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Costs of Expanding onto the Plains

As metro Denver continues to grow, developers take advantage of seemingly abundant open space, but sometimes fail to remember that outward growth is not the best practice.

Image of Plains

A growing metropolitan area

It is important for the communities surrounding Denver to give some thought to the costs of expanding onto the plains as they continue to grow. Denver is a rapidly growing city and it is no surprise that many communities in its metropolitan area are enjoying growth as well. Unlike Denver, which for the most part is built out and is growing vertically with infill development, communities such as Parker and Aurora and others with municipal boundaries fronting the open plains are building outward. As they expand their area horizontally, they consume more and more open land. While it may seem like there is plenty of land, and therefore isn’t a big deal, there are many problems associated with this sprawl.

The ecosystem

There are many issues associated with expanding outward. First, let us consider the ecosystem of the plains. It is known to anyone with a historical understanding of the High Plains that the species that once dominated the “American Serengeti” have dwindled or been removed completely from this land. Such species include the American bison, black-footed ferret and many others. While it is a little too late to save those populations from harm, we can protect other species from suffering the same fate with sensible land use.

Prairie dogs are a vital component of the plains ecosystem. Oftentimes they are considered a nuisance to homeowners on the extremities of the metro area. Really, we are encroaching onto their territory and not the other way around. Exterminating them when they make themselves present on private property does only harm to both people and those critters. They keep the plains ecosystem intact. If we are to enjoy that area as we know it then we must protect the forces that keep it so.

Quality of life

Living on the plains has a certain romanticism to it: the independence, the isolation and the joy that comes from a strong relationship with the land. However, modern development places subdivisions onto this land rather than small ranch houses with miles between neighbors. As in any suburban subdivision development, there are tradeoffs that are made compared to living closer to the urban core. Automobile dependence, lack of walkability, reduced interaction with neighbors and a weak sense of place are just some examples. In communities of this nature, there can be a sense of isolation experienced that is not of Western charm, but rather of detachment from the rest of society in a lonely and boring sort of way, according to some. With the higher transportation costs that come with this lifestyle, the cost of living can be higher in these communities than in their more centrally located counterparts and with reduced happiness.  People are social creatures and enjoy variation by nature. A lack of this can equal a reduced quality of life.

What can be done?

When it was being planned, the toll road E-470 was envisioned to be the practical limit of eastward expansion for the Denver metro area. It is clear from any current aerial map of the area that this just isn’t the case. Urban and regional planners are studying how such expansion can be better managed. Options can include legal urban growth boundaries, like what is seen in Boulder, among other things. Ultimately, it appears that this type of expansion may cease because of the trend of young families choosing to live closer to downtown. In other words, the popularity of the suburbs seems to be declining, particularly with the latest generations. Finally curbing this outward expansion may take time. Developers still forecast demand for such residences, even in the face of favorable trends towards denser living. We will just have to see when the turning tides also sway the economics of new home construction. It all comes back to the principle of product in demand.

If you found this blog interesting or informative, and would like to learn more about the value of the open plains, please visit with the Plains Conversation Center in Aurora. They claim to have the mission of “preserving a remnant of the eastern Colorado High Plains.” Whether online at or in person near East Jewell Avenue and E-470, they will be able to tell you more about the subject.