Urbanization was top of mind for participants at the first event of the three-part #UrbanCOS series, hosted at UCCS Downtown on September 23.
In a talk on the resurgence of downtown living, professor of geography and environmental studies John Harner overviewed Colorado Springs’ transition from a dense, walkable city into a sprawling mass of suburbs – then offered a glimpse into its future.
“We have to know the history of our place, or we don’t know the place,” Harner told audience members. “For over half a century, we have been growing our suburban sprawl. Suburbia was the American Dream. But in the last two decades, we’ve seen a reversal of that. So the question is: why?”
Harner, a 2005 Fulbright scholar and 2018 recipient of the CU Thomas Jefferson Award, aims to publish a historical geographic account of Colorado Springs in time for the city’s 150th birthday in July of 2021.
Beginning an account of the city’s history in 1915, he walked audience members through the changed nature of Colorado Springs.
“We had a reliance on public transportation,” Harner said. “We had a walkable city. There were 134 grocery stores. You could walk in your neighborhood to nearby goods and services, and if you couldn’t walk, you could hop on a trolley.”
That changed during the post-World War II automobile revolution, which fundamentally changed the shape of the city.
Increased mobility outside of the streetcar network opened up lands to the north, east and south of Colorado Springs to development. Schools, businesses and homes that had been densely clustered in the heart of downtown began to stretch across its new boundaries, thinning out available services and decreasing the city’s walkability. Traffic increased, as did the size of structures built to accommodate travel by automobile rather than by foot or bicycle.
And as suburbs grew in popularity, automobiles needed easier ways to get to them.
“As we started building these landscapes, the increasing need for transportation fell to the automobile,” Harner said. “So we started building freeways. But freeways take up an enormous amount of land. They rip up the urban core. They create huge barriers between the east and west sides of the city. They create landscapes that privilege the automobile.”
“And the result of all this is that we hollowed out our urban core.”
Among the consequences of building Interstate 25 through Colorado Springs was the destruction of over 500 historic buildings, largely in parts of town populated by immigrants and racial minorities.
“One of the neighborhoods that disappeared was the old Conejos neighborhood, now America the Beautiful Park,” Harner told audience members. “It was our original Jewish neighborhood and our Hispanic barrio. It’s a forgotten space now.”
Still, Harner said, there is hope for an “urban resurgence.”
Driven by changing demographics, including a more diverse American population and the Millennial generation’s preferences for smaller homes and shorter commutes, Colorado Springs’ downtown is among those seeing a boom in development and desirability.
Between 2013 and 2018, the area received $864 million in investment, including new apartment buildings, restaurants and construction related to the City for Champions initiative, which aims to cement Colorado Springs’ reputation as Olympic City USA.
Harner closed his remarks by highlighting that a vibrant downtown benefits all of a city’s inhabitants, not just those who live in its center.
“Even if you live in the suburbs and don’t really care about downtown, or if you don’t think about it much, it’s going to benefit you if our downtown is prosperous,” he said.
“We use the landscape and institutions and spaces of the downtown when we market a city. They are shapers of our brand. They are the kinds of things that set our identity and create a sense of place, create tourism, attract businesses and people.”
The event closed with an interactive activity where participants brainstormed strategies to improve Colorado Springs’ downtown, from increasing its walkability to creating affordable living spaces and new economic development.
The next two events in the series include “Arts & Culture in #UrbanCOS” on Monday, October 14 and “The Future of #UrbanCOS” on Monday, November 4. Both events begin at 6pm and are free and open to the community, though participants should pre-register by emailing Stephanie Adams.