“Tis a Privilege to Live in Colorado” was a slogan that once adorned a prominent building in downtown Denver, and many of us, whether a native or a transplant, would nod our heads in agreement with that sentiment. But while it is a privilege to live in Colorado, it is not always easy.
The Homestead Act opened up the lands of the West to private ownership in 1862. With good intentions, President Lincoln and the Act’s supporters envisioned that each new settler would receive a “quarter section” of land. As Bernard DeVoto wrote in his introduction to “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” “160 acres were the ideal family-sized farm, the basis of a yeoman democracy, the buttress of our liberties, and the cornerstone of our economy.” But as DeVoto also observed — “Well, there isn’t much rain out west” — the challenges were inescapable from the beginning.
For over 150 years, those living in the West have battled over the use of our lands, private and public. Communities, cities, and industries have risen up, disappeared, and then appeared again in different guises with new missions. The battles never really end because the people keep coming; even as these words are written, thousands of new Coloradans are streaming into our state. The beauty and the promise of our lands still call out to new generations.
Against this setting, a group of lawyers, planners, and academics (located primarily at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law) has battled in its own fashion to make sense of how our lands are used and developed. Known formally as the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute (RMLUI), this hardy band now celebrates its 30th year of existence. While that name is not known to a wide swath of the public, its contributions have been, and continue to be, indispensable to our future.
For the past week, and for several more weeks to come, RMLUI is holding its annual Western Places | Western Spaces conference as an opportunity to discuss, debate, and envision land use tools that might help us not only preserve, but improve, the quality of life we cherish in the Rocky Mountain West. RMLUI now has grown to include more than 500 planners, lawyers, as well as land conservation experts, transportation policy specialists, affordable housing professionals, wildlife managers, water providers, and more.
RMLUI’s 30th annual conference occurs in a fraught and precipitous moment. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed dramatically the economic growth in Denver that seemed unstoppable just a year ago. Nonetheless, commercial properties continue to rise throughout the city, and we are witnessing a red-hot residential housing market where homes are sold in hours for full asking price (and more).
Tensions are climbing between the natural resources industries and the environmental community as development creeps into areas once considered forever remote and rural.
The most pressing and urgent issues don’t seem all that different from an agenda one could have discussed five years ago: how much control can our local governments exert? How do we address issues of equity and affordability as people keep coming into our communities? How much more density can our urban centers handle? Will our city continue to present an attractive, livable face to the world? How do we plan and design for people with disabilities to ensure access and mobility?
Denver, as it existed 30 years ago, seems far away. We were losing population year over year as the collapse of the oil and gas industry drove workers away.
Downtown Denver was in decline, approximately 20% of the historic buildings in Lower Downtown had been razed in the 1970s and 1980s for surface parking, and the commercial vacancy rates in downtown were the highest in the United States. A new phrase was even coined to describe Denver’s skyline: “see-through buildings” highlighted evening news stories as television networks showed footage of empty buildings devoid of furnishings and people.
Yet in that perilous time, change and hope as well as transformation were around the corner. The last three decades have brought tremendous growth to our state and to Denver, and we rank at the top of any polls surveying the most attractive places to live in America. So now our challenge is, how do we remain one of those most attractive places?
In years past, RMLUI has focused on how we build our communities, how we manage our natural resources, and how we protect our open spaces. Looking ahead at Denver’s future, the challenges are perhaps different but no less daunting. Susan Daggett, RMLUI’s executive director, remarks, “Maintaining the livability of our cities will be a real challenge as we continue to grow. Congestion is a huge issue, and density certainly has its drawbacks from a quality-of-life perspective. Therefore, as we continue to grow, we need to focus on designing density with livability in mind.”
Denver is the city that works. We have our work cut out for us in the days ahead, but the challenges are no greater than those that our predecessors tackled 30 years ago. RMLUI quietly and relentlessly has helped our community move forward, and it expects to keep those efforts going in the days ahead.
Cole Finegan served as city attorney for Denver and was chief of staff to former Mayor John Hickenlooper. He is currently managing partner for Hogan Lovells US LLP in Denver.