By Andy Bosselma DP, Guest Commentary
Andy Bosselman is a freelance journalist and past editor of Streetsblog Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @andybosselman.
Drought, toxic algae blooms and massive fish kills. These local events signal the early consequences of climate change — and there’s more. Record heat, beetles destroying forests and air made unhealthy by some of the most severe wildfires in Colorado history.
Though we can still stop the most catastrophic climate predictions from becoming a reality, doing so will require an immediate global effort, including changes in Denver neighborhoods that will make the city a better place to live while reducing the need to drive.
The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado is transportation. As Colorado experiences multiple environmental calamities at once, it’s time Denverites find a sense of civic duty. We must allow our neighborhoods to change. And we must provide people with places to work, dine, shop, exercise and enjoy life, all within a short walk or bike ride from where we live.
This idea, “the 15-minute city,” is an old one recently revived by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who won re-election in June on the promise that giving people more of what they need closer to home will make them healthier and happier while cutting pollution.
In Denver, the 15-minute city could drastically cut the number of trips people take in their vehicles. A reduction in driving would generate less stress and anger, lower expenses and decrease traffic fatalities. It would also slash emissions from cars and the refineries that fuel them, which would improve air quality and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Upgrading Denver to a 15-minute city wouldn’t require much sacrifice, either. It would enhance many of Denver’s neighborhoods with practical and enjoyable amenities like those found in the city’s most beloved communities.
When 5280 Magazine ranked Denver’s best neighborhoods, walkable neighborhoods earned the highest marks. Washington Park, the Highlands and South Park Hill all feature local businesses like restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream parlors and bookstores. According to Jill Locantore, executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, people adore these neighborhoods, but few can afford them.
“Unfortunately, those neighborhoods have high housing prices,” she says. “And they’re scarce.”
But imagine Denver’s original streetcar neighborhoods recreated across much of the city. If citizens demand it, Denver could encourage the construction of small apartment buildings with vibrant spaces on the ground level for grocery stores, doctor’s offices, recreation centers and small spaces for art and theater.
“If we can make that the norm, they would become more accessible and not so expensive,” says Locantore.
She and her husband live near 17th Avenue where they can walk to a strip of businesses that include the Thin Man bar, St. Mark’s coffee shop and the Vine Street Pub. They bike to the grocery store. For further destinations, they are a short walk from some of the Regional Transportation District’s fastest and most frequent bus lines. And she wants to share these perks.
“I don’t want to be selfish. I want other people to enjoy the benefits of living in my neighborhood,” she says. “And I hope people in other neighborhoods would want to have that same sense of generosity.”
But many Denver residents are acting selfishly. Those who oppose changes to their neighborhoods are often proud of their progressive politics around environmental issues, but they often oppose things needed for a 15-minute city, like four- to six-story buildings and bike lanes. Some of their angriest complaints arise when these changes would remove even the tiniest number of on-street parking spots.
“People say ‘I care about climate change.’ ‘I care about air quality.’ ‘I care about traffic injuries and fatalities,’” says Locantore. “But do they care about how easy it is to park more than these other things?”
In his inaugural speech in 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked Americans to consider what they can do for their country. The generation young enough to hear those words has done many good things, including launching the environmental movement. But their cohort is also known for its obsessive accumulation of wealth and rampant consumerism, all done with little concern for the eventual costs to society.
Today, young people face irreversible environmental destruction, unaffordable housing and a democracy near failure. They will also be the first generation in recent memory that will be poorer than those that came before it.
But it’s not too late. Homeowners can loosen their clenched fists and awaken their sense of civic — and moral — duty. They can join the growing movement to keep Denver, and the rest of the world, fit to live in. And they can start by embracing changes already outlined in new city planning documents that would move Denver toward more walkable and bike-able communities.
Here, as I ask older homeowners to welcome change, I also call on Mayor Michael Hancock to embrace the 15-minute city. He should use it as a clear, concise tool to sell the vision behind the Comprehensive Plan, Blueprint Denver and the Neighborhood Planning Initiative. This way of framing the plans is easily understandable. And it’s worthwhile, even though moving hearts and minds won’t be easy.
“They grew up in a car-dependent Denver,” says Locantore. “It’s really hard for people to imagine the world differently from the way they experience it.”
But I have a proposal to help them visualize a different reality: Explore your city and have some fun doing it.
Plan a trip to a walkable neighborhood. There are several, including Bonnie Brae, 12th Avenue in Congress Park and Union Station. Once you get there, browse a boutique, grab some ice cream or have a bite to eat. Then walk around a bit. Now, picture a small grocery store and health center nearby. Maybe a little movie house. And you might be surprised to see how a small patch of density can create a pleasant alternative to living in a place where getting anywhere demands a vehicle.
And now is an excellent time for Denverites to relax their fears: Many already enjoy streets that recently changed to prioritize people who walk and bike.
In response to COVID-19, Denver set up barriers at many intersections. They allow people to get outside and have more room for social distancing. Since then, a relaxed, neighborhood vibe has taken over. Without fear of careless drivers, calmer streets have allowed kids to bike freely as adults stroll and talk to neighbors.
“What the pandemic has shown us is that change is possible in a very short period of time,” says Locantore. “It really was only in the last 100 years that we redesigned our city around cars. That change happened relatively quickly and we can change again if we want to.”
And adaptation is crucial right now. Despite decades of talks, international summits and climate accords, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. And two ongoing projects will give our elected leaders a chance to show if they have the strength of character to create a more sustainable city.
The new Neighborhood Planning Initiative would allow the types of buildings needed for a 15-minute city but has proven controversial. And according to Heather Burke of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, Denver has built 27.6 miles of bike lanes toward its goal of adding 125 miles more by 2023. Building the rest will likely face intense opposition.
“You bet it’s going to generate backlash, and we’ll see how firm the city’s leaders are in the face of that criticism,” says Locantore. She’s not holding her breath for people to discover a sense of civic duty, but she hopes elected officials will show some backbone. “We have to make hard decisions and leadership means doing what you think is right for the community and being willing to withstand the criticism.”
Today, the disastrous impacts of climate change are intensifying. If you’re ready to reduce your transportation emissions and transform Denver into a 15-minute city, let your elected leaders know.