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Elevating Our Game – The Impact of Growing Design Diversity in Denver

We’re long past the days when Denver was considered a cow town, but if you asked the average person on the street which city has the best design or the coolest buildings, you’d still be hard-pressed to find anyone who lists the Mile High City in their top five. Best outdoor recreation, best beer and best basketball team, sure, but outside of recognizable landmarks like the Hamilton Building at Denver Art Museum or historic gems like the Brown Palace and Union Station, we’re not exactly internationally renowned for our design diversity.  

Now, it can certainly be argued that’s an unfair characterization of the quality of the built environment here (we will happily sing the praises of countless projects we think exemplify stellar design), but the fact of the matter is that Denver isn’t on the average designphile’s radar. 

 That said, some new projects on the horizon are upping our visibility on the global stage.  

We were thinking about the topic of the impact of design diversity on a city like Denver this week as we checked out the tours coming out of the forthcoming One River North. While the MAD Architects-designed multifamily building, with the instantly recognizable ‘canyon’ bisecting the exterior, is certainly headline-grabbing, that’s not the only project helping put Denver on the map in a bigger way.  

From the Studio Gang-designed Populus Denver hotel (fun fact: SideCar helped name this project) to the Class AA trophy office tower shaping up at 1900 Lawrence, we’re going to see some seriously star-quality design taking shape over the next year.  

So, what does that mean for Denver, and particularly our still-working-to-find-its-mojo downtown? Our gut says the architectural clout these projects bring can only be great for their respective neighborhoods and great for Denver, but we were curious how ‘great’ plays out in the form of activation and safety, a rising tide of market values, increased tourism, etc., so we decided to do a little digging. Turns out, we were right! *insert smirk emoji* 

Increased Place ValueThis study from a few years back examined the link between how well-designed places (place quality) and their perceived value (place value) are connected. They found strong evidence that high-quality design delivers some serious benefits across many areas – from health and social well-being to economic growth and environmental improvements. And these benefits impact everyone – so even if you’re not living or working in a particular building, the quality of the built environment (along with the public realm!) have a huge impact on perceived place value. So, prioritizing good design in cities can really be reframed as less of a nice-to-have and more of an imperative for a healthy urban environment. 

Cooler Places are Stickier – In a survey of 43,000 people from 43 cities, the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community Initiative found that the “aesthetics of a place” ranked higher than education, safety, and the local economy as a “driver of attachment.” The more interesting our built environment, the more compelling we become as a place and the more attractive we become for talent. 

The “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better Effect” – Any local architect will tell you, clients (and their financial backers) are more likely to take a chance on a bold design if it comes from a big name, especially in today’s risk-averse financing environment. Here’s where expanding Denver’s design landscape becomes crucial.  

By fostering a more diverse and innovative design landscape, the city can create a larger “box” of architectural possibilities. Seeing successful examples of unconventional design can embolden developers and maybe even tap into a sense of friendly competition. The construction of the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry in 1997, for example, revitalized the city’s image and spurred a wave of innovative architecture projects, like the Azkuna Zentroa – Alhóndiga Building. 

Creating a Destination City: In combination with a city’s existing architectural heritage, diverse and exciting new design can contribute to making a city a more compelling destination – both for tourism and for new business. A University of Arizona study of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for example, found that tourists are highly interested in the city’s architectural heritage and its contribution to the overall cultural experience. Research by the University of New Orleans likewise suggests (unsurprisingly) that the city’s unique architectural heritage and cultural scene are significant factors in tourist destination choice.  

Anyone who’s been to Larimer Square (pre-renovation) during the summer knows how much of a draw Denver’s own historic built environment can become a draw, but there’s evidence new buildings are a draw, too. Los Angeles’ Broad Museum, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, became instantly recognizable in downtown LA for its striking honeycomb-like façade. A 2018 study by the museum itself found that over 50% of its visitors were tourists, highlighting the building’s (and, of course, the art’s) role in attracting visitors to the city.   

The bottom line: The more exciting our built environment becomes, the more compelling our architectural legacy becomes. This, in turn, attracts further investment, allowing for the creation of even more innovative and interesting architecture and public spaces. This virtuous cycle has the ability to begin a new chapter for Denver, and it’s one we can’t wait to see unfold. 

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