Two generations ago, Jane Jacobs published “Cities and the Wealth of Nations,” amplifying and refining ideas that she had suggested a few years earlier in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”
Jacobs was an urbanist in an era when middle-class Americans shunned cities in favor of the suburbs — the land of low taxes, safe streets and good schools, a world where children could grow up without chaos, danger and dirt.
Jacobs disagreed. She saw cities as fundamental engines of innovation and production, shaped and energized by the “ballet of the streets,” the intense and unpredictable interactions that so appalled the timid suburbanites of her time.
Those ideas, so revolutionary then, are now the conventional wisdom of urban planners and theorists. Yet America became and remains a suburban nation, and many suburbanites continue to regard cities with suspicion and contempt — even if the city is their own.
Many of us don’t like Mayor Steve Bach’s plans to use state tax increment funding to revive southwest downtown. Judging by Facebook posts, letters to the editor and miscellaneous nasty emails, some residents of Colorado Springs’ suburban ring have little affection for the city’s historic center.
Bach is thinking big, trying to make Colorado Springs the vibrant center of a new regional economy.
Prosperity is elsewhere, in the peaceful streets of Briargate, the gleaming officescapes 10 miles from the city’s center and the lively bustle of shoppers at First & Main. Cities? Downtowns? Who needs them? And don’t ask us to subsidize them with our tax money!
Alas, our prosperous suburbs depend not upon a diverse, vigorous economy but upon military spending. Absent military bases and contractors, we’d be the Detroit of the Rockies, a bedraggled little city struggling to avoid bankruptcy.
Healthy cities and suburbs share a common ecosystem. Vibrant downtowns nourish and support extensive suburban networks, and identify, unite, and brand the entire region.
Look, for example, at Denver and Boulder.
In the 1960s, Boulder sterilized itself against suburban sprawl by acquiring 45,000 acres of open space. Ringing the historic university town with ranches, meadows and trails instead of malls, houses and office buildings didn’t stifle development — it accelerated it. The development took place on the periphery, in once-bucolic rural communities. Boulder remained Boulder — cool and fun, an urban small town whose thriving economy both complemented and depended upon its new suburban neighbors.
Three decades ago, Denver was a Midwestern backwater. Following the collapse of the once-dominant oil and gas industry, Denver stagnated. Jobs vanished, smart young people left town, and unfinished “see-through” office buildings dotted downtown.
Now? Thanks to massive private and public investment in the city’s core, Denver is a world-class city, the vital center of a metropolitan region that extends from Boulder to Castle Rock. Significantly, much of the public investment was funded by separate multijurisdictional taxes levied to support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District and the construction of professional sports stadiums. The region cooperated; the region benefited.
Denver and Boulder have been on the leading edge of civic innovation for decades, while Colorado Springs has largely rejected such urban activism. As Mayor Bach unintentionally emphasized when advising City Council not to permit retail marijuana sales, our economy is fragile. More than 40 percent depends on military spending, and that depends in turn upon the whims of federal government.
That’s why Bach is thinking big, trying to make Colorado Springs the vibrant center of a new regional economy. He’s emulating Denver’s three great mayors: Federico Peña, Wellington Webb and John Hickenlooper.
Bach’s not the only activist mayor in America. According to “The Metropolitan Revolution,” a recently published book by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution, there are some new sheriffs in town.
“Across the nation, cities and metropolitan areas, and the networks of pragmatic leaders who govern them, are taking on the big issues that Washington won’t, or can’t, solve,” Katz and Bradley claim. “They are reshaping our economy and fixing our broken political system.”
They cite Denver and Los Angeles as cities “where leaders are breaking barriers and building world-class metropolises.”
Here’s a last thought: what do Denver and Los Angeles have in common now with Colorado Springs?