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Denver Airport Recycled into New Urban Community

Sprawling development is a major environmental problem in U.S. cities. It cuts down on green space and creates traffic congestion and air pollution. Even the host of the Democratic National Convention [August 25-28] is not immune. As one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, Denver, Colorado, has suffered from poorly planned growth. But now city leaders are taking important steps to protect the quality of life that has brought so many people to the Rocky Mountain West.

When Denver's new international airport opened in 1995, the old Stapleton Airport closed. That left nearly 2,000 hectares of prime urban land within ten minutes of downtown available for something else.

"What they said they were going to design in Stapleton became what it is, a community," says George Johnson, who moved in with his family in 2001.

His wife wanted to live further out, but the Denver Public Schools facilities manager says he liked the central location. "All the jobs were close."

Stapleton is now eight years into its 20-year development plan. Eventually the community will grow to 30,000 people, making it one of the largest re-development projects within a U.S. city.

Johnson says he likes what his neighborhood has become. "We have pools. We have a decent community. It's safe to me. It's quiet in the evenings after everybody settles in."

Stapleton neighbors have schools and stores nearby. The airport's concrete runways are gone, torn up and recycled into bike paths, walking trails and retaining walls. Four hundred hectares of trails and parks will eventually link Stapleton to a national wildlife refuge.

This "new urbanism" is a return to a previous era when neighborhoods were compact says Tom Gleason, a spokesperson for Forest City Stapleton, the real estate company developing the property. "They were the kind of places that neighbors got to know each other." And so is Stapleton.

That is why Mark Mehringer chose to move here with his wife and 7-month old daughter. His home has a front porch and small garden with native drought-resilient plants that thrive in the dry Colorado climate.

A work-at-home dad who gets around by bike, Mehringer says the pedestrian-friendly streets, nearby schools, shops and playgrounds suit his growing family. "It [the development] really speaks to us in terms of lots of open space and reusing the land."

Stapleton was founded on environmental principles. Homes and other buildings are constructed to green standards with better insulation and windows that reflect the summer heat. Mehringer says these features and the solar panel on his house make his home more energy efficient and less expensive to heat and cool.

"It is such a sunny area that it really pays to take advantage of it, especially with the recent increases in utility bills." Mehringer says his investment has ended up being a smart financial decision, not just an environmental one."

Tom Gleason says sustainable development will continue to be central to the community as it grows. "What we try to do here at Stapleton is recognize that the environment has to be protected, that there are certain things you can do in terms of careful selection of the landscape to reduce the consumption of water and the design of houses to make sure that they use as few resources as possible."

While the 12-story control tower will remain as a monument to Stapleton's history, Gleason says there are few reminders that the thriving new community used to be an airport. "If we do our job right we will integrate this property into the surrounding neighborhood so that it is an extension of Denver. It's Denver's opportunity to grow from within."

Gleason says Denver's solution to suburban sprawl is one lesson city officials hope visitors to the Democratic National Convention take home and recreate in their own communities.