“… the growing number of empty and under-performing, especially retail, sites throughout suburbia gives us actually a tremendous opportunity to take our least-sustainable landscapes right now and convert them into more sustainable places. And in the process, what that allows us to do is to redirect a lot more of our growth back into existing communities that could use a boost, and have the infrastructure in place, instead of continuing to tear down trees and to tear up the green space out at the edges.”
~ Ellen Dunham-Jones
The small town where I live is flanked by Denver suburbs, but retains much of its own unique small-town flavor. Our downtown has been maintained and improved, and the older neighborhoods are still mostly intact. Although there’s a lot of infill and expansion into our own modest suburbs, Golden still retains a focus on the downtown business district. Downtown gets crowded on weekends, particularly in the evenings, with both tourists and residents. Breakfast places are busy most mornings.
Oh, we’ve lost a few good places over the years. The 1870’s drug store/soda shop-turned-liquor-store is now becoming a small grocery. The old mercantile/butcher shop turned into a restaurant. One of the old store-front cafes became a video store then a gift shop (after the stuffed and mounted moose head fell onto a table of diners) and another became a bar after the destructive grease fire (their secret ingredient in the gravy?). The old movie theater became a clothing store (after it was shut down by the city fathers for showing naughty movies), but has now been resurrected as office space, a sub shop and a Starbucks. The old spa building with a basement swimming pool became a department store then a country bar (with the dance floor covering the pool). The other department store was vacant for a while, then was replaced by a four-story retail/condo building.
Over forty years ago when I moved here, a lot of downtown was raggedy, underutilized and dominated by a couple of rough biker bars. The surrounding residential areas contained many rentals, for both college students and people of indeterminate income. Old houses were routinely demolished to accommodate apartments or cheap student housing. It seemed like the place was populated by old folks and students.
Over the last couple of decades, though, things have really changed. A historic ordinance heightened awareness of the important history of the town and several historic districts have been established in the old neighborhoods. Downtown businesses and the city worked to improve the quality of the downtown experience through street-scaping (planting trees, etc.) and the creation of enough parking.
Our old city council was composed of conservative old timers (at all times, one from Coors Brewing Co., one from Colorado School of Mines and one representing downtown merchants) when I arrived has gradually shifted to a broader base of newer and younger people drawn to the town’s ‘affordable living, quality of life and civic involvement’.
As a result, property values have increased and businesses have thrived. We added a couple of nice hotels, a slew of restaurants (in addition to the cafes, bars and brew pubs), and more retail and commercial businesses. There are newer retail places selling everything from bicycles to creams to mountain gear to toys, and many of the second floors are offices or residences. The old elementary school was taken down and replaced with four-story condos, some reserved for seniors, and office space. This has added more people to the downtown and created a local market for office and resident services.
Our little town has become somewhat ‘upscale,’ leading to the often-heard mantra, “Don’t Boulder Golden.” (Boulder being the somewhat tragically hip home of the University of Colorado just twenty minutes north of Golden.) But the city has worked on transportation improvements, including circuit buses to the nearest light rail station. Rotaries (traffic circles) have replaced many stoplights, facilitating the flow of traffic and reducing accidents (while also allowing residents to easily identify out-of-towners by their confusion upon encountering those rotaries).
The gradually increasing property values have driven greater care of nearly all structures and many improvements on individual homes and other properties. Sidewalks and street trees are better maintained, parks and green spaces are tended, improved and managed. Families are taking advantage of their older homes, tree-lined lots, and comfortable neighborhoods.
My town is representative of the shifts in progressive development of communities across the country. According to global trends identified by Progressive Urban Management Associates (PUMA), “Small and mid-size downtowns can anchor the emergence of new ‘opportunity cities’ … The population is growing both older (aging Baby Boomers) and younger (Millennials and emerging Gen Z). Both Boomer and Millennial markets have fueled downtown population growth over the past decade and are poised to continue to populate urban environments, particularly in those cities that offer jobs, housing, amenities and activities that respond to their needs.”
PUMA elaborates, “To ensure long-term economic vitality, urban centers need to advance social equity by encouraging a variety of housing and transit options, better schools, holistic approaches to reducing homelessness, public amenities that promote healthy lifestyles and policies that encourage equity…Create an environment that appeals to diverse populations: The next professional, working and creative classes will increasingly be dominated by women and people of color.”
Things are going to continue to change for the better in my town because people are working at it. If you want to improve your home town, no matter how small or large, then get engaged. People, not politicians, make it happen.
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
Ellen Dunham-Jones, Architect, Retrofitting Suburbia, TedTalks, January 2010
Progressive Urban Management Associates (P.U.M.A.) 2017 edition of P.U.M.A.’s Global Trends Report