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PBS documentary Blueprint America unfairly presents Denver as the land of sprawl

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An image of Highlands Ranch from the PBS doc "Blueprint America: Road to the Future."

All in all, Blueprint America: Road to the Future, a PBS show about the future of transportation infrastructure that debuted last night (it can be viewed online by clicking here), was spot-on about the crisis our nation has built itself into by following policies that mandate automobile use and continuous urban sprawl.

But the thing that left a slightly bad taste in my mouth about the program, previewed in a blog yesterday, was the way it used Denver as the primary example of backward-thinking, highway-based transportation planning in the U.S. without acknowledging the significant and groundbreaking strides this metro area has made in smart growth and mass-transit efforts.

The latest installment in an ambitious series by New York-based PBS affiliate WNET, Road to the Future looks at the transportation choices made by three different cities: Denver, Portland and New York. Beginning with a history lesson on the rise of the automobile and the suburbs in the U.S., the show segues into one of the greatest symbols of cookie-cutter suburbia: Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

The transportation infrastructure that has enabled this type of low-density development on the outskirts of the Denver metro area is the 470 beltway. The show does an excellent job of following efforts to complete the beltway through Jefferson County -- a blueprint laid out in Westword earlier this year. Included were interviews with former Governor Dick Lamm, Golden Mayor Jacob Smith and developer Charles McKay. The panning shots of endless rooftops undulating across the foothills provide a visual exclamation point to the simple fact that continuing this method of growth is getting us into more and more trouble both environmentally and economically.

The program then shifts gears to focus on how Portland and New York have fought sprawl and built successful transportation networks outside of the automobile. Overall, this creates a dichotomy that presents Denver as an example of the problems with America's infrastructure and Portland and New York as examples of the some of the possible solutions for the future.

Here's the rub: Denver is actually a leader in some aspects of so-called smart planning.

The show fails to note that, in 2004, Metro Denver voters passed FasTracks, the biggest and fastest expansion of any transit system in the country. Denver is regularly recognized as a national forerunner when it comes to large-scale urban infill and transit-oriented development projects. This summer, the Congress for New Urbanism is holding a convention in Denver for the second time, largely so attendees can tour projects like Stapleton, the Central Platte Valley, the Gates redevelopment and Belmar, to name a few. In addition, the city is initiating the country's largest bike-sharing program. Sure, Denver has ugly sprawl and traffic, but it doesn't even rank in the top ten of cities with the worst sprawl.

This may be nitpicking what is in totality a great program. But, as every urban planner knows, it's much easier to bring walkability and transit to already-dense costal cities -- which have been bound in from sprawling development by masses of water or other geographical features -- than cities mostly constructed in the post-auto era with endless flat space to expand outward.

In other words, cities like Phoenix and Huston have a lot more in common politically, demographically and topographically with Denver than they do with Manhattan. By only focusing on Denver's problems without noting some of the region's hard-fought solutions, PBS denied viewers context about how our nation's most sprawling areas might begin changing old habits of development.


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