Drive along the interstate into Colorado from its eastern side and the rolling plains slowly transform into vast hills of lights.
Shelley Cook, a former director with the Regional Transportation District and a former Arvada councilor, moved to the city in 1983. Back then, those lights weren’t as bright.
“(I moved) back when Olde Town was that sleepy little place and property values were cheap,” she said.
Over the decades, Denver and the cities and towns that surround it have grown together, absorbing wide open spaces in all directions. Every decade for almost a century, the region’s growth rate has outpaced the national average, according to the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, and prices did too.
“People aren't able to live right in Olde Town, property values are expensive,” Cook said.
In the last 10 years, the region grew fast, and the Regional Transportation District is keeping track. RTD expects the population to keep rising, from 3.36 million people in 2020 to 4.41 million by 2050.
That means more roads, more water pipes, more single-family homes and ultimately more greenhouse gas emissions. In the past 30 years, Colorado has warmed substantially, and estimates project a rise by 2.5-5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050.
“I'm very concerned too, have been for years,” Cook said. “But for the world, for the people who follow us and the people who live in other places and people in developing countries who are the hardest hit in many cases, I'm very, very concerned.”
Zoom in from the mounting pressures of a world issue and see Colorado’s local municipalities — and residents — at the forefront of a solution. Climate anxiety may be alleviated with solutions that aim to reduce emissions.
Housing is part of the equation. Increasing density, building developments near transit lines and planning for other vehicles, like e-bikes, can all be solutions to the climate crisis. Though, they may come with other issues too.
Higher density results in less lawn use, accessible transit increases ridershi[ and electric cars emit less pollution. However, people are less inclined to live in dense areas, funding for transit remains low and electric cars may outsource pollution elsewhere.
Part of the problem is traced to housing and the way Americans live, according to one study from the University of California Berkeley. Households in the United States alone directly or indirectly bear responsibility for about 20% of the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases, and those households represent only 4.3% of the total global population.
Local leaders have identified the scope of the problem, solutions and, in some cases, new problems created by attempts at solutions.
Pouring sand on a map
Christopher Jones, director of the CoolClimate Network at the University of California, analyzed the relationship between density and carbon emissions per household.
To measure the carbon footprints, Jones and his team looked at six key variables to estimate consumption: household income, household/family size, size of their homes, home ownership, education level and vehicle ownership.
Overall, Jones said they didn’t find any correlation between overall density and emissions. Looking at zip codes everywhere, there are very rural areas with very low emissions, very rural areas with high emissions, cities with low emissions and so forth.
However, there exists a strong correlation between dense cities and emissions.
“It's only when you get into the very, very high density areas that you have low emissions,” he said.
Looking at New York City, those living in Manhattan or Brooklyn have low carbon footprints, but that doesn’t necessarily mean lower emissions overall. Large cities are associated with extensive suburbs.
“It's like pouring sand on a map. You can pour more sand in the middle and the pile just gets bigger and bigger. What you really need to do is pour the sand in a cup on the map and have it go up without going out, and we haven't seen that in the United States,” he said.
They don’t know if density is causing sprawl: they just know that’s what happened historically.
“Large populous cities actually have higher carbon footprints overall, even while the people who live in the urban core, their carbon footprints are much lower. So what you really need to do is prevent sprawl,” he said.
Sprawl by design
The Denver area isn’t zoned for density. Instead, it encourages the kind of growth Jones finds problematic.
Jones sees building density as a short-term solution to reducing carbon emissions from housing. Technology and decarbonizing the economy in the long term will be much more efficient. That serves those who don’t want to change their lifestyle, as well as those who can’t afford to live in dense areas, since density sometimes leads to pricing owners out of the area.
In Colorado, vehicle fuel and electricity are the two highest contributors to one’s carbon footprint, according to the CoolClimate Network data.
“If you can get truly renewable electricity to power your vehicle and your home, that’s certainly the quickest thing you can do,” he said.
Though, that may take years to come.
Carrie Makarewicz, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver, said roughly 80% of residential land in the metro area is zoned for single-family homes.
“Of the percentage of land in the region (included in the Denver Regional Council of Governments, or DRCOG) that is zoned only for residential, whether the zoning is for low, medium or high density residential (but excluding agricultural land that allows residential), the very low density zoning is 83.9% of land. Our definition of low density is almost exclusively single family detached,” Makarewicz wrote in an email.
Just 4.4% of the built housing units is for two-to-nine unit housing.
A lot of communities in Colorado are mostly single-family homes, resulting in less density and forcing developments to sprawl out. Within Denver metro communities, that means space is limited.
According to Root Policy Research, between 2000 and 2019, Adams County increased single-family attached homes by 34%, Arapahoe County by 26%, Douglas County by 76% and Jefferson County by 11%.
Progress to diversify housing stock has picked up in some areas, such as in Douglas County. The county increased duplexes by 174%, developments with three to four units by 179%, developments with five to 49 units by 220%, and developments with 50 or more units by 471%.
However, numbers for denser residential developments are much lower than single-family homes. In 2000 in Douglas County, there were 54,428 single-family attached homes, 103 duplexes, 738 of three to four units, 4,453 of five to 49 units and 773 of 50 or more units.
With most of the land zoned for single-family homes, the process for developers to build anything else is more arduous for them. It means they’ll most likely face hurdles, including public hearings and approval processes involving elected officials.
Zoning rules, infrastructure and transit between communities all impact climate change and affordability. So does hyperlocal opposition to projects. That’s because housing plays a major role in how people live, and it’s decided by local electeds.
“Land use decisions are the purview of local governments exclusively,” said Jacob Riger, the long range transportation planning manager for Denver Regional Council of Governments.
It puts power within municipal government, since housing policy is local: cities set codes, they vote on plans for development and they decide how they want their land to look. That accounts for the housing stock today.
Infrastructure within cities can address climate change. Dense, walkable neighborhoods with public transit have the potential to lower carbon emissions and there are plans for such neighborhoods popping up along the Front Range — along with fights over them.
Bill Rigler, principal at Boulder-based Greenlight Strategy, has seen it all.
“NIMBY tactics are literally the same in every community across the Front Range,” Rigler said. “I will never not be astounded by what a group of 10 or 15 angry individuals with the working knowledge of Nextdoor and Facebook can do to scuttle or dramatically alter the proposals for housing.”
NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard, but given the adamant opposition of groups to some projects, Rigler said a new attitude has appeared: “NOPE,” standing for Nothing On Planet Earth.
“There is rarely — if ever — a time I can think of where opponents to these projects have relied 100% on the truth. They have a very fluid relationship with facts,” Rigler said.
Rigler’s group works with developers to help get mixed-used and affordable housing projects approved and only accepts developments if they reach a certain standard regarding sustainability.
He noted each one he works on goes above city building requirements, like water usage, by a factor of two or three. Even so, approval isn’t guaranteed and extra efforts by the developer increase costs.
Some of those NIMBY arguments cite defense of the environment, Rigler said. The groups cite dense developments as taking up land that would otherwise be used as open space, or that the new housing would attract more traffic, causing more pollution.
New research may counter those stances.
What about water?
When Makarewicz thinks about density and water use, she thinks of leakage from pipes.
“There's a lot of leakage in our water pipes,” she said. “Each time you create those joints and individual pipes and stretch them farther out into undeveloped parts of the county, you're losing water.”
She also thinks of lawns. Lower density areas usually require more square feet of lawns. With more units, less water is going towards Kentucky bluegrass.
Less density doesn’t always mean less water usage, either. She said it really comes down to per-person usage and how many water-based appliances are in the home.
That’s where more efficient technology plays a role. In Westminster, water consumption declined in the past two decades despite an increase in population and commercial use. In fact, Westminster added 15,000 residents to the community and 150 new commercial business accounts.
Senior Water Resources Analyst Drew Beckwith said technology affects a large portion of that decline, like newer high-efficiency toilets that use less water than older ones.
The question of how much technology can continue to improve remains, though Sarah Borgers, interim department director of Westminster’s public works and utilities department, thinks there’s much more room to grow.
“Industry-wide, I think the sense is we are not close to there yet. There’s still a long way to go before we hit that plateau,” she said. “We don’t know what the bottom is, but we aren’t there yet.”
Pro-density ratings are low
The majority of Americans are increasingly opposed to the idea of living in dense areas. In fact, about 60% want “houses farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away.”
The number of Americans wanting homes “smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance” went from 47% in 2019 to 39% in 2021.
The Pew Research Center said the shift occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic with increased “telework, remote schooling and pandemic-related restrictions on indoor dining and other indoor activities.”
Despite attitudes shifting against density, Riger said the region mostly will densify with many municipalities at build-out and reaching their outward boundaries as population increases.
“I think it's going to be a mix of growing out and growing up,” he said.
With higher density comes transit options, because land use is a transportation strategy.
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health, transportation was the second largest greenhouse gas contributor for the state by sector, losing to electric power as the first.
With mixed-use, well designed, higher density areas, residents are able to walk more, reduce their travel times and distances, and have the ability to support transit lines and bike lanes.
An example could be seen in Olde Town Arvada.
Housing on transit lines
Since Cook moved into Arvada back in 1983, she’s seen the city transform into something different, crediting transit oriented development with bringing life into Arvada’s Olde Town.
Cook, along with several others, teamed up with Forward Arvada, a nonprofit looking to revitalize Olde Town in the 90s. They tasked themselves with making an idea — to run a train line along decommissioned railroad tracks — into a reality to make sure Olde Town began to thrive.
Eventually, the G Line opened in 2019 and development began to spring up.
It didn’t happen without opposition, though. Residents voiced concerns over sacrificing the historical character of the town. In fact, the city faced lawsuits from a group called All the People regarding approving development plans to add to the transit oriented development, or TOD.
The city prevailed and the new transit oriented development transformed Arvada, Cook said. It created a center that attracts citizens from around the area and which benefits merchants, restaurants and others.
All of that can also be attributed to the mixed-use, higher density design model, where someone can live above a bakery or right next to a coffee shop.
With less emphasis put on cars, which Cook sees as a good thing, residents can live in a place where they can walk to various places. She said it contributes to more of a family feel.
Density, transit and affordability
A train line running through Arvada’s Olde Town is only one example of TOD — it doesn’t have to be that complex. The key is to build density along transit lines to support the service. Without support of transit, then RTD may focus services elsewhere.
For public transportation to be attractive, people need incentives to take it.
Welch said expensive parking charges, congestion, safety and competitive travel times increase the value. Even so, there are people who won’t do it — they love their car, Welch said.
“In North America, in the places where we have for 50, 75 years made it really attractive to drive, that makes transit tougher, to provide a value proposition and a good alternative for people,” he said.
To make transit an attractive option, it needs to be there and needs to be of quality, safe and frequent.
RTD did see an increase in ridership during its Zero Fare for Better Air period in August 2022, when services were free. According to a final report on the program, overall ridership increased by 22% compared from July 2022 to August 2022, and average weekday daily ridership increased by 19.9% in August compared to July.
The report also acknowledges the increase can’t only be attributed to the free rides.
“... transit trends and data are influenced by seasonal factors, such as vacations and the resumption of the school year, in addition to persisting pandemic impacts and large scheduled events.” the report reads.
Additionally, even with higher costs of driving, data provided by RTD shows that gas prices and transit riderships show no correlation.
However, TOD may increase prices. As Cook mentioned, the price of owning a home near Olde Town rose with more development and attractions with the new downtown.
To counter rising prices, zoning can help.
Up For Growth, a nonprofit that creates policy to achieve housing equity, dived into this issue. Mike Kingsella, CEO for Up For Growth, explained that the average U.S. household spends 33% of their income on housing (as of 2018) and 16% on transportation, with most people relying on cars.
The result is nearly half of America's income going toward housing and transportation. With transit oriented development, Kingsella said families can theoretically live where they work, play and gather without the use of a car.
Though, that doesn’t cut it when making sure areas around transit are affordable. Makarewicz said higher-income people are more likely to afford areas around transit.
“When you compare the primary (employment) centers and the income and the wages paid in those primary centers, and what their distance is to light rail, it's a greater share of high-income workers that are near our transit,” she said.
Similarly, improving access to other modes of transit often increases costs. Makarewicz said that while her team is looking at Denver now, in other places across the country such as Portland, Oregon or Tampa, Florida, improving safe bike lanes correlates to increased housing prices.
To maintain affordability, more TOD needs to be built to increase supply to meet the demand of living near transit, since it’s desirable.
“It's not only because they want to be near transit, which is a big piece of it, but it's also the way we're designing it, it’s mixed use, it’s walkable, it's in a good location. It's finally a different type of housing that's available,” Makarewicz said. “And people want it.”
As well, inclusionary zoning near those areas needs to be zoned. Each community determines what income levels mean for inclusionary zoning, though some see it as affordable for 80% of area median income, Makarewicz said.
That can manifest itself into moving away from parking garages and surface parking lots near light rail stations, and moving toward housing. One solution is rezoning that land and giving developers the public land with the stipulation that they must build inclusionary housing.
“Because of federal policies and somewhat of RTDs board's policies at the time, they use their public land around the light rail stations for massive $20 million parking garages, many of which are sitting empty today,” she said.
Demand for that lifestyle is increasing, which calls for policy to make it more affordable. Kingsella said exclusionary zoning — cities only allowing single-family homes instead of denser options — carries over into land near transit. Developing more attainable and affordable housing isn’t possible by stations.
Kingsella provided an example in Charlotte, North Carolina. The city updated zoning policies to curtail the time it takes for a builder to deliver housing and was focused on the half-mile ring around the city where high frequency transit stations exist.
“By doing so, these communities are able to significantly increase the breadth and the variety of housing and housing price points in these high opportunity neighborhoods,” he said.
Susan Daggett, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, took it a step further and said mandating a certain level of density surrounding bus rapid or light rail stations can help.
Though, a lot of pushback comes to affordable housing.
“(Residents) do want affordable housing, they don't want more density. They just want to keep their neighborhood exactly the same,” she said.
She said education on density can help the problem. One assumption is density comes with more crime, but Daggett said that more people walking in an area with more activity is safer.
“Density is required to support their favorite restaurant or their favorite coffee shop. If they don't have the density, then they're going to have to get it and drive tons of traffic to get to the place that you want to go into,” she said.
Diverse modes in a diverse region
Emily Kleinfelter, safety and regional Vision Zero planner for DRCOG, noted that with the Denver metro area being a diverse region, addressing transportation will take a multimodal strategy. They don’t pit modes against each other.
That means highways, bike pathways, bus rapid transit and others that provide options for what people need.
Providing those options sustainably will be the test. Kleinfelter said for single occupancy vehicles, that means electrification. For walking, biking and transit, it means creating safer streets for all road users.
It’s recognizing people make mistakes and allowing those mistakes to happen with much less severe consequences. One example he said was a protected bike lane with a vertical barrier.
“You're creating a space for everyone to be able to safely and efficiently get from there point A to point B,” she said.
The goal is for locally designed multimodal transportation. Meaning, every option doesn’t make sense for each community, but each roadway should be designed with more than just one mode in mind.
“Is it a rural road or a road in downtown Denver,” Kleinfelter said. “You’re not going to put a bike lane on the same one, you’re going to do it contextually to what the land use and the surrounding environment is like.”
However, when it comes to focusing on one mode over the other, transit comes first if the conversation is about safety. Kleinfelter explained it’s a numbers game — fewer people driving means less opportunities for collisions.
The problem with cars
Cars, whether electric or gas powered, remain an environmental health risk, according to Priyanka deSouza, a University of Colorado Denver professor of urban and regional planning.
“We need to prioritize better public transport and make our cities more pedestrian and biking friendly,” she said.
With Colorado’s air pollution reaching extremely unhealthy amounts, she said automobiles are the largest sources of pollution in the state. With that, it’s clear to her the need for public transport.
deSouza explained that gas powered cars release emissions like nitrogen dioxide and other gases. They also emit fine particulate matter that has diameters less of than 2.5 micrometers.
Those particles can enter respiratory systems and cause damage. Plus, they aren’t fully understood yet. deSouza was asked what health issues these emissions lead to.
“I mean, the question I'd ask you is ‘what is not associated with increased air pollution levels?’” she said. “Epidemiologists have found associations between increased exposure to air pollution and pretty much everything.”
She highlighted cardiovascular diseases, neurological diseases and respiratory diseases.
While electric cars offer a solution for air pollution in city centers, she said that air pollution will just be outsourced into different communities. People who live near the lands that generate the energy will feel the burden.
“Air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in the world today. It is responsible for about 7 million premature deaths every year,” she said.
She said more density makes more public transportation possible. With more sprawl, it’s harder to plan and support bus stops and other modes of transit since there aren’t enough people to use the infrastructure and it’s not financially feasible.
U.S. Rep. Yadira Caraveo is a Democrat who represents the state’s 8th District and is also a pediatrician. In the clinic on high ozone days, she sends children to the hospital since they can’t keep their oxygen levels up.
“I know that I'm going to be seeing lots of kids with asthma attacks, and I'm going to be sending some of them to the hospital because we can't get their oxygen levels up,” she said.
Citing it as a reason she ran for public office, she sees public transportation as an option to help fix the problem.
Not only public transportation, but making dense, walkable and bikeable cities provides physical and mental health benefits.
Kleinfelter said plenty of studies say biking to work or school make more productive employees or workers. She also noted road rage is real.
“Even the nicest person may have road rage. It's a real thing that driving does to us,” she said. “Biking provides so many great benefits to mental and physical health.”
Systemically, it adds up, she said. Better health means fewer trips to the doctor and less pressure on the healthcare system.
In a broader sense, they improve air quality, which benefits everyone.
Accessing local governments
Making cities more dense with more access to various sorts of transportation comes down to local governments, which aren’t accessible to everyone.
Rigler worked on a housing proposal in Westminster that saw three different hearings, each starting at 6 p.m. and lasting well after midnight.
“7, 8, 9 o'clock at night, you're feeding your kids, you're feeding your family, you got other things you might be doing like working a second job. The people who would benefit the most from that housing are kept out of the public process,” he said.
Meanwhile, those with time who are against projects often camp out at city hall, form Facebook groups, write letters, speak at public comment and post signs. Much of their time is dedicated to the cause.
Rigler said it’s important to include everyone at the table, even those who stand against housing proposals. Diverse opinions make them stronger.
“They all benefit from being able to come to the table, and if not fight for what they want, at least have their voice heard,” he said.
Statewide calls for action
At the Jan. 5, 2023 Legislative Breakfast, Gov. Jared Polis said a key issue for the 2023 legislative session will be reducing housing costs for families, asking the state to remove barriers to the creation of housing, and developments need to be “thoughtful, smart and sustainable.”
He called for fewer sprawling neighborhoods and said higher housing costs are leading Coloradans to live farther from their jobs, which leads to more traffic, more liability to maintain roads, more commuting and more air pollution.
“That just doesn’t work as a development formula for a state,” he said.
Building more transit and more housing closer to transit, he said, can deliver even better transit with more riders.
State Sen. Faith Winter from Westminster also spoke at the event, touting the RTD Zero Fare for Better Air study.
“We need to build on that success, continue that success, and make that success permanent,” Winter said.
To make that success permanent, Winter said RTD needs a more reliable source of funding moving into the future in a follow-up interview, citing a permanent investment in state dollars.
That’s because 20% of RTD’s operating budget comes from fares, which is typical for a transportation agency. What’s not typical is the rest comes mostly from the federal government and sales tax, and zip from the state government.
At the same time, she emphasized the need for partnerships across the region. To maintain local voices and local control over projects, she said the system is designed to do so.
“Our transportation projects are funded and designed and come up with from the local level,” she said.
What’s to come
DRCOG has high goals to achieve by 2040 and it’s outlined in the Metro Vision Plan. They want to embrace their urban, suburban and rural communities, while also increasing density, providing more diverse modes of transportation and planning development smartly.
That manifests into reduced vehicle miles traveled, conservation of open land, increased housing diversity, lower air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, saving water and respecting existing neighborhoods.
It’s a heavy lift with steep goals, with some already on track to achieve and others behind schedule. DRCOG will rely on performance measures to track their progress.
By 2040, the plan hopes to reduce surface transportation greenhouse gas emissions by 60% from a 2010 baseline, put 50% of employment in urban centers, place 20% of all housing near high-frequency or rapid transit, lower 10% of vehicle miles traveled per capita, per day from a 2010 baseline, reduce traffic deaths to less than 100 per year and more.
With all those goals, they also hope to increase density by 25% from a 2014 baseline. That means 6,060 people per square mile in the region by 2040.
Until then, the near 1 million people projected to increase the region’s population will make their way to the colorful state. Will we be ready?
This story has been changed from a previous version that stated:
"Carrie Makarewicz, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver, said roughly 80% of land in the metro area is zoned for residential single-family homes. "
The correct statement is "...roughly 80% of residential land in the metro area is zoned for single-family homes."
We apologize for this error.