Zoning and Pollution: Preserving Neighborhood Character While Increasing Density Can Get People out of Cars


This guest post was originally published at Denver Urbanism.

The air quality on March 7 this year was funky to say the least. The flat yellowish hue of light made it hard to see as I arrived to my morning meeting in RiNo; it also smelled funny. Later that day we learned about a thermal anomaly that kept the pollution particles down making them harder than usual to ignore. But it’s no secret, particularly to those who live with asthma, that air quality in Denver is worsening. And a big portion of pollution particles that make it hard to breathe come from car exhaust.

Would we be healthier if we drove less? Most likely so. But is it possible in a growing city?

The most effective way to decrease driving is reducing the need. If we lived closer to where we work, learn, and play we wouldn’t have to drive so much. It would also make more sense for us to walk or bike. And public transportation would be more practical if more people lived closer together and closer to where they travel.

Single-Unit zoning in Denver is the most predominant zoning designation in residential neighborhoods in Denver. It keeps us far from our destinations and far from one another, forcing us to drive longer distances. It is the least-efficient form of land use in a city, consuming energy and water at much higher rate than more compact development. It requires more public infrastructure and support services. Single-Unit zoning also consumes land that could otherwise be used for parks and open space.

Denver’s zoning map, April 2019. The light-yellow areas are Single-Unit residential zoned areas.
Denver’s zoning map, April 2019. The light-yellow areas are Single-Unit residential zoned areas.

Denver has very ambitious goals of reducing SOV (Single Occupancy Vehicle) commute from 73% to 50% by year 2030 and reducing greenhouse emissions by 80% by year 2050. These transportation goals cannot be reached without the support of land use. But do we have to become Manhattan to live healthier lives and preserve our open space? Not at all. We just need to relax our zoning code to allow more people to live in existing neighborhoods rich in jobs, services, and amenities.

I’ve been writing about the “missing middle” housing for a while. There are countless benefits of allowing multiple dwelling units in the building forms that traditionally have been reserved for single families. It makes our neighborhoods more inclusive and affordable. It preserves historic character of our communities. In the state where more than 30% of greenhouse emissions come from driving, making our neighborhoods more compact would reduce the need for driving and make our air cleaner. Cleaner air, ability to walk and bike, and access to parks would make Denver a healthier and more sustainable city.

  • TakeFive

    Sorry, but I’m not buying what you’re selling. There’s tons of available land where density will happen. Places like Gates, River Mile, Arapahoe Square, RiNo, Sun Valley and Sunnyside; these areas alone will keep developers busy for at least three decades.

    While I personally like the notion of the ‘missing middle,’ it’s the added variety that I like. But I suspect that Denver’s NYMBY-ism is too prevalent for wholesale zoning changes. Denver didn’t grow the way Philadelphia did with its blocks and blocks of row houses. Denver has its own history and that history and the character of its neighborhoods is worth preserving – generally. There may be room for ‘carve-outs’ in some neighborhoods where the missing middle or even five-story units could be encouraged but the missing middle will never move the needle more than a teeny bit with respect to pollution etc.

    • mckillio

      Mostly agree but many of these single home areas are also where it’s more affordable in general since they’re farther out from the city center (yes, you did point some out in your examples) so mixing in some higher density in those areas is where we can really make a dent in affordability…and where it makes sense.

  • carl jacobs

    So … Apartments built to look like houses. That way people won’t notice that apartments have been built in their neighborhood, I guess. Well, except for the four to eight cars parked on the front lawn.

    The character of the neighborhood is not driven by the shape of its buildings but by the number of people living in it. Zoning is designed to maintain low density because that is the principle neighborhood characteristic desired by the people who live there. You can’t make increased density more palatable by hiding it behind architecture.

    • mckillio

      You most certainly can make it more palatable by using better architecture.

      And how do people really notice increased density, people walking, biking, and driving, and more people in a given business that’s really about it. When you’re in your home you really don’t experience it.

      P.S. I don’t believe most apartment buildings have front lawns and it’s illegal to park in them anyways.

    • Wranger

      The entire point of higher density, as pointed out in the story that you must not have read, is that travel distances from Point A to Point B are shorter, making it easier to get around without a car. This means that there will be fewer cars to park anywhere, whether in a parking garage, surface lot or along the curb in the public right of way. Then the community gets to enjoy seeing each other walking and biking rather than everyone being locked in their single occupancy vehicles never really seeing or speaking to each other. Btw, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a car parked on a lawn in the city of Denver but certainly have seen this in the suburbs.

      • TakeFive

        Very fair but thematic ideas that sound good on paper can become problematic in the real world. With respect to RiNo, that seems to be densifying at warp speed and that’s a good place for it.

        One issue is that Denver’s tech bros don’t care much for Big Bertha buses. Tech bros seem to prefer Uber/Lyft. Btw, another fast growing Bay Area tech company, Checkr, announced yesterday it will establish a regional HQ in downtown.

        • jbssfelix

          Denver’s “tech bros”, much like many non “tech bros” simply care about getting from A to B in the quickest and/or least painful way possible. With our current infrastructure and zoning, that way is still by car. Simply giving buses proper funding, dedicated lanes, and increased service times would greatly change that for bros (and sis’s) of all types.

          • TakeFive

            Hah, hard to argue with that. There’s certainly room for improvement.

            Zoning varies so much that w/o knowing which neighborhoods it’s hard to be specific. Obviously some neighborhoods (and their residents) would be ideal while others not as much for various reasons.

  • TM

    Love this! Gosia has written some great pieces over at Denver Urbanism.

    • TakeFive

      Not all ‘older’ neighborhoods are alike, that’s very true. But it’s not like there isn’t any ‘missing middle’ housing being built. There’s been quite a lot. That’s why City Council had to rewrite the rules to address fugly slot homes. If you care for walkability then you want housing to face the street not pretend the street isn’t there. Even City Lab wrote about Denver’s fugly slot homes.

      Not a zoning expert but generally east of Federal there’s been everything from new apartments to condos and slot homes built. A lot of Sloan Lake has also seen ‘missing middle’ construction. West of the Sheridan Station, Lakewood has accommodated middle density. North Cherry Creek as seen middle density but hardly middle class.

      Westword carried this dandy photo by Christine Franck/CUDenver.


      • TM

        I don’t believe I give a damn what you think about anything.

        • TakeFive

          That’s perfectly fine. My comment was actually NOT directed at you personally; rather your comment served as a segue to point out some things which I deem to be relevant. You, like anybody, are free to read or to not read my comments.

    • TM

      What’s really important about this is just how much of the city is completely off limits to this type of housing. We currently see a lot of development in the few small areas where things other than single family area allowed, but most of the city is required to stay low density and therefore car-dependent.

      • TM

        I think a lot of the backlash about development and growth stems from how it’s been focused in a few areas instead of allowing it to happen across the city. A new multi unit building on every block in town would hardly even be noticeable, but would provide more housing than what appears to be drastic change when a few new buildings all go up on the same block because that’s the only place we allow it.

  • David Wise

    The ADU policies need to be updated. Small studios above existing one car garages need to be encouraged with amended code requirements and basement apartments in existing basements also need amended codes to make them viable. City staff is still quite hostile to allowing these changes so a discussion at the policy level is needed. There is tremendous upside to these simple ideas in terms of affordability and help to homeowners who need the income and who don’t want to give over their primary residence to airbnb.