The Importance of Density: Colorado Springs Quality of Life Indicators

The Quality of Life Indicators Report was released last week in Colorado Springs, where I was honored to present the key points from the Built Environment Vision Council. The event was rich with concise presentations including one from the honorable Mayor of Colorado Springs, Steve Bach.

As you may imagine, the report identified many negative components about Colorado Springs in comparison to some of the similar-sized cities in the area. However, the report is not entirely negative. In my presentation, I attempted to focus on some of the brighter points of our community, such as the progress made for bicycle infrastructure in our city and the Downtown form-based code. Where the “red flags,” or problems, were referenced, I made an attempt to offer potential solutions.

The overriding “red flag” in Colorado Springs is a lack of density. Density is a measure of people or dwelling units per square mile or acre. For development purposes, density is typically measured in terms of dwelling units per acre. A lack of density has a multiplier effect over the other quality of life indicators, due to a higher ratio of city resources per person. Resources include roads, infrastructure, and public services (fire, police, schools, transit, etc.).

Colorado Springs had a population of 372,437 people and approximately 185 square miles (118,400 acres) in 2006 according to the US Census. With approximately 2.5 people per dwelling unit in Colorado Springs, this equates to a gross density across the city of 1.25 dwelling units per acre. When we look at our residential neighborhoods alone, Colorado Springs has 31,414 acres of residential, which yields a net residential density of only 4.74 dwelling units per acre.

4.74 dwelling units is a density that is on the low side of even conventional suburban development. The net density is common for detached single-family homes that sit on lots of approximately 100-ft by 90-ft.

In order to alleviate this lack of density, the Pikes Peak Region must explore opportunities for infill. For those who may not be familiar with the term infill, I offered the analogy of the hole in the donut. In this analogy, the outer edges of the donut are the developed and utilized properties, while the hole is the vacant or sometimes underutilized properties. Not only does the city need to fill in the “donut holes”, but they should be filled in with structures that are of a greater density to what was previously developed or even zoned.

A key component to where the city can assist in enabling infill development is in balancing out suburban greenfield development with infill development. The City should revise codes along distressed corridors to provide an expedited process, offer predictable form and allow for the market to dictate the density and parking requirements.

Infill is critical to increasing density in Colorado Springs' distressed neighborhoods. The above Dream City Vision Board was created by John Olson, Jim Houk and Dave Foster.

The City of Colorado Springs fortunately has a precedent in place in the downtown form-based code. The quantitative code in place removes the ambiguity of the qualitative requirements. Qualitative requirements are very open for interpretation and often result in a time-consuming process. Codes similar to the downtown form-based code should be calibrated and created for the areas of dynamism, or areas with great potential for change. These areas are typically failing commercial corridors, originally constructed with single-use buildings with a short life expectancy. For more about Colorado Springs’ Downtown Form-based Code, read Adaptability in Use Changes for Downtown Colorado Springs.

In my presentation, the other major red flag identified was the poor condition of the City’s roads, bridges and lack of transit.  I will discuss this in my next blog post. Please stay tuned.

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