson has taken an active role in local and regional planning and development. This summer, he helped oversee Better Block Pikes Peak — a 24-hour exercise to gauge pedestrian and motorist reactions to traffic restrictions on  downtown’s Pikes Peak Avenue.

He’s part of a planning team that has designed the commercial portion of the Gold Hill Mesa mixed-use development on the westside. Olson formerly served on the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority and the Downtown Review Board, and co-founded the Colorado chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Olson, 33, grew up in Grand Island, Neb., and received a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from Kansas State University. He launched a planning firm in March 2010; today, he’s managing partner of EVstudio Planning, which has offices in the Springs and Denver. Olson is married, with three children.

He talked recently with The Gazette about urban planning:

Question: What are a few elements of quality urban planning?

Answer: Quality urban planning is attained when there is a balance in the triple bottom line — people, planet, profit. The planning of a place needs to take into account not only the project at hand, but the long-term effects on governmental budgets and the physical relationships to adjacent properties and the community as a whole. A structure that is built for obsolescence is only as good as its current use, and for that duration. Decay in one parcel of land can quickly spread, forcing very expensive mitigation for entire neighborhoods and/or corridors.

Q: Colorado Springs is made up of older and newer neighborhoods, and identifiable areas such as downtown, the westside and the Old North End. Do you have a favorite part of town?

A: My favorite characteristics of urban planning are really transferable across all towns and cities. They are generally the areas planned before World War II. The neighborhoods that you have referenced are all included, but I would add historic Manitou Springs, and the core areas of Monument and Fountain. There are also newer areas I enjoy that were designed as neo-traditional neighborhoods, such as Gold Hill Mesa.

Q: Colorado Springs also is known for suburban communities such as Briargate and Nor’wood. Critics deride these areas as the very definition of sprawl; others say they provide a lifestyle choice. How do you view such suburban areas?

A: The term “sprawl” is one that is very offensive and has different definitions to different people, so I personally avoid it. Suburban living is a lifestyle choice, though, and as long as there is demand, it will continue to be constructed. The real question for the city regarding suburban development is in the return on investment for extending services and resources.  We extend a large amount of services across lower densities, creating large maintenance deficits and increased utility costs.

Q: This summer, you helped lead Better Block Pikes Peak— closing a portion of the downtown street to see the impact on pedestrians and businesses. What was the goal, and what have you learned from that effort?

A: The goal of Better Block Pikes Peak was to test the urban environment in how a greater emphasis on the pedestrian would affect the way the street is used. We conducted many experiments with Better Block Pikes Peak with the assistance of the city. The highest profile of the experiments was in the lane reduction (four lanes were reduced to two). We correctly hypothesized that we would see decreased velocities, which turned out to be a reduction of 5 to 6 miles an hour. Traffic still flowed with vehicles only waiting through one light cycle, which was captured via time-lapse camera.

We would ideally like to see this, or some iteration of it, become a reality. But as a group of individuals without major finances, our hands are tied a bit. We successfully created the dialogue for future pedestrian friendly environments.
Q: You and other planners have designed a downtown-like commercial component to the Gold Hills Mesa development on the city’s west side. What’s the thinking behind this concept?

A: Gold Hill Mesa developer Bob Willard and his partners have gone through many iterations of a commercial development to complement the existing neighborhood. They are incredibly sensitive to the needs of the residents in and around Gold Hill Mesa. They could have very easily developed the standard commercial development that would require redevelopment 25 to 30 years later. The revised plans provide an incremental approach with smaller footprints, fewer retaining walls and a finer grain of detail. We are incorporating the design into the hillside, taking what some developments consider a liability, and creating a unique mountain town-like approach. Gold Hill Mesa will continue to get better over time. Contrarily, the suburbs will always keep adding another fresh layer of suburbs, rendering the previous layer as old and less appealing  

Questions and answers are edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228 Twitter @richladen
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