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The most planned city/region in the United States


Dear Leader
Staff member
Most planned? Don't you mean best planned?

Not a typo. By "most planned", I mean that a region that usually embraces the best planning practices for the time. If something was on the front page of Planning magazine or some APA/ASPO/etc publication, it was the normal practice in the region, not some radical idea where elected officials and planners said "that'd never work here", nor hyped up but eventually forgotten and left to die.

My nomination: Denver and the Front Range area of Colorado. For some reason, local leaders and planners there rann with what were the cutting edge practices of planning for their time like a Boulder triathlete. It's why you'll see so many textbook mid-century developments just inside and outside the Denver city line, perfectly manicured 1970s-1990s-era PUDs (especially in Aurora, Parker, Douglas County, and northwest towards Boulder), suburban retail concentrated around major intersections rather than along stripped out corridors, and more than its fair share of new urbanism and grid-and-alley suburbanism today. Architectural, site planning, landscaping, and sign regulations tend to be extremely strict in Front Range communities, relatively speaking. Municipal branding and identity is also very polished.

Let's do a little bit of comparison show-and-tell. Aerials can't show what you'd see on the ground, but if you check out the built environment of the Denver area, it's generally far more polished than what you'd see elsewhere.

Typical 1970s-1990s era suburban development in the Buffalo area:

Typical 1970s-1990s era suburban development in the Cleveland area:

A lot of pre-Depression subdivisions in suburban Buffalo and Cleveland were finally approaching buildout. In the 1990s, builders were still putting up new houses on lots in Shaker Country Estates, vacant since the Van Sweringen Brothers recorded them in the 1920s. Now, let's look at typical 1970s-1990s era suburban development in the Denver area:

I'm not saying loops and lollypops, with linear parks behind backyards and "pretty" vehicle-oriented retail, is good planning practice today. It was, however, the ideal for 1970s-era planners -- more so than the unplanned, stripped out development of suburban Buffalo, or the sylvan sprawl of suburban Cleveland. Aurora, Westminster, and Fort Collins were the Portlands of the 1970s, from a planning standpoint -- they were the model communities every planner outside a central city looked to for inspiration. (To some extend, the same holds true today.) A street pattern with a "logical" hierarchy, lots of manicured parks and trails within a short walk of most residents, winding sidewalks, no leapfrog development, coordinated walls on through lots backing to arterials, coordinated commercial architecture, short signs, parking lots with 10% internal landscaping area, little strip commercial development, almost no frontage subdivision, hidden dumpsters, internally lit street signs, median landscape planting, painted traffic and street light poles, no above-ground utilities, building material/360-degree design/articulation/transparency requirements, Mumford-style neighborhood units -- it ticked all the boxes.

Fast forward a couple of decades:

Here's some typical current suburban development in the Buffalo area:

Typical current suburban development in the Cleveland area:

Typical current suburban development in the Denver area:

Loop and lolllypop still reigns in Denver, although the street pattern is starting to look a bit more "griddy". There's more mixed use and pedestrian-oriented retail, albeit much of it in the form of lifestyle centers or "TND light" projects. Cleveland fell in love with New England-style cluster development, about 40 years late to the party. Buffalo -- same classic flavor, with more leapfrogging and less connectivity. Frontage subdivision is still common in the Buffalo area, making it difficult to assemble land for larger projects that would take advantage of economies of scale.

As sprawly as it might seem among urbanists, 1970s suburban Denver is a vast improvement over 2010s suburban Buffalo and Cleveland. Buffalo's burbs do get one thing right - they're outliers in New York for having streets with sidewalks and very wide tree lawns.

Consider the following: Fort Collins was one of the few cities in the US to have pure Lane Kendig-style performance zoning, which it replaced with a hybric form-based code authored by Peter Calthorpe, about 20 years ago. Denver was one of the nation's first large cities with a citywide form-based zoning code. Westminster experimented with all-PUD zoning. Larimer County has a working transfer of development rights program, which landowners actually use. Boulder was one of the first American cities to have a true greenbelt -- it may have exacerbated high housing costs, but it was the first. The little Town of Berthoud requires most new development to be in the form of TND. Lone Tree turned away IKEA because it didn't meet the city's sign and architectural design requirements, and neither party was willing to budge. Almost every suburb of Denver has some kind of architectural design regulations -- still something that's uncommon in many metros in the Northeast and Midwest. The RTD seems to be opening a new rail line every couple of years. Stapleton -- kinda' wide streets, but otherwise a very successful new urbanism/TND project, and one of the largest.

Any contenders to the Denver area as America's most planned -- and better for it -- urban agglomeration?


Sun City West, AZ might be surprising entry. It was a complete community with entertainment, grocery, and everything a retired person could want.