Urban Exploration Reflections: Michael Leccese
Every year, more than 100 business and civic leaders participate in the Downtown Denver Partnership’s Urban Exploration Program: an opportunity for public and private sector leaders to connect, build relationships and learn more about key urban issues, bringing inspiration back to our collective city-building work in Denver. In 2019, the Partnership made the bold decision to travel to Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the happiest and most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, to study its livability, equity and economic innovation. Participants learned from local leaders, experienced the city’s evolution first-hand and came home inspired by the innovation and development Copenhagen has seen in the past decades that have solidified it’s place as a world-class city that leads the way in putting people first.
Hear from Michael Leccese, Executive Director of Urban Land Institute Colorado, as he offers his takeaways and inspiration from Urban Exploration 2019.
In Denver, we could rethink mixed-use beyond mixing housing and commercial real estate. In Copenhagen, many successful mixed-use projects seemed to lead with kid- and family-friendly projects. I saw family housing, playgrounds, bike-friendly transportation everywhere. The Blox, an iconic landmark that connects decision makers, scientists and citizens to explore and develop new sustainable urban solutions, is a great example of infrastructure that includes housing, co-working, a fitness center, playgrounds, a bike lane through the middle of the building, and more. All these amenities contribute to a healthy, diverse local economy.
Denver can incorporate amenities like these into current and future public facilities and enrich them with other uses, whether they are income-generating or not.
In Copenhagen, the bike is the number one mode of transport, and typical reasons of why do not apply. Locals don’t bike for the love of it or for their concern for the environment, but because it’s cheap and convenient.
Denver can increase the utility and use of bike transportation by appealing to thrift. Bike facilities are relatively cheap to build and easy to use; Denver should consider the positive impact these facilities can have on the health and well-being of residents and workers, the economy and everyone’s safety.
Also, Copenhagen has a unique transportation planning philosophy: create safe shortcuts for bike routes and make it less convenient to drive somewhere. Denver also needs to continue to consider how to integrate FasTracks, buses, bike routes, scooters, car share, bike share, etc. into one integrated network. This means one card swipe, with great wayfinding.
Now here’s the challenge: Denmark is a progressive, homogeneous semi-socialist country with a high tax rate. It enjoys the type of public trust (among most citizens and of the government) that doesn’t exist in Denver or generally in the U.S.
Another difference is Copenhagen’s comprehensive approach to planning, finance and development. The Danes have planned their city not only for new buildings, but also for development in concert with transportation, recreation, economics, schools, and, to some extent, economic and social diversity.
Denver, on the other hand, plans redevelopment in pods—individual buildings, or districts such as RiNo, LoDo, Stapleton, Lowry, Highland. Each is great by itself but may not contribute as much as they might to the whole of a great city. Thus, when we add density, we also get traffic congestion because we have not planned adequate transportation alternatives. We enjoy the investment and revitalization that comes with vertical redevelopment, but we are not building true neighborhoods with robust services and for broad populations such as working-class people or young professionals starting families.
As we saw in the recent election, some Denver residents are reluctant to embrace the “new” higher-density Denver. Their concerns are legitimate and must be addressed. The issues listed above are common in many U.S. cities, not just in Denver. While we do not have all the answers, I am certainly inspired by my time in Copenhagen and am committed to working together to find solutions. Already a dynamic, innovative, and growing city, one day Denver can be known for its equity and livability.