Riding my bike in downtown Denver recently, I cruised along a generous bike lane through beautiful residential streets lined with older homes and full-grown trees, now flowering, forming a canopy over the boulevard. The scene was almost idyllic, except the occasional ill-fitting, boxy, two-story apartment building that slipped onto an unfortunate lot between the elegant old manors like a weed in the rose patch.

Peter Park, the storied former community planning and development manager for the city of Denver, would blame the old planning code for this anomaly, codes he says were written without the proper balance of flexibility and vision, “In the old zoning code, there was no guarantee. There were parts of the city that were zoned significantly higher than how they actually developed over time and parts of the city that were underzoned,” said Park during a panel discussion, which was organized by the Colorado Chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU CO), focusing on Denver’s experience in rewriting its entire zoning code and successfully adopting a citywide code characterized as “form-based.”

Transcripts of two panel discussions, the first about form-based zoning codes and the second a visionary discussion about “Next Urbanism,” were published in CNU CO’s yearly newsletter, The Colorado Urbanist.  The first discussion includes a detailed and highly informative presentation by Park about the nature of form-based codes and the process Denver used in adopting a completely new code, followed by a panel discussion. Form-based zoning codes, which focus more on the architectural environment than limiting land use promises at once a more cohesive and flexible basis for long-range planning. The idea was coined in large part on pioneering work done by members of Congress for the New Urbanism, the partner organization that authored LEED-ND. Denver is the second-largest metropolitan area in the United States to adopt form-based codes.

A second panel hosted by the Colorado chapter and transcribed in this yearly journal offers insight and inspiration for what’s coming next in community planning. Titled “Colorado’s Next Urbanism,” the panel, comprised of Denver’s most influential planners and architects, broaches a variety of challenging subjects, from sustainable architecture to political dialogue, providing a range of views on how the concepts of sustainable community can be applied in the most practical sense to transform large, established urban areas from cities of history to cities of hope.

A Synopsis of Next Urbanism

In his opening remarks, Korkut Onaran, AIA, principal of Pel-Ona Architects and Urbanists, assistant professor adjunct at the University of Colorado at Denver, and president of the Colorado chapter, remarked about a question a Realtor asked him recently, “Now that we’re in an economic crisis, do you still think that the new urbanism works?” By new urbanism, the Realtor was loosely referring to concepts like higher-density, walkable communities that integrate commerce and residences in a cohesive, natural, and readily accessible balance. “We are particularly lucky to see that urbanism does work,” Onaran replied.

In the last 15 to 20 years, Onaran explained, “We’ve witnessed some interesting investments in creating compact, walkable, livable urban centers. In Denver, for instance, we have seen the 16th Street Mall development, all the infill around the Riverfront, the improvements around the Platte River Valley. We’ve seen some large neighborhoods like Stapleton, unique in its size and ambition, developed and occupied. We’ve seen some outdated shopping malls converted into livable neighborhoods.” In short, we have seen that the concepts of sustainable community not only work, they thrive, and where enacted have grown through economic challenges that devastated less sustainable areas. The future of our ecology and our economy appear positively linked when it comes to urbanism.”