Open Space Thriving in Denver Area

By Wendell Cox
Senior Fellow for Urban Policy, Independence Institute

It is clear to all that the Denver area is experiencing rapid population growth. From 1990 to 1999, metropolitan Denver added more than 400,000 people and had the seventh highest percentage growth rate of the 49 metropolitan areas with more than one million residents. This growth continues the trend of the past few decades. As population and income have grown, more people have moved to the suburbs and the geographical expanse of the urban area has increased substantially. This is not just a Denver or an American phenomenon. Since World War II, virtually all growth in developed world urban areas has occurred in areas outside the urban core. For example, from 1970 to 1990 (latest available data), the Paris urbanized area expanded 54 percent geographically, nearly identical to Denver's 57 percent. But Denver grew by nearly twice as much, 28 percent, compared to 15 percent in Paris.

There may be a sense that Denver is one of the nation's more sprawling urban areas. In fact, the opposite is true. In 1990, the Denver urbanized area (developed area) had a population density of 3,300, approximately 10 percent greater than that of Portland, which has earned international notoriety for its planning efforts directed at densification. Among the 34 urbanized areas with more than 1,000,000 residents, Denver ranks 13th in density, ahead of, for example, Boston, Baltimore, Seattle and Milwaukee in addition to Portland. Recent years have seen comparatively dense development in Denver. Data released by the US Department of Agriculture National Resources Inventory indicates that from 1992 to 1997, Denver's density of new development was more than 20 percent higher than Portland, and more than three times average.

But in recent years there has been considerable concern about continued suburbanization in Denver --- referred to as "urban sprawl." Much of the concern has to do with increased traffic congestion, as roadway construction has not kept up with population growth. Perhaps the issue generating the next highest level of concern is open space preservation. There is an interest in preserving open space so that the front range does not become an uninterrupted swath of urbanization from Pueblo to Fort Collins. And to hear some advocates talk, it would not be hard to get the impression that vitually no open space has been protected.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Denver area is a national leader in open space preservation. Open space preservation programs administered by just four area jurisdictions (City of Boulder, Boulder County, Douglas County and Jefferson County) have preserved nearly 170,000 acres in the last thirty years, and in 1999 Adams County voters enacted a sales tax for open space preservation.. More than $500 million has been spent on these programs. These governments area now spending approximately $70 million annually on open space preservation.

Most recently, Douglas County has preserved Greenland Ranch between Denver and Colorado Springs, a 21,000 plot that extends for 12 miles on both sides of Interstate 25. This means that Denver and Colorado Springs are blocked from growing together.

Some programs, like those of Boulder County and the city of Boulder are more than 25 years old. Others, such as in Adams County are much younger. On average, the twenty year rate of open space preservation is more than 11 square miles annually. Based upon US Census Bureau and US Department of Agriculture National Resource Inventory data, more space is being open preserved annually than is being taken up by the new houses and services that support Denver's rapid growth (a twenty year annual rate of less than 10 square miles is estimated).

It is time to take stock of reality. Open space preservation is alive and prospering in the Denver area.

(c) 2001 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
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