Editor's note: As Colorado Springs celebrates its 150th birthday, The Gazette has prepared a series of articles on the history of our city. Our final installment in the series looks at what may lie ahead for the city.
Colorado Springs has sold itself as an exceptional place to live since its inception 150 years ago and successfully drawn hundreds of thousands of new residents in recent decades. Should we expect the same explosive growth in the next 30 or 40 years? And how will our economy support such growth?
While people are expected to keep flocking to the area, the rate of growth could slow down because it is dipping across the country as fewer women have children, state demographer Elizabeth Garner said.
“I don’t foresee Colorado Springs becoming larger than Denver,” she said.
Colorado Springs, with about 480,000 people, is significantly smaller than Denver’s population of 730,000. However, El Paso County could outpace Denver’s population by 2025 or even 2023, because the gap is only about 4,000 people right now, she said.
By 2050, a million people could call El Paso County home, and 750,000 of those could live in the city.
Many factors could influence that growth, however, such as falling birth rates and immigration policy.
The U.S. birth rate's more recent peak was in 2007, and its been falling since. Far fewer teens are giving birth, and that's been a positive shift, Garner said. In addition, more women in their 20s are also waiting to have children as they establish their careers.
The birth rate is increasing among women in their 30s, she said, but it’s unknown if women who wait to have children will have the same number as those who started having children at younger ages.
A flat population could present real challenges, since many systems in the U.S. and Colorado cities are set up to grow, including our economies and public finance systems, she said.
“It’s almost retraining our brains to think about: How do we do well being flat?” Garner said.
If population growth slows, more residents are likely to be older as the baby boomers and other generations age, she said.
Younger people are likely to be more racially diverse because they are some of the fastest growing groups. For example, people who identify as two or more races is one of the smallest groups currently but it is among the fastest growing, she said.
“Eventually, we are all going to be pretty mixed,” she said.
Immigration policy is also a large unknown in predicting the future. If the population isn’t growing naturally in the U.S., the federal government could encourage greater immigration to compensate as it has in the past.
Water could also be a major limiting factor in population growth.
Mayor John Suthers said the city has acquired enough water for 800,000 people, and he estimates that the right size for Colorado Springs could be around a million people. Colorado Springs Utilities is constantly working on water reuse, conservation, acquisition and other methods to secure enough water for the community’s growth.
Driving growth also requires diverse industries, so that if one relocates, it doesn’t crush the community.
“I want them to be clean industries that are going to be around for awhile,” Suthers said. For example, the cyber security industry could help drive growth.
He said he also expects the military will continue to have a large presence in town, particularly because Peterson and Schriever Air Force Bases are both expected to grow.
In the last six years, the percentage of the economy that relies on military and defense industry has dipped a few percentage points and that’s a good sign of growing economic diversity.
If the national shift toward a more remote workforce continues, that could be a major boon for Colorado Springs because of the lifestyle and recreational opportunities the area offers, said Dirk Draper, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Corporation.
The new Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center could also present an opportunity to help develop more sports medicine focused business, he said.
Rapid growth in new industries could help insulate the community from being overly dependent on the military and defense sector.
The community must also continue to invest in itself, by cleaning up creeks and improving basic infrastructure like streets and storm water so that the town retains its allure. At the same time, the community cannot be overly reliant on its mountain backdrop.
“I think we need to be continually intentional about who we are and who we want to be,” Draper said.
The community will also have to address numerous challenges — some known like affordable housing and others difficult to predict such as climate change, he said.
Climate change could make the area hotter and drier and the design of the city may need to start adapting to help cut carbon emissions and be more sustainable, said Professor John Harner, who teaches urban geography for the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.
"We might not be able to build the suburban model any more," he said.
Multifamily housing, like apartments, are far more efficient than large houses, and if people live near where they work and shop, it can cut down on car trips, he said.
The city may also have to rethink the vast amount of space serving as parking lots that can contribute to ever higher temperatures in the summer.
"Is that the best use of space to have all those parking lots? Could we plant a garden? Could we seed a forest?" said Mary Lou Makepeace, former mayor of Colorado Springs.
The city could encourage or require more green spaces and trees along roadways. It could also foster innovation, such as gardens on top of buildings that can keep buildings cooler and improve air quality, she said.
Achieving those goals and others — such as addressing affordable housing and traffic congestion - will take vision and leadership.
"I love this city. It’s a city worth saving," Makepeace said.
As the city grows, maintaining the vision that Brig. Gen. William Palmer had for the community 150 years ago — to be a lovely place to live — could be more and more challenging, Suthers said.
"We got to continue to build a city that matches our scenery," he said.