It all starts with the traffic. Heading south out of downtown Denver on Interstate 25, the traffic almost immediately engulfs you. About 15 miles later, as you turn west on Route 470, it may ease a bit — but there’s still congestion on both sides of the road. On your right, you see Target, Wal-Mart, and other familiar big-box names, a lineup broken by occasional motels, restaurants, auto-service shops, and apartment complexes.
On your left, a small strip of green grass lines the side of the road. Behind it, a parade of houses stretches as far as the eye can see. The houses are grouped roughly by size. Some are mansions; others are more modest. They look as if they were built from the same architectural mold: All of them look relatively new, and all are painted from the same earth-tone color palette. If you check your odometer, you’ll see that this run of houses goes on for seven miles, and if you check the driver’s-side mirror, you can just make out the identifying “Highlands Ranch” signs along the other side of the road.
Since 1981, 70,000 people have moved into Highlands Ranch, and about 9 more move into newly built houses there every day. It may be America’s largest subdivision, depending on how you define the term. There’s one in Irvine, California that may soon be larger. These ranches — which aren’t really ranches, but millennial versions of suburban subdivisions — are evidence of a larger trend. Sometime last year, Americans crossed a milestone: Now slightly more than half of all U.S. residents live in the suburbs. The rate at which Americans are embracing this version of the suburban lifestyle means that every major American city could have its own version of Highlands Ranch within 25 years.
But Highlands Ranch is more than just a glimpse of the future of housing and development in the United States. It’s also a barometer of how Americans feel about the legacy of land, built environment, and lifestyle that this generation is rapidly proliferating. It’s a legacy about which Coloradans feel a great deal of uneasiness.
In 1995, there were 3,782,170 people living in Colorado — most of them clustered along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, where Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs now sit. During each of the past five years, however, nearly 50,000 Coloradan wanna-bes have arrived with their moving vans, looking for a place to live. Most of them have chosen to settle in urban areas east of the Rocky Mountains. As a consequence, a growing number of Coloradans now worry that just one generation (and a few more monster subdivisions) from now, their state will come to look like greater Los Angeles.
This concern is not unique to the urban parts of Colorado: Few people want their cities to look like Los Angeles, including many Angelenos. But in Denver, there’s a sense that something unique is at stake. As the Denver metropolitan area has grown, that growth has threatened the very things that make the place so desirable. So the stakes have also grown, raising questions about lifestyle, growth, and sustainability.
To many Coloradans, Highlands Ranch is the epitome of the problem. To many others, living there is the best thing that has ever happened to them. Trying to figure out who’s right is an exercise in futility, involving a host of value judgments. So here’s a better way to look at the questions facing Denver — and facing a generation of Americans who are battling the issues of affluence and community, success and sprawl: Is Highlands Ranch the best we can do? Are we keeping a promise to do it right? Or are we just taking our turn at blowing it?
Many of the people who have moved to Highlands Ranch are among the first generation of children ever raised in suburban subdivisions. In the 1960s, when many of these residents were growing up, Pete Seeger was on their record players, singing about the plastic existence of the suburbs, warning about empty lives lived in “little boxes made of ticky-tacky … and they all look just the same.” Plenty of people who felt trapped inside that world promised themselves that they would never end up in such a soulless setting — and that they would certainly never make their own kids live there.
But as they got older, got married, got pregnant, and got house hungry, these people all confronted the same reality: For all of the amazing innovations in almost every industry, there has been no corresponding creative boom in American urban and community development. New suburbs and the subdivisions that populate them look and feel just like they used to — except they’re bigger, more expensive, and farther away from the cities that they surround. So people who grew up in the suburbs, who were warned about the suburbs, and who said that they would never live in the suburbs now do what they said that they would never do — and then some: They move to the megasuburbs. Where else are they going to go?
In the Denver area, the question isn’t completely rhetorical. Some of those kids who got older and got pregnant are buying houses near Denver’s revitalized downtown. A handful of others have moved into experiments in progressive town-planning, such as Prospect New Town, 10 miles northeast of Boulder and about 30 miles north of downtown Denver. But most people move into Highlands Ranch or its miniature brethren. By now, they’ve outgrown those old Pete Seeger lyrics. The Talking Heads perform their new soundtrack: “And you may tell yourself/This is not my beautiful house ? And you may ask yourself/Well, how did I get here?”
How did we get here?
The Denver Dilemma: Be Careful What You Wish For
It all started with the traffic: It was going the wrong way, straight out of Colorado. The economic downturn of the late 1980s and early 1990s hit the Denver area sooner and harder than it hit many other cities. In the mid-1980s, 25% of all jobs in the area were in the oil industry or in other natural resources-based businesses. Within a year or two, those industries were hit hard. Vacancy rates in downtown office buildings were approaching 30%. In 1987, there was a net migration out of Colorado for the first time in a generation, and the trend continued for four more years.
The oil-and-gas business was on the way out, although other parts of the business community still believed in the region’s strength. “Nobody really wanted to leave,” remembers Glen Sibley, a longtime player in the local real-estate scene. The locals banded together to form the Greater Denver Corporation (GDC) and set to work.
The GDC’s primary goal was to create 100,000 new jobs in the metro area by 1992 — an 11% increase. The group’s strategy: Figure out what the city was missing that outside companies would find attractive, and then provide it to lure businesses to Denver. The city’s environmental treasures and access to recreational activities were advantages, but they weren’t enough. So the GDC fought hard for a new international airport. It also campaigned for a series of targeted tax hikes: one to support a new ballpark to bring professional baseball to Denver, another to provide ongoing funding for the city’s cultural institutions.
As the economy improved in the early 1990s, these moves paid off. Prominent names such as Sun Microsystems and Level 3 Communications either established major presences in the area or, in some cases, started up businesses there. More people have moved into Colorado than have moved out every year since 1992, with the net gain peaking at almost 80,000 people in 1994. The Colorado Division of Local Government expects the Denver metro area to grow by roughly 33% in the next 20 years, from about 2.37 million to 3.15 million. The projections for the state’s population growth are even higher. Silicon Valley may still be a magnet for dreamers, but Colorado is the true “New West.” And no place in the region represents its frontier quality better than the state’s biggest subdivision, where bold investors made the biggest bet of all on the area’s future.
Highlands Ranch: Just Like the Suburbs, Only Bigger
There are no traffic jams in Highlands Ranch. The six-lane avenues that move cars in and out of the development were designed to accommodate all of the people who would ever live there, so the streets still aren’t filled to capacity today. Why not build such luxuriously large boulevards when there’s so much land to begin with?
At one point, Highlands Ranch really was a working cattle ranch. For much of the middle of the past century, the land was owned by the family of former U.S. senator Lawrence Phipps. Oil tycoon turned movie baron Marvin Davis led a partnership that bought the land in 1978 and that then flipped it to the Mission Viejo Co., developer of much of the California city of the same name.
Mission Viejo, then a subsidiary of Philip Morris, pressed on, and in 1981, the first family moved into the community. Interest rates at the time were so high that builders had to subsidize mortgages for most of the buyers. Nevertheless, a persistent trickle of families moved in, and the numbers increased every year. Growth slowed toward the end of the 1980s — but never stopped.
From the beginning, the development focused on one target customer. “We were trying to appeal to younger families,” says Joe Blake, 65, who landed the position of president at the Denver Chamber of Commerce, thanks in part to his 20-year track record of helping to build Highlands Ranch. “We wanted to attract people who wanted lots of open space connected by trails and who wanted large parks with great recreational opportunities. And we were also committed to building a great school system. We helped finance and build the first elementary school there.”
In fact, for all of the debate about growth and sprawl, no one disputes the quality of the amenities that have been built into Highlands Ranch or how attractive those perks are for young families. Three large recreation centers serve Highlands Ranch, and each one includes a full complement of top-of-the-line exercise equipment. Among the three centers, there are several swimming pools, both indoor and outdoor, and there is a zero-depth pool that small children can enter as if it were the waterline on a beach.
And there’s more: hot tubs, steam rooms, video-game arcades, batting cages, two sand volleyball courts, and space for in-line hockey. There’s even a 32-foot-high climbing wall. These and other amenities are maintained by the Highlands Ranch Community Association (HRCA), the largest organization of its kind in the United States. Membership in the association is mandatory if you live on the Ranch. “Our purpose is to enhance and maintain the value of the members’ properties,” says Gary Debus, 41, community manager of the HRCA.
One way to help owners protect their investment is to create and enforce community standards by applying rules known as “covenants.” Government authorities handle structural inspections of the houses in Highlands Ranch, and the county sheriff’s office responds to criminal complaints, but covenant enforcement falls to Debus, who lives on the Ranch, and his team. “It’s one of the hardest things that we have to do,” he says. “Home values have appreciated greatly here. I see covenant enforcement as protecting my property from what might happen to the property next to mine.”
Many of the covenants deal with aesthetics: Anyone who moves into Highlands Ranch must agree to abide by a long list of guidelines. Highlands Ranch isn’t uniform, but it is highly ordered. The identifying house numbers can be no more than six inches from top to bottom without prior approval. Residents may not illuminate personal flagpoles. Children’s backyard clubhouses may be no more than 24 square feet. No above-ground swimming pools are permitted, and hot tubs must be out of the neighbors’ line of sight. White picket fences — that all-American symbol — are only allowed in a few select neighborhoods.
A six-member volunteer committee of Highlands Ranch residents is responsible for interpreting the covenants and for reviewing and approving submittals. Elaine Stoner, 50, and the five members of her full-time enforcement team handle the brunt of the day-to-day work. Almost daily, at least two or three of them go out on general patrol, and two team members devote most of their time to following up on complaints that Ranch residents file against one another. Roughly 40 objections are called in during business hours each day, and 40 more are usually waiting in their voice-mail system when the group shows up for work the next morning.
Taking a ride along with the covenant-enforcement team is the only way to appreciate the kinds of issues that emerge. Color, it turns out, is a persistent concern. “There’s one light purple that went up that everyone hated,” says Cassie Thomas, 23, a former architectural technician at Highlands Ranch, “and there were phone calls for days.”
What kind of community spends so much time complaining about its neighbors to the design police? “There are over 27,000 properties here,” explains Stoner, who owns one of them herself. “So it’s a pretty small percentage that aren’t in compliance. For the most part, people are happy with the rules. They believe in them and want them to be enforced.”
Enforcing rules about color, however, seems to miss the larger issues of growth, design, and development. On these fundamental points, Blake, Debus, and other Highlands Ranch leaders feel proud of the job that they’ve done. By 2005, when the Ranch is completely built, there will be 90,000 people living in 36,700 homes spread across 34.4 square miles. A full 61% of the acreage will be reserved for open or nonurban space, off-limits to any sort of commercial or residential development. Eventually, much of it will become a nature preserve.
Prospect New Town: New Urbanism Takes Its Shot
It’s not about the traffic in Prospect New Town. In fact, when passersby first see the houses there, they tend to stop in their tracks. Often, the cars turn off the highway altogether and head into the development to get a closer look. These automobiles have license plates from all over the country, and their occupants drive around trying to figure out exactly what the place is. It isn’t a theme park or a movie set. Prospect is a subdivision. It doesn’t look anything like Highlands Ranch — indeed, the houses don’t look anything like one another. For that reason, it raises an important question: Is there an alternative to the megasuburb? Is there a design approach and a developmental philosophy that comes closer to the espoused aspirations of this generation?
Prospect New Town sits on land that is owned by Kiki Wallace. Wallace, 45, who has worked as an onion farmer in Mexico and as an entrepreneur in the United States, bought the former Christmas-tree farm from his family so that he could develop it in his own way. What he had in mind was a development style that fits loosely within a relatively recent movement in the planning field: New Urbanism.
One common New Urbanist-community feature is housing that is designed for people of all income levels. Apartments, townhouses, and detached homes are all part of the mix. Designs favor community, which means that front porches, not garages, face the street. Density is high: When residents can walk to school and to the store, real neighborhoods exist. Diversity and mixed uses can make life more interesting, according to New Urbanist principles.
Since Wallace first started building Prospect in 1997, he has tweaked the formula a bit, with help from town designer Mark Sofield, 41, who moved from New England to help build the development. “New Urbanism felt like a practical, aesthetically pleasing thing, like building a neighborhood,” Wallace says. After growing up in McAllen, Texas, which has the dubious distinction of topping the Sierra Club’s list for the worst sprawl in a city of its size, Wallace didn’t want to build a traditional subdivision. Taking a New Urbanist approach seemed like the most reasonable alternative.
As Prospect has grown, Wallace and Sofield have stuck with some architectural tenets of New Urbanism and have deviated from others. The development is quite dense, zoned for 585 units on just 80 acres, compared with Highlands Ranch, which now has 27,000 individual units (including a few apartments) on 5,020 acres. So far, 100 houses are either inhabited or are in various stages of completion. Few houses have any front yard to speak of, but there are numerous squares and parks throughout the development. The design philosophy here is a combination of pragmatism and communitarianism: Since most homeowners don’t actually use their front yards very often, if each home sacrifices most of its private outdoor space, there can be terrific public spaces for all residents to share.
Although Wallace and Sofield seem to follow the total urban-planning philosophy of New Urbanism, they tend to diverge when it comes to architecture. “We went around and looked at some other projects early on,” Sofield says. “In the end, we both felt strongly that we needed to break out of the ‘cute’ mode.” In the first ring of houses that were built in Prospect, the homes are fairly traditional, although the styles range from Queen Anne to Tudor to Craftsman Bungalow. Sofield himself lives in a Craftsman Bungalow in Prospect that was moved from a lot down the road.
As they’ve filled in the second ring of houses, Wallace and Sofield have started employing various forms of modern architecture. Sofield has designed some of the new houses himself, and he called on local talent and friends from Yale Architecture School to come up with ideas for others. “It’s an expression of our deviant philosophy,” Sofield says. “Real places accommodate the real differences between people and give them physical expression.”
How do they decide exactly what gets built? Formal rules have given way to Wallace’s and Sofield’s internal compasses. “We’ve changed our review process some,” Sofield says. “We used to hand out the rules, and as long as people followed those rules, we wouldn’t bother them. Now it’s more like school. Everything is good as long as it can exist on its own terms.” Wallace attempts to clarify this further: “You can build any type of house as long as it’s true to its type.”
This loose standard can create some confusion. Wallace and Sofield figure that 70% of all architectural plans that builders submit to them need extensive alterations. Another 25% need at least moderate changes. As houses go up, they’re subject to an additional, ad-hoc review process. “That’s crap,” Wallace observes, walking by a newly erected fence. “It sounds harsh,” Sofield says. “But somebody’s taste has to prevail, or else it would be anarchy.”
How do Wallace and Sofield resolve the color issue that confounds the covenant officers at Highlands Ranch? “Beige or any other color that you might see at Highlands Ranch automatically gets rejected here,” says Sofield, who has never actually been to the Ranch, but who nevertheless uses it as a benchmark for what he does not want to create. In fact, Prospect has its own color committee: It consists of Sofield’s wife, Kelley Feeney, who serves as the committee’s director, and Wallace. “When I moved here, there weren’t colored houses anywhere in this state,” Wallace says. “Builders think that if they paint a house with a color that evokes an emotion then buyers will run scared. I say go bold, and you’ll grab somebody who will buy it.” So far, none of the spec houses in Prospect have been on the market for more than two months without being sold.
What sort of people want to live in this community? While Republicans outnumber Democrats at Highlands Ranch, the only political signs in Prospect during last year’s election were for Ralph Nader. Prospect has its share of upwardly mobile young families, but there are also people with lower incomes who live in apartments over the houses’ garages. “You have your classic white trash here, which I love,” Wallace says.
More important than the individuals who have settled in Prospect is the development’s sense of community, stimulated in part by design disputes. The issue: Some original buyers thought that there would never be modern houses in Prospect. Now that new houses are starting to go up — some of them right next door to Tudors and Victorians — these people are unhappy. Some residents have aired their feelings publicly at homeowners’ meetings, yielding productive community discussions. “That part is pleasing to us,” Sofield says, “because it means that people are taking ownership of the project.”
What Wallace and Sofield are seeking to achieve is admittedly tricky. “It’s our feeling that a community is a group of individuals that in some ways is greater than the sum of its parts,” Sofield says. “That’s what we’re trying to give expression to in the variety of buildings. In many New Urbanist projects, there is such an architectural homogeneity that there necessarily is a homogeneity in the inhabitants as well. These are extremely engaging issues for me. I expect to be pondering them forever.”
The Future: What Do You Want for Your Beautiful House?
It’s still about the traffic. People sit in their cars, with their radios tuned to news programs and talk shows that explore the question of how to keep Colorado from becoming another southern California.
Some Coloradans believe that there’s still an opportunity to make a difference — to design a future that works. Soon, the land just a few miles from downtown Denver where Stapleton Airport once stood will become a mixed-use community of housing, businesses, and retail stores. The decommissioned Lowery Air Force Base, a few miles south of Stapleton, already has new houses on it, and so far they represent a happy medium between Highlands Ranch and Prospect. Lowery and Stapleton give Denver a rare gift: a chance to ask and answer questions about land, lifestyle, and legacy. It’s unusual for a city to get a chance to start from scratch with one large urban tract, let alone with two. Unlike Highlands Ranch and Prospect, where a lack of plentiful public transportation options requires many households to have two cars, Stapleton can be integrated more easily into existing bus lines.
But for Denver, the question of how to build a pride-inspiring future remains unanswered. Highlands Ranch takes the suburban lifestyle that has spread across the country in the past 50 years and carries it to new heights — or depths. The houses are larger, the tract more expansive, the development more commercially viable. But it is hard to look at Highlands Ranch’s design philosophy or its car-centric version of community and find a future to embrace. Prospect New Town, for its part, speaks the language of community and celebrates authenticity. But it hasn’t yet had enough influence on mainstream developers to alter the direction of urban growth. So what will Denver — or Austin, Atlanta, San Diego, or Seattle — have to offer in a decade?
Those who fear for Colorado’s future have one hidden advantage that may guarantee some relief from the pressures of growth: The federal government owns 36% of the state’s land. But Thomas Clark, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado at Denver, still worries about emerging demographic trends. “In the next 25 years, 40% of the gain in the American population will reside in just eight states in the Rocky Mountain West,” he says. With the right amount of forward thinking, maybe the Denver of the future will be able to accommodate all of that new growth and still preserve the environment and lifestyle that make it so attractive in the first place. Or maybe the city will look like Los Angeles. Maybe the trajectory of development in the future will finally change. Or maybe it will stay the same. The same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.
Only much, much bigger.
Ron Lieber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer. Learn more about Highlands Ranch and Prospect New Town on the Web (www.highlandsranch.com; www.prospectnewtown.com).