This week, Phil Levin and I toured cities and towns Colorado, a first step in exploring locations that could be a good fit for The Neighborhood for Families. The goal was to explore a range of towns and try to hone in on what makes for a great place to raise a family.
We picked Colorado for the trip because it’s a place that sits at the Venn diagram of acceptability for many of the people we’ve talked to about this idea. It’s certainly not the only place that could make sense for a village for families, but it’s one with broad appeal and a wide range of towns to explore. Here’s where we went over the course of three days:
- Salida: excellent downtown, neighborhoods, nature; far from airports
- Carbondale: excellent nature, biking, family-friendly development; far from airports & expensive
- Golden: charming, walkable, small core neighborhood, a bit touristy
- Glenwood Springs: beautiful location, far from airports, touristy
- Longmont: charming (particularly around the main park) but small; subpar downtown
- Boulder: too expensive, not as walkable or family-friendly as expected
- Leadville: nice downtown; too small, not enough quality housing stock
- Aspen: too expensive, too far from airports
Phil pulled in census data and created a map that would output relevant population & housing stats for neighborhoods. We then decided which neighborhoods to visit through a combination of intuition, personal recommendations, and the census stats that most closely matched other places we liked.
The main criteria we considered when exploring places:
- Housing cost & availability
- School quality
- Access to nature
- Access to airports
- Vibrant downtown
Most of the trip involved driving from town to town, parking in the town center, and then exploring the downtown and adjacent neighborhoods on foot, bike, or scooter (depending on locally available transportation options).
Along the way, we would stop to take pictures, take notes, and make GPS coordinates when a place had a good vibe. The goal was to not just evaluate specific locations, but to try to make a generalizable set of guidelines for what types of places felt right. Here’s Phil hopping off his scooter on a nice street we found in Boulder to take an audio note on his Apple watch about why we liked it:
After evaluating hundreds of streets across dozens of neighborhoods, it was clear that there is a certain combination of factors that make a built environment feel like it would be a good place to raise a family:
Somewhat surprisingly, the most important factor was lot size. Family homebuyers often want a big house, but we had a strong preference for places with small lots, minimal setbacks, and narrower streets. They had enough density to be walkable and felt like places where you would actually see and interact with your neighbors. By contrast, houses set way back from the curb with wide streets and garages in front (like much of suburbia) felt isolated and car-centric.
Examples: Salida, Golden
There was a marked difference between places that had consistent car traffic and those that didn’t. This is true for neighborhoods and downtowns. The best downtowns were consistently not also the main thoroughfare / highway for the town. The best neighborhoods had local traffic only and weren’t sandwiched between driving destinations, which allowed them to be places for kids to play outside safely.
Examples: Golden, Longmont
Our favorite spots all had dedicated walking and biking paths throughout town—extra points if these paths connected naturally to a larger regional biking path network, like Salida, Glenwood Springs, and Golden. Many of these paths were along river fronts, which makes them even nicer. Paths should give you easy walking access to schools, downtown, etc. At a minimum, having sidewalks in residential areas makes a big difference.
Examples: Carbondale, Golden, Salida
Front porches (particularly when the setbacks are close to the sidewalk) drastically improve the feel of a neighborhood, and make interactions with neighbors more likely. This is best achieved with back alley garages that hide cars out of sight and away from the main walking paths.
Examples: Salida, Golden
Many of the best locations we saw were houses situated around a common park area. Some of these were houses around a main town park or square. Our favorites were “cottage court” developments, where 6-15 houses are laid out around a common courtyard area. This type of layout would be ideal for a group of people moving to a neighborhood together, particularly if you could catch a developer in the process of building them and strike a deal to buy out an entire set of courtyard homes.
Examples: Longmont, Salida, Carbondale
These neighborhood characteristics work best when they are also walking distance to a great urban center with restaurants, coffee shops, bars, bakeries, etc. The urban center doesn’t need to be huge — even a couple blocks of high density urbanism goes a long way towards providing a central sense of place to a town. It makes a big difference if the urban center is walkable to the neighborhood, has a diversity of businesses, and is not on the main highway or road through town.
Examples: Salida, Golden
We found ourselves noticing lots of small clues that gave a sense of the local character and community vibe. Some of these were ephemeral signs of an active community: kids biking to school, people working out in the park, friendly employees at the coffee shop, musicians busking in the park. Others were clues in the built environment: a range of old and new housing that balances charm and zoning flexibility, public bulletin boards full of activities and local services, a sign for the local farmer’s market, yard signs for local issues.
Examples: Carbondale, Salida, Longmont
While much of the built environment for families in America is cookie-cutter tract homes and car-centric soulless suburbs, there are plenty of lovely towns that buck the trend and offer alternatives for walkable, family-friendly, small-scale urbanism.
Unfortunately, housing is a pretty efficient market, and there seems to be an unavoidable trilemma—you can choose 2 out of these 3:
- Quality (as defined above)
- Affordability (cost of living)
- Accessibility (to airports, urban areas)
Our favorite areas, like Salida and Carbondale, are 2-3 hours from major airports. The areas we explored that are closer to Denver are prohibitively expensive and/or aren’t strong enough on any one dimension of quality to justify moving.
This, ultimately, is the challenge for choosing a location for The Neighborhood for Families — getting people to move (especially families) is a very high bar. Even if you can get everyone to agree on criteria (which is hard enough), the inertia of moving requires something to be drastically better about the destination than the origin.
Every place has tradeoffs, and Phil and I returned home with both an appreciation for some charming towns we hadn’t explored before and a renewed sense of appreciation for the places we already live.