Shaping an urban area in the rural West: Part III
Looking into the future, with a focus on mobility
This is the third installment in a series looking back at a 1971 comprehensive plan—and ahead at what changes might be in store—for the southwestern Colorado community of Durango. Although Durango-focused, much of the issues facing Durango 50 years ago are relevant to other Western communities. Read Part I here and Part II.
The above photo shows downtown Durango, Colorado, as seen from a Google Earth satellite in September 2019. And no, someone didn’t paint the streets yellow in real life, I colored them with photo-editing software. I started out doing it as an exercise for my own purposes. I wanted to see how much of the city’s commercial core was devoted to automobiles, highlighting those areas with yellow. I started with the streets, then moved onto the parking lots, then the alleys. Every time I thought I was finished, I’d encounter another rectangle of asphalt.
Ugly, isn’t it? It’s like a big, yellow-green, pus-oozing parking lot rash defiling the community. But it can also be a useful tool, one to keep on hand to whip out next time someone says there’s a parking-space shortage in downtown Durango. There’s not. Obviously.
Durango’s not alone in dealing with this automobile-centric affliction. Many cities are far worse. Still, it’s one of many problems that need solving.
We’ve looked back at what Durango was, and what some of its leaders wanted it to be, and what it became. Now it’s time for us wannabe planners to envision the future we want—just like the planners of 1971 did.
And the future the Land Desk Planning Commission desires is a Durango that is sustainable and livable for all. And not just environmental sustainability, but also human and economic and community sustainability. It’s our belief that Durango—and many, many communities in the Western U.S.—are moving rapidly away from any semblance of this sort of sustainability. They increasingly are becoming traffic-jammed enclaves for the wealthy and the vacationers and the upper echelons of the Zoom class, places that squeeze out the teachers and firefighters and food service workers and all the others who keep the gears of society grinding along.
It would be bad enough if the influx of wealth was accompanied by a corresponding uptick in the quality of life for those who could afford to stay. But that is hardly the case. If Durango was “urban” a half century ago, shouldn’t it be more urban now? In the 1971 planning document my father wrote:
The challenge we face is whether or not as a group of 12,000 we will let that change shape us or whether we will shape the change. … Durango is a series of communities: labor, education, retirement, agricultural, professional, service, youth, educated, uneducated, Chicano, Anglo, poor, middle income … and among many of these sub-communities there is almost no communication, no feelings of concern for the other. It is this fragmentation that makes us very much “urban” in the modern American sense. We are not a small town.
Durango’s population has nearly doubled since then and La Plata County’s shot up from 19,199 in 1970 (the same as in 1960) to 55,638 in 2020. And I think it’s safe to say that Durango has also progressed as a community in many ways, partly as a result of growth, itself, partly thanks to good planning and leadership. But over the last decade or so, the growth and wealth-influx has continued at a rapid pace, while progress in other realms slowed. Growth has not brought with it the trappings normally associated with urban places, be it robust public transportation, diversity, good jobs, or more opportunities. The “series of communities” of 1971 have, if anything, diminished in number and diversity, while still remaining as fragmented as ever. Mobility, the ability to get from one place to another by car, bike, or on foot, is decreasing, and the roads are becoming more dangerous. The arts and culture and food scene isn’t exactly exploding with vibrance. The town can’t—or maybe just won’t—sustain a daily print newspaper anymore, which has further diminished the community as a whole.
I’m no urban planner. And I know that real planners—really smart ones—are working on these complex issues, none of which have easy solutions. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to do their jobs. In fact, everything I suggest here would fit within the objectives of Durango’s current comprehensive plan. This is just a wish list from someone who grew up in Durango and cares about what it becomes, someone who has been covering these issues for many years, and someone who has gleaned a few ideas from far-flung communities in which I’ve lived. I’m not anti-growth or outsider, per se: When I was a teenager I yearned for a population-influx because I figured it would make the place more interesting. What I didn’t understand is that making a place “interesting,” whatever that might mean, takes effort, not just more people.
So with that great big caveat, here we go. I had intended to tackle all of the issues in just one dispatch, but soon realized that there’s too much. So this post will focus on mobility.
When I was growing up in Durango, my parents weren’t really the type to drive me around, and even when they offered I usually turned them down because I was embarrassed to be seen climbing out of one of our crappy old cars. But that was okay, because it was a fairly easy town to get around in on foot or by bike and even by bus—the transit system in the eighties was at least as robust as it is now, and there was even a town bus to Purgatory. You could ride a bike up and down Main Avenue without fearing for your life and, later, as a teen in the ‘80s, I felt totally safe riding on even the major highways in and out of town.
Since then, Durango has become famous as a nurturer of world-class cyclists, but at the same time cycling—and walking—have become more and more perilous (I pretty much gave up road riding because of multiple near-death encounters with car-driving a**holes). True, the best planning in the world won’t do anything about the a**holes, but good planning could ease traffic and good infrastructure could better protect bikers and pedestrians from the a**holes. More than that, orienting the community toward human beings rather than toward automobiles—as it is now—will make life better for all the human beings, even the a**holes who wield their four-wheeled monstrosities like weapons in some fossil-fueled culture war.
Overhaul Main Avenue: Once upon a time (used-to-be game alert), Main Avenue was a major thoroughfare for its entire length. If you were at 1.________ Hospital on the north end of town, and wanted to get a steak dinner at the 2.________ (located on the outside of the big bend on 160/550 just before 3.________ Hill), you’d drive all the way down Main, turn left on 6th Street (College Drive), and then right on 8th Ave., pass the bus station, the Villa restaurant, the sawmill, the 4. _______ Drive-in, and the 5. ________ Barn before arriving at your destination.
Now most of those places are gone and Main Ave. is no longer a primary artery through town. So why does it still look like a highway? It has six lanes for cars (four for driving, two for parallel parking). Six lanes(!)—for a road that really doesn’t need to have cars on it at all. But no, we’re not advocating for a pedestrian-only mall—those tend to gentrify. We’re simply calling for a “complete streets” makeover for downtown Durango, which is to say it should be oriented towards humans, not cars.
Cut Main Ave. down to two lanes for driving, widen the sidewalks, make the COVID-era bumpouts permanent, with cutouts for some diagonal parking. And put roundabouts at 6th, 9th, and 12th Streets. If Grand Junction and Farmington can do it then so can Durango.
In other words, we could make this:
Into something like this:
Let’s do Main Ave first, then extend the concept to Second Ave., College Drive, and beyond.
Integrate Animas River Trail (ART) into the rest of the town: If the ART is Durango’s main-stem of human-centered mobility, then it is in dire need of tributaries that extend its awesomeness into the rest of the community. First priority is an overpass or underpass for crossing Camino del Rio at 12th St; and another underpass/overpass at S. Camino del Rio and CR 210. Equally critical is extending it to Three Springs (and, eventually, to Hermosa, Bayfield, Ignacio, Aztec, and Farmington, and how about that branch that goes all the way up Junction Creek to the Colorado Trailhead?)
Revamp the Animas View Drive/CR 203/Hwy 550 intersection (i.e. the Iron Horse Intersection): This is an accident waiting to happen and effectively cuts off non-car-driving residents on CR 203 from getting to the Iron Horse to catch the bus or from joining up with the north end of the Animas River Trail. At the very least put in a traffic light, but a car+pedestrian overpass would be even better for safety and to preserve traffic flow.
Overhaul CR 250/E. 32nd Street from Holly to Florida Road: Or at least put in some stinking bike lanes and sidewalks. Please? This is major linkage between north Durango and the growing Florida Road/East Animas zone is perilous for walkers and bikers.
Public Transit, damnit! Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the Main Ave. trolley line and for the existing bus system. But it’s just not enough. The local transit system must be more robust, cover more area, and run more often. And then it needs to be expanded into a regional system, extending to Purgatory and Farmington, Cortez, Bayfield, Ignacio, and Silverton. It’s wonderful that you can now take a bus from Durango to Grand Junction, but it’s utter insanity that there is no similar bus to Albuquerque. And once that’s all in place, how about working with Farmington, Cortez, and Pagosa Springs to create a truly regional airport?
Thoughts? Rebuttals? Naysaying? Suggestions? Let’s hear it in the comment section below!
Next time: Housing.