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Design Elevated: Sustainable Urbanism From Colorado

This past April 27, 2023, AIA Colorado was honored to showcase several of Colorado’s leading designers at Design Elevated: Sustainable Urbanism From Colorado. The event was organized in conjunction with the Cities Summit of the Americas, a convergence of Mayors and Civic Leaders from across the Western Hemisphere, hosted by the US State Department. With day two of the Summit drawing to a close, attendees were cordially invited to the History Colorado Center and immerse themselves in an evening of inspiration, as they delved into the minds of the brilliant architects, city planners, and cultural thinkers behind some of the most innovative state projects and programs in our region.

After an introduction from AIA National President Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, explaining the critical roles of architects as partners for progress, each speaker presented their work in 20 slides set to an automatic timer of 20 seconds per slide. Delivered in this “PechaKucha” style, the format provided a fun and quick environment.

As AIA Colorado CEO Mike Waldinger stated in his opening remarks, there is “no act more optimistic than to build.” These presentations highlight just a few of the inspiring and transformational projects underway or recently completed in the Denver Metro Area.

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Ignacio Correa-Ortiz, AIA, with RTD, kicked off the evening with his presentation, “Transit and Mobility.” Correa-Ortiz traced the history of public transit in the Denver area, beginning with the sustainability of the First Peoples. The shift to private cars in the post-war era eroded the social fabric and air quality of cities across America, including Denver. Today, RTD and other local urban planners are working on solutions to reinvent a more sustainable and equitable transit network. Denver’s recent investment in Union Station is a model for the future, because “we can only build the future that we can imagine.”

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Kathleen Fogler, AIA, and John McIntyre, AIA, from Tryba Architects, presented “Rethinking Urban Renewal.” Urban Renewal has historically represented a process that severs the built environment from its cultural and ecological history. Now, urban projects must be thought of as “akin to gardening – strengthening existing conditions, grafting in new elements, acknowledging the importance of pruning – demolition and removal, but at a scale appropriate to context.” Due to changing technologies, front range cities such as Denver have many opportunities to refresh underutilized industrial spaces with desirable proximity to the urban core. Adapting these buildings rather than tearing them down allows for opportunities of scale not typically seen in ground-up construction. The result is projects that contribute to a more authentic mixed-used urban fabric. In addition to acknowledging built history, “Rethinking Urban Renewal,” also means recognizing natural history, and our role as part of the natural world rather than separated from it.

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Chris Shears, FAIA, of SAR+, presented “River Evolution,” which traced Denver’s relationship the Platte River. During Denver’s early history as an industrial frontier town, the Platte was hemmed in by railyards and factories, remaining ignored and polluted for years. In 1975, community leaders turned their attention to restoring the river and its ecology to create a public amenity. This led to the development of the Confluence and Cuernavaca Park, which have become beloved public amenities in the heart of the city.  Today, planning efforts are underway to redevelop “The River Mile,” 200 acres of underutilized post-industrial land along the river.  Redevelopments include a new typology of public housing from Denver Housing Authority (DHA) called Sun Valley, and rethinking pedestrian connections between Ball Arena and Coors Field.

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Cathy Bellem, AIA, of Anderson Mason Dale Architects, presented “Serving the Whole Person,” telling the story of two projects designed in collaboration with Dr. Lydia Prado, currently the executive director of Lifespan Local and formerly Vice President of Child & Family Services at the Mental Health Center of Denver. While in this role, Dr. Prado spearheaded the effort to develop the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being in the Northeast Park Hill neighborhood. Following Dr. Prado’s philosophy that “communities themselves best understand how to improve their own well-being,” Anderson Mason Dale assisted in leading community workshops to gain insight into community needs. Today, the campus is inclusive across all ages, and serves as a community hub alleviating food and health insecurity as well as a mental health resource. The design team has recently broken ground on a similar project in the Westwood neighborhood, where their goal was not build the same building but follow the same process of listening and learning from the community. 

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Chad Holtzinger, AIA, from Shopworks Architecture, presented “Housing that Heals,” with a focus on projects that emphasize the health and safety of children. He began by presenting research on how childhood trauma manifests into poverty and systematic homelessness. Architects are good at dealing with physiological needs (creating a comfortable built environment) and safety needs (creating a safe physical environment), but how can our profession take it farther by promoting self-actualization, esteem, love, and belonging? With this framework in mind, Shopworks designed calming and safe environments that eliminated typical areas of stress for traumatized individuals, such as secluded corridors or dingy laundry rooms. They used natural materials such as cedar shakes to create intriguing textures and aromatics. Their design process focused on working with experts and local activists to promote a connection to ethnicity and sense of place as a “way to systematically change the way the built environment yields health in our community.”

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Alex Garrison, AIA, from Gensler, presented “Adaptive Reuse,” emphasizing that “the most sustainable building is the one you don’t have to build.” Like other presenters, he touched on the idea of breaking the cycle of urban renewal and connecting the past to the future. As his first case study, he presented recent research efforts by Gensler into the many potentials of transforming old office buildings into mixed-use residential. As vacancy rates continue to rise in the Central Business District, Gensler has been contracted by Denver to study potential sites using the algorithm they have developed. They have coined the phrase “Bad Office Makes Good Residential,” realizing that many features of outdated office buildings (smaller floor plates, smaller windows, etc) is exactly what makes them attractive for apartment conversions. Gensler also used their adaptive reuse philosophies on a strategic intervention for Denver Beer Co, transforming an old gas station into a community hub and taproom.

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The final presentation of the night was from Terra Mazzeo, AIA, of Stantec, called “High Performing Civic Resources”. Her first case study covered the redevelopment of the Denver Water Operation Complex. The campus’s administration building is one of the highest performing built works in the region, showcasing Net-Zero Energy, LEED platinum certification, and, most significantly, Net-Zero Water. The campus was conceptualized to showcase the conservation of water as a critical natural resource. It achieved Net-Zero Water through natural water detention, extensive rainwater harvesting, expansive areas of natural ecology, and a water recycling system that is on display in the main lobby. Denver Water’s commitment to use their campus as a model for water conservation mirrored their efforts to increase sustainability across the regional water system. They “used architecture to help change policy, and in so doing has illuminated a path towards regional water security.”  Mazzeo also presented on the MacGregor Square project, a redevelopment of an entire city block funded by the Rockies Baseball team. Public open spaces, “designed not only for game day, but every day,” form the heart of the project. 

AIA Colorado would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to all presenters and Summit Attendees who joined us for a evening celebrating our professions collaborative role shaping the future of our cities. Architects and Planners in Colorado and around the world are engaged citizens who look forward to working with city officials on transformational projects that will increase sustainability and equity across all our urban cores.  

About the Author

Anna Friedrich, Assoc. AIA

© AIA Colorado 2023