Historically, we’ve created two kinds of places. The urban place, our cities, the places inside the walls, and then everything else outside the walls, the rural places, the agrarian places.
Our towns and cities were the connected places, they were our centers for commerce, and industry, and technology, and innovation. The rural places were grounded places, they were places that produced our food. Yet, they were right next door to each other. Daily, the residents in the cities experienced that rural and grounded experience as well. Our city started in much the same way, Denver, Colorado.
This is an image of the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River where Denver was first settled. Of course, we grew, and we thrived, and this map, this diagram, shows that same confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte in the upper left hand corner of the map. As you see, the river continues, and you see the smoke stacks as we urbanized and industrialized our city. Those smoke stacks became the icons and signs of our progress and our success. Yet, there was a cost.
As those smoke stacks and industry came to our city, it pushed that rural, grounded place further away. The slaughterhouses, the farms that rimmed our city originally, that produced the food for our city, got kicked out of downtown. Our city was becoming noisier and more polluted, and so, as we fell in love with the automobile, and it gave us access to lure and promise of our suburbs, we looked for a place that might be quieter and maybe harken back to that rural grounded experience. But suburbs produced something that wasn’t either urban or rural. It wasn’t connected or grounded.
Something didn’t quite make sense. We’ve been struggling with that ever since. Witness our current obsession with urban agriculture, right minded, as it is, backyard beehives and chickens. Let’s talk about an urban example close in on at Denver. Less than 100 years ago, 40,000 cattle a day moved through these stockyards that were located between the South Platte River and Brighton Boulevard, just north of what, in 1962, would become the Highway I-70, 40,000 cattle a day, less than two miles from 17th Street, the Wall Street of the West.
At night, you could hear cattle mooing in the center of our city. This is what that place looks like today. The stockyards are long gone, except for 14 days each January, when the National Western Stock Show inhabits this location, and the cattle come back to those pens, but generally it’s an industrialized area. Even the National Western itself, facing the pressures of an agrarian experience in an urban environment, seriously considered moving outside our city, just in the past few years.
Fortunately, our city leaders, correctly and instinctively, knew we can not let this happen. We need to fight the good fight and have the complex and critical conversations about how we integrate this agrarian rural experience into our urban environment. Out of it has come an amazing and complex innovation, a collaboration, a joint venture between seemingly diverse and desperate parties: the city and county of Denver, the National Western Stock Show, Colorado State University, History Colorado, and the neighborhoods that are close in to this site, Globeville, Elyria and Swansea. They’re coming up with innovations and collaborations, here for not experience, for example, ideas as far flung as international symposiums on global food production for healthy and sustainable foods for the planet. As well as locally inventive projects like classes dealing with how to build your own greenhouse, and how to prepare those foods that you’ve produced in a healthy way.
You see, we’re trying to create a globally connected place that is locally grounded. This is critically important work Complex, but critically important. Because we’re running out of land. Our metroplex from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs spans 130 miles of urban sprawl.
So, what do we do about that? Of course, I’m here to suggest I have a few ideas. We need to create places that are either urban or rural. We need to institute the discipline to make sure that we avoid creating places that aren’t either one of those things. We need to create places in our most dense urban environments that are mixed used, mixed income, mixed generational projects, residential communities that are inextricably linked to the sources of their food production, and equally connected to the open space network in greenways, in parks, in waterways of our city. So that everyday those residents can have both the wonderful experience of being connected to an urban environment, but grounded to that experience of nature.
In order to do that, we need to understand what both of these things are, both the urban and the rural experience. We need to become expert in both of those things. So I would suggest that cowboys and urbanistas, rednecks and baristas have a lot to learn from each other. I have a bit of a different perspective on that because I lived this sort of strange double life. I’m a Denver guy, I moved here in 1982 after graduating from architecture school, and ever since I’ve been designing urban places and buildings in the city.
But in 2006, maybe looking to have it all, to have that urban experience – we were living in a great historic Denver neighborhood – looking to have it all and have that rural grounded experience, our family, my wife and our two children, 10 and 12 at that time, purchased a cattle ranch in Strasburg, Colorado, just 30 miles east of Denver. It’s a little bit crazy, our days are diverse, they’re long, we do all sorts of strange things, I may start my day with a meeting with the mayor in the morning, and end that evening bailing hay. But it’s been an incredible experience, and it’s had a profound impact on our family, and how I will forever look at urban design. The lessons from the urban experience informed the rural, the rural informed the urban. Some of those lessons of the rural experience happened before we even purchased the ranch.