Nurturing the Lightly Tended Garden Plot City

It’s axiomatic that you reap what you sow. A garden will produce those plants for which you plot, plant, and care. You’re never guaranteed a good harvest but you can put effort into actions which have been proven to produce great results. You can also plant different types of gardens. Formal florals, wild naturals, truck vegetables, or industrial corn to name a few.

It works the same way when citizens and their elected representatives attempt to plot, plan, and care for their neighborhoods. We lay out rows, we plan where we want certain things to be, and we use taxes and zoning to encourage certain things to grow. What many people are beginning to question is whether we’re getting that for which we’re planning and whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Are we planning for the right things? And should we attempt to force things which don’t fit into the plan to conform to it?

Many people want to plan for what they know, for that with which they’re comfortable, and for what they like. This is perfectly reasonable. The trouble occurs when the garden plot is shared, complex, and naturally evolving, as is our city. Some people want to plan for single family homes and plenty of space for cars. Other people want to plan for compact residences and plenty of places to which to walk. We’re beginning to see the discord which occurs when these competing visions of how to grow the city come into conflict.

Personally, I liken the neighborhood of single family homes to the garden of industrial corn. It’s one thing, done in neat rows (when done well, or in cul de sacs when done poorly), and requires enormous resources in order to support in any capacity. No other plants are allowed in the garden and are ruthlessly culled. Every plant is specifically given its own few inches of space, carefully measured to ensure maximum growth of that single plant. Fertilizers and heavy equipment are needed to maintain the system or else it completely falls apart under its own fragility.


I liken old-style neighborhoods, built a century or more ago, to a wild garden. Different plants are put into the ground next to each other and lightly tended. Volunteers sprout up and surprising combinations of color and life make beautiful tapestries. Some plants die but are immediately replaced by others that thrive. Done well, very little work is needed. The plants support each other and roll through their life cycles naturally. Each is cared for and mourned when lost. Each new plant which replaces one lost is celebrated as a new life, and a new beauty. The loss of one plant doesn’t damage the whole garden.

I want Denver to be lightly tended. I want new and interesting tableaus to pop up and surprise me. I want to see how the system adjusts itself rather than force it to conform to a plan which only allows for one prescribed thing. I want to mourn the losses and celebrate the births. Now I just have to convince others that the great adventure is to help it happen rather than to fight the unknowable future.

By | 2017-02-21T13:10:40+00:00 October 15, 2016|Categories: Advocacy, History & Culture, Sustainability, YIMBY Denver, Zoning|Tags: |8 Comments


  1. Michael Ziarnek October 15, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    Thank you John for a very timely and well written piece.

  2. Jon Dwight October 16, 2016 at 7:23 pm

    Excellent analogy and very well written, as always. Thank you!

  3. Jordan Block October 17, 2016 at 10:09 am

    Very well written, John. This sentiment needs to be shared wider and championed by more people.

  4. Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Denver October 18, 2016 at 8:02 am

    […] Neighborhoods Should Be Diverse Gardens, Not Rigid Rows of Corn (DenverUrbanism) […]

  5. Lynda Hess October 18, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Wow! Not sure I like the analogy of an industrial cornfield. I live by a cornfield and it’s a constantly changing thing of beauty year after year. In the late winter, it’s plowed and prepped for corn seed, the freshly plowed dirty is a rich earthy brown. In early spring, the stalks are just peeking through, and the entire field is misty green, followed defined rows of young plants separated by freshly cultivated rows of soil. Then it grows into a fully developed stalk of dark rich green. It tassles in August and ears form. Then in September it starts to dry, turning a soothing amber that the wind rustles through. Just saying …

    • John R October 19, 2016 at 4:35 pm

      Well, the other analogy I use is that people want to “set the city in amber” so that it never changes from what is comforting to them. You can see in my response to Julio below that my opinion is essentially that such resistance to change and evolution causes more problems than it solves.

  6. Julio October 18, 2016 at 10:26 pm

    I like the spirit of this piece, but wonder if instead of keeping Denver as a “wild garden” we aren’t instead creating rows of corn. I think of some of the older, residential neighborhoods or even those built 50-60 years ago. Many of these neighborhoods were developed one house at a time and often neighboring houses have completely different architecture. These neighborhoods often also had a wide range of economic and cultural diversity.

    There is a sameness being inflicted on many of these same neighborhoods now. Where once was a melange of different architectural styles is now blocks of modern “slot houses” or modernist McMansions that all look very similar to each other. And where once was economic and cultural diversity, is “gentrification” where poorer and browner populations are displaced for whiter and richer and less diverse ones.

    I myself am a gardener and know firsthand that the most productive and beautiful gardens are not lightly tended. They are planned and maintained, because the more aggressive species, like weeds, will overwhelm the more vulnerable plants. I often find there is much beauty in letting gardens grow a bit “wild” on occasion, but like every cycle of nature, there needs to be a balance.

    • John R October 19, 2016 at 4:34 pm

      I feel like the sameness afflicting the neighborhoods which are currently gentrifying is the enforcing of single-use zoning. It used to be that when a neighborhood became dense enough that an entrepreneurial spirit would open a small and useful business to sell to the neighbors. This would in turn create a greater demand for housing now that new neighbors found living in the neighborhood to be more useful and convenient. Now that such entrepreneurialism is written out of the code, not to mention density, the only option for in-demand neighborhoods is for pricing to increase and for the cookie-cutter style housing to take over and make the best of what can be made under the limits imposed.

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