Skyline view of Denver, Colorado

17 Urbanist Observations from a Trip to Denver

I was lucky enough to attend a geography conference this spring in Denver, Colorado. It’s a city I’ve never really visited, an unusual omission as Denver is one of the Twin Cities’ best “comps.” In other words, it’s a city of a roughly similar size and geography that poses interesting contrasts. (Milwaukee, Seattle and Portland might be some others.)

Like the Twin Cities, Denver boasts a strong economy and a growing population; it’s the state capital, and lacks a state border slicing its metro into halves. It’s the dominant metro for an entire large region; each metro is isolated by the fact that the nearest large cities are quite a hike. In Denver’s case, Salt Lake City and Kansas City are each around 500 miles away; similarly, Milwaukee is 325 miles from St. Paul. 

So that’s a lot of common ground, and I was glad to have the chance to wander the Mile High City and ponder.

1. Bizarro Minneapolis?

Flying into Denver, I was lucky to sit next to another Minnesota geographer in my row. He’d lived in Colorado for years and told me, “If you squint sometimes, you might think you’re back in Minneapolis.”

Fact check: true.

On the left, a postmodern skyscraper in Denver; on the right, a similar postmodern skyscraper in Minneapolis.

Peep on these two postmodern skyscrapers, in Denver (left) and Minneapolis (right).

Exterior of the Lions Lair bar.

When I went to the Lion’s Lair on Colfax (above), I thought I was back at Grumpy’s on Washington (RIP).

Downtown Denver transit mall.

They even have a 50-year-old transit mall on their downtown Main Street!

If you ignore the mountains on the horizon and the general drought conditions, you might often think you’re in Minneapolis! Some key differences emerge with close observation, though: Settled a few decades after Minneapolis and St. Paul, Denver seems a bit newer. Thanks to regional geography and a historic fire, the majority of older buildings are made from brick, not wood. That makes the vernacular architecture distinctly different.

Consider these other contrasts:

2. Denver Is Actually Smaller

At first glance, Denver seems like a bigger city because it boasts only one downtown instead of two, focusing the density. It seems to have a more distinct identity nationally because of its unique relationship with the Rocky Mountains and their many excellent ski resorts. But the population of the metro is actually 2.9 million (20% smaller than the Twin Cities), which surprised me.

The Denver metro has been growing much more quickly than the Twin Cities, and it has many more Latinos, something you immediately notice in the food scene, for example.

Chart showing population growth in Denver City and Denver Suburbs and Exurbs from the 1860 to the 2010s.

3. Blazing Hot Housing Market: Tech Money, In-migration and Mediocre Housing Policy

One big difference between Denver and Minneapolis is the housing market, where prices are almost double (!) what they are in the Twin Cities. The difference is stark, and Denverites talk about it all the time. A lot of the blame is placed on the high-salary tech industry (e.g. Google), which has been booming on the Front Range for decades. Then there’s the migration from places like California, itself the victim of a severe (and largely self-inflicted) housing crisis. 

Chart showing the rise in housing prices in Denver from 2005 to 2018, from The Denver Post.

Meanwhile, Denver is not that great on housing policies. For example, I was there during the referendum campaign for a ballot measure that prevented housing from being built on an abandoned golf course (!), even after years of delay and lawsuits and some inane political logic.

4. It’s Flat

Obviously, Denver has mountains nearby. Yet it surprised me that most of the city is quite flat. It’s so flat, in fact, it feels a bit like south Minneapolis: just enough hills to make you regret riding your single speed for a block or two (as on the hill by the Governor’s Residence on Summit Avenue). But for the most part, it’s a level plain — that is, before you get to the Rocky Mountains, which are nationally famed for having elevation changes.

A protected bike lane on a Denver street.

On a related note, Denver biking is pretty solid. Maybe a bit more difficult than in Minneapolis, but it seems like they’ve put lanes in most parts of town.

5. Radically Smaller Downtown Highway Footprint

Here’s a big deal that caught my eye right away. Downtown Denver is not surrounded by a freeway moat, which both Minneapolis and St. Paul inflicted upon themselves during their mid-century madness. The main freeway through downtown Denver runs north-south along its western edge, following the path of the South Platte River.

Critically, somehow freeway engineers left the downtown with a relatively seamless connection on its other three sides, refusing to create the kind of “freeway island” effect that’s almost ubiquitous in most of the country.

Satellite view of Minneapolis.
Satellite view of Denver.

This means that people can actually walk relatively comfortably in and out of downtown Denver and its contiguous Aurora, Curtis Park, River North, Five Points, Capitol Hill and Westside neighborhoods. (I did just this.) Coming from Minneapolis or St. Paul, strolling from downtown without crossing a giant concrete bridge over a vast expanse of pollution-spewing gridlocked cars speeding on and off ramps is a major miracle.

This change is a massive win for the preservation of medium-scale density and walkability in general. It vastly improves the affect of the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.

6. Interesting Grid Seam

Speaking of downtown, Denver’s street grid is like the one in Minneapolis in that it has contrasting river-oriented and cardinal grids that come together willy-nilly. The difference is that urban renewal and freeway construction didn’t obliterate Denver’s grid seam. Instead, it retained the odd street intersections where the angled grids come together.

In all honesty, these corners terrified me. They feel very dangerous, with wide roads full of cars barreling at you from random directions. This seam, running on the eastern edge of the central business district, seemed to be where the emptiest, least pedestrian-friendly spots found themselves. Also where a lot of unhoused people happened to be hanging out among the many, many parking lots.

7. Holy Crap, Such Wide Roads!

The converse of the point about freeways is that, much like Winnipeg, Manitoba, many of Denver’s main streets are pedestrian nightmares. Because they’re perceived as “highways,” even though these at-grade streets have controlled intersections, they are very wide and unpleasant. And by “very wide,” I mean that even I — a lifelong very-large-street-observer — was dumbfounded by the size, scope and one-way nature of Denver main drags. 

The most obvious example is Colfax Avenue (aka U.S. Highway 287), but there are many others.

Take Broadway Avenue, which runs north and south along the grid seam I just mentioned. That sucker is a five-lane one-way with parking on each side. It’s like combining all the largest streets in northeast Minneapolis into one. It’s surrounded by walkable commercial businesses and homes. If you see someone you know walking on the other side of the street, they might as well be on Mars.

A whole bunch of Denver streets are like that.

Google Street View image of a five-lane, one-way urban street.
Just a five-lane, one-way road.

8. They Have a Ton of Rail

The other big transportation difference is that, probably for reasons related to the overbuilt freeway gap, Denver went big on streetcars and light rail. It’s wild, especially when you consider they’re a smaller metro than the Twin Cities, but Denver has an entire fine-grained spectrum of rail transit. It ranges from regional rail (A Line) to light rail (E Line) and streetcars (the new L Line). 

The train platform at the Denver airport.
Train from the Denver airport

9. Station-Area Planning Is Terrible

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that, like most people who’ve studied U.S. transit in the past few years, I’ve long heard about the wasteful land use around Denver’s transit stations. They’re nationally recognized for having terrible station locations and station area policies. Given the choice between a difficult route through places people want to be and an easy route going to places devoid of people, Denver planners chose the latter. (Sound familiar, Hennepin County?)

View from a light-rail car, looking out at a barren industrial area.
Much of the rail in Denver is next to barren industrial areas or freeways.

When you actually see Denver’s transit stations in person, it’s as bad as they say. Stations are bleak, and in multiple different ways! It’s not simply that all the stations along the lengthy A Line — running 10-plus miles to the far-flung airport — are next to rail yards and parking lots. The rest of the system, too, is largely plunked in the middle of nowhere.

For example, I took the train to Louisiana-Pearl, and it drops you off literally inside the walls of a huge freeway. It sucked! What a horrible place to spend 10 minutes. Later I learned it ranked as the fifth-best station in metro Denver for walkability and urbanism, because unlike the other stations that are on the sides of freeways, there’s somewhere nearby to walk.


A light rail station next to a multi-lane freeway.
This is Denver’s best TOD rail station outside of downtown, apparently.

10. I’m Not Kidding About the Park-and-Rides

Before COVID, trains and express buses running to parking lots were absolutely the worst way to make transit investments. After COVID, when commuter mode share has cratered with little sign of a rebound, it’s much worse. That’s especially the case when there’s a severe housing shortage.

Anyway, Denver has 90 park-and-rides. I thought the Twin Cities metro was bad (and it is!), but if you’re wondering where Metro Transit got its bad parking lot ideas, the answer is probably Denver.

11. RTD Is Slow

I don’t know why it seems like the rail is too slow, but it feels like that. I guess it’s a problem with light rail that isn’t fully grade-separated.

I realize this is hypocritical coming from someone who lives next to the frustrating-to-ride Green Line, but why does it take so long to go from downtown to the airport, a distance of 11 miles? They don’t even have the excuse that they’re stopping at intersections like Snelling or Vandalia, or crawling through downtown at a snail’s pace for blocks.

The big leap for Denver’s rail system came in the mid-2000s, when RTD (Regional Transportation District) passed a large regional sales tax that basically tripled the size of of its nascent light rail system. (A lot of that is because an absurd libertarian anti-tax constitutional amendment passed in the 1990s, so that pretty much the only way to pay for things in Colorado is through specifically targeted sales taxes.)

But whatever its origins, Denver has 133 miles of rail and the Twin Cities metro has a little over 20. Can you imagine what the Twin Cities would be like if we had a similar level of investment?

OK, enough picking on RTD and their transit. I’m mostly just jealous, sort of.

An RTD light rail car.
A typical RTD high-floor LRT

12. Denver (and Other Cities) Make You Realize that the Twin Cities’ Downtowns Punch Way Below Their Weight

For a host of reasons (ahem, no skyways, ahem) you quickly realize while spending time in Denver that downtown Minneapolis sucks by comparison. Even though Denver locals tell me that their post-COVID downtown “isn’t what it used to be,” there’s more vitality, restaurants, street life and active retail in three blocks of Denver than you’ll find in an entire square mile of its Minneapolis counterpart.

I’m beating a dead horse with the skyway problem, of course. I’ve been ripping on Minneapolis’s skyways for well over a decade and gotten nowhere with it. (Check out this episode of 99% Invisible for proof.)

Inside a skyway in Denver.
This is the only skyway in Denver, pretty much.

Especially after the pandemic, now more than ever, skyways are a blight on downtown retail and vibrancy. Like any other similar-sized downtown where everyone walks around on the same level of elevation (cough — Seattle, Milwaukee — cough) Denver is glaring evidence that everyone sharing space like residents of a normal city is good for a downtown. 

13. Denver’s State Capitol Mall Is Far Better Than St. Paul’s

Along with Georgia, Massachusetts, Indiana and Utah, Colorado is the rare state with its largest city as the capital. As such, it makes for a great comparison with St. Paul (if you humor me and conflate the Twin Cities for a second). 

Night scene with the Colorado capitol building in the background.

Yet again, Minnesota’s capital comes out looking worse by contrast. Interestingly, the aesthetics and urban planning philosophy of Denver’s Capitol area has a lot in common with St. Paul. Denver’s grassy expanse is smaller and more integrated into the surrounding urban fabric. It seems to have more of the diversity and density that you need to foster vitality next to the empty, open spaces that government planners seem to covet. 

Satellite view of Denver's Capitol area.
This is vastly superior to St. Paul’s Capitol area.

There’s still a space for demonstrations, but you can actually walk across this gap and find vibrant urban space on either side, including a big museum, populated neighborhoods and, most importantly, zero giant freeways ringing the area. 

That said, Denver’s Capitol area retains many of the usual faults of local government land uses, including massive parking lots (due to legislators and lobbyists driving in from across the state and region), but the overall feel of the civic space is so much better executed than St. Paul’s depopulated vastness. There could be more traffic calming along some of the wide streets, and more density around the edges of the park, but this feels more like what “City Beautiful” had in mind.

14. Denver’s Remodeled Union Station Is Far Better Than St. Paul’s

This sounds like a broken record, but just like St. Paul, Denver has a historic downtown train station that was remodeled and transformed into a restaurant hub. The big difference is that Denver’s train station and restaurant scene isn’t just symbolic. Instead, it actually works as both a train station and food destination/public space.

Exterior of Denver's Union Station.

In fact, the station is almost a dead ringer for St. Paul’s Union Depot, which was surely modeled after Denver’s revitalization. So far St. Paul hasn’t been able to execute what Denver has pulled off. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the fact that the number of jobs, restaurants and residents in St. Paul is a teensy, tiny fraction of Denver’s. That, and the near total lack of trains. And the location and design of the light rail station. And the traffic-choked, nearly unwalkable adjacent street.

15. Denver’s Downtown Transit Mall Is Far Better Than Minneapolis’

This is getting old, isn’t it? I wrote about this recently in MinnPost, but in urbanist geography, Denver and Minneapolis are the two American case studies of “downtown transit malls.” The concept is almost nonexistent anywhere else on the continent, and might be a bit of a difficult concept to grasp for U.S. planners.

Anyway, Denver’s transit mall beats Minneapolis’ any day. Bus frequency is very tight, and they’re clearly marked as “Free Buses” so that any conference-going moron knows how to hop on it (unlike Minneapolis’ #18 bus). But far more importantly, Denver has a lot more storefronts and street life. And there are no skyways, so all the people are together on the sidewalk. (Have I mentioned that yet?)

16. Denver’s RiNo Is a Lot like the Minneapolis North Loop

Blink and you’ll see: breweries, bougie shopping, industrial warehouses, a nearby river, a downtown baseball stadium in the distance, hordes of bros, pedal pubs. But no, you’re not in the North Loop. This is RiNo, the River North Art District, which must be the inspiration for SoDoSoPa.

RiNo feels more spread-out and flatter than the North Loop, and the rivers aren’t really equivalent. Denver’s South Platte is much smaller than the Mississippi, and the North Loop seems to have had more density and older warehouses.

My sense is that the “turnaround” in RiNo was quicker and more dramatic than the slower, decades-long change in the North Loop from industrial area to artist haven to today’s bourgeois utopia. The similarities are striking, both in their relative geographies just next to downtown and the kinds of land use you’ll find in each.

A pedal pub rolls down a low-rise commercial street in Denver.
The Bierstadt Lagerhaus is stellar: the best American pilsner I’ve ever had!

17. LPIs Are Everywhere

One last note: Whoever programmed Denver’s stoplights to give people on foot priority deserves national recognition. Good to see!

We could learn a lesson from this. Leading Pedestrian Intervals, or LPIs, shouldn’t be exceptions, they should be the rule. That said, Minneapolis seems to have invested way more in good-quality sidewalks than Denver.  

That’s all, folks!

Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.