Denver: A city struggling to find balance
On the surface, Denver is a typical burgeoning metropolis with the suite of familiar cosmopolitan challenges.
The home of Bronco nation is known for sleek infrastructure, majestic mountains, and has become a millennial magnet with its flourishing job market, a booming tech hub, robust brewery options, and budding bud scene.
But urban amenities such as these often arrive with the usual growing pains attached to high development regions: problematic traffic, rising home prices, racial income inequality, and the eventual gentrification.
Initially, these issues were my core focus was during my week visit to the city nestled on the western edge of the High Plains.
But the more topical story to highlight is that the Mile-High city is a case study in the enormous difficulty a well-intentioned town faces when attempting to provide economic opportunity parity in the 21st century.
A City with a Plan
Denver is, without question, cognizant of its societal inadequacies.
To altruistically modernize the 19th most populous city, Denver’s civil servants are utilizing high tech initiatives to address key problems.
Denver’s “Smart City Vision” claims to “Create a replicable, scalable, world-class Smart City Program that provides ALL users flexible, affordable, and accessible multimodal options.”
Its mission is to, “Provide the bridge between the people, services, goods, travel choices, information, and technology, allowing for engagement, accessibility, adoptability, and adaptability while being flexible enough to continually evolve, learn.” aligns with the cities desire to transform into a ‘smart city’.
In regards to housing, the city has put forth a 10-year $150 million housing plan supporting the construction of new affordable mixed-income units. Additionally, in the late winter of 2017, the city launched a temporary rental assistance program.
The city is also working vigorously to connect people with jobs in upcoming areas through a digital employment platform highlighting opportunities with local businesses.
Just three weeks ago, Denver’s Mayor, Michael Hancock, hosted a Facebook Live event that examined gentrification’s impact on his city. (The mayor was joined by a self-proclaimed “elite panel” on various housing issues.)
And this election cycle, Denverites, by an overwhelming majority, voted for the city’s costliest-ever collection of capital projects. The $937 million bond package includes financing for infrastructure projects, funds for public safety initiatives, and healthcare services.
More Growth, More Problems
Yet, amidst the sweet clean crisp air of the Rocky Mountains, there is a justifiable scent of discontent centered around the impact of the town’s growth.
One afternoon I meet Amir, a grad school friend who is a computer engineer transplant from LA that now works for a tech start-up in Denver, and his friends. We lounge at Habit Doughnut Dispensary, a colorful café that serves cannabis infused donuts, artisan coffee, and the standard set of alcoholic beverages.
The place is emblematic of the intersection of Denver’s urbanization: Millennials are sipping on cortados and silently pecking away at their laptops on bar facing high tables, while older customers are collectively reviewing printed out PowerPoints charts over craft beers in the back room. The walls are plastered with poems, ironic artwork, and quotes from 20th century white American authors. Patrons can jot down their thoughts on the bathroom walls. (Some comments were, “Democracy is the tyranny of many”, “Individual is an idea, one is a reality.” and “You are all the reason why Donald Trump won.”).
Amir, and other patrons willing to chat about their city, welcomed civic initiatives attempting to tackle Denver’s chronic challenges, but reticently believed it will counter the source of all the area’s issues — the city’s precipitous growth.
Amir admits, “I, among so many Californians, came to escape high costs areas of rapid expansion, but we worry we may have made a mistake by moving to Denver.”
Their trepidation has merit. Despite a slight decline in its growth rate last year, Denver has opened its door to a swell of newcomers over the past few decades. From 1990 to 2013, Denver’s population increased 39 percent and in 2016 Denver was the fastest growing large city in America. The home of John Elway now boasts the 3rd most cranes among major metropolises in America.
The antipathy is not targeted towards the newcomers (anecdotally, Denverites are quite friendly), but the development of unaffordable housing concerns many.
Since 2000, houses in the Mile High City have risen from an average of $100,000 to $450,000. Denver rental prices spiked 5.9 percent in 2017; among major cities, only Seattle and Boston experienced more pronounced increases in rents.
Denver’s Mass Exodus of POC, and failures of the city’s Black mayor
Recently, Denver has experienced a visible exodus of black and brown folk. Over the past 18 years, Northside — a predominantly Latino community — has seen its Latino population dwindle from 70 percent to 35 percent. Five Points, a historically African American community, has seen its share of black residents diminish to 20 percent. In the last year, the majority of those who left the city where individuals of color.
None of this is lost on the mayor. In a recent interview Mr. Hancock explains, “Now, it (population and economic growth) took off — it took off in a way that none of us could have imagined. I’m proud of how we’ve been able to recover and thrive since the recession. Growth jumped on us faster than ever in our history.”
To address the issue of housing and gentrification, the mayor is presiding over a slew of urban renewal projects that focuses on revitalizing historic neighborhoods.
But many feel these efforts are too late, minimal, and overall disappointing. The one area already in the works of being revitalized, the RiNo district, has already been socially engineered as an art district engulfed with posh restaurants and co-working spaces.
For years, locals have claimed that the city neglected improving north-eastern neighborhoods and communities of color. A paltry amount of the enormous economic gains Denver has made in the past decade has gone to minorities and lower income communities.
In my discussion with many local minorities, their despair stems from initially viewing Mayor Hancock’s administration as a beacon of hope — a visibility into the forgotten and under-represented members of the community (only 10 percent of Denver’s population is African American).
Hancock is only the second African American to have they keys to the Mile-High city. Among major cities, Mayor Hancock is one of six black mayors in America and the only one in a predominantly Caucasian region.
One afternoon in late January, a few employees from the mayor’s office are kind enough to walk and talk with me around Cherry Creek, another neighbor with an eclectic mix of new and old residents and businesses. I ask them if they feel the mayor had an extra burden on his shoulder to usher in broader prosperity to communities of color or if he is disappointed that there hasn’t been a ‘rising tide’ effect economically lifting all demographics of Denver.
With a typical polite Denver demeanor, they largely avoiding answering both questions. Instead, they point to the overall macro growth gains and emphasize the opportunity the infusion of technology can bring to all Denverites. They gleefully and frequently bring up the cities plan to be a ‘smart’ city.
Denver’s “smart” future
In a public-private partnership that will surely be a sign of things to come for burgeoning metropolises, Denver recently teamed up with Panasonic to build “smart city” infrastructure around the city’s airport. The project, called CityNow, is developing the blueprint digital highway, autonomous vehicles (which currently includes public safety cameras, interactive kiosks, and city-wide Wi-Fi).
No one can deny the sizeable benefits a large-scale project like this will carry: a lower carbon footprint for the region, a modern community hub that can connect businesses, additional public revenue, and a potential blueprint for other cities who wish to incorporate the latest innovations into city planning.
But industrial dynamism doesn’t necessarily translate into economic inclusiveness.
Opportunity and not accessibility, in Denver, has always been the main hurdle for low income communities in their quest for social mobility. An infusion of engineers that can work on microgrid projects, autonomous vehicles, and other digital enterprises can have disastrous consequences. Historically, a mass migration of high skilled workers to urban areas has driven up housing prices, displaced more natives, and widened income inequality.
In my week in Denver, I spoke with over 100 people. The main theme that weaved throughout all my discussions were “we know there are problems, we’d like to fix them, we don’t how, but I wish I had the time to figure it out”.
As individuals keep moving to the capital of Colorado, it will remain to be seen if its leaders plan for a futures that strikes the crucial medium between robust growth and universal prosperity. Because to many Denver citizens, the time for figuring out that balance has long passed.