Exploring Villages for Families in Colorado

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:

The main stops, ranked in my order of preference, were:

  1. Salida: excellent downtown, neighborhoods, nature; far from airports
  2. Carbondale: excellent nature, biking, family-friendly development; far from airports & expensive
  3. Golden: charming, walkable, small core neighborhood, a bit touristy
  4. Glenwood Springs: beautiful location, far from airports, touristy
  5. Longmont: charming (particularly around the main park) but small; subpar downtown
  6. Boulder: too expensive, not as walkable or family-friendly as expected
  7. Leadville: nice downtown; too small, not enough quality housing stock
  8. Aspen: too expensive, too far from airports

How we did it

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
  • Walkability
  • 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:

So, what makes a neighborhood feel good?

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:

1. Small lots

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

2. Tree-lined streets with low traffic

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

3. Walking and biking paths with nature access

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

4. Porches in the front, garages in the back

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

5. Around a central park

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

6. Lively urban center

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

7. Prosocial clues

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:

  1. Quality (as defined above)
  2. Affordability (cost of living)
  3. 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.


This is a really good idea

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Great post! I think Winter Park, Durango and Steamboat are the three towns that might actually be interesting given your preferences!

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thanks for the recs! I’ve heard great things about Durango and Steamboat, but we didn’t have time to visit them on this trip. so many cool towns in Colorado : )

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This is some beautiful work. I love that you guys did this.

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Appreciate you sharing that @ClaudiaS!

yeah, this was @phil’s suggestion

Super cool that you all took this journey. My partner, Jon, and I live in Boulder and it indeed is very expensive. Golden is lovely as you say. And the folks sharing about Steamboat are right, it’s pretty walkable in certain neighborhoods, just also prohibitively expensive for most people.

Jon and I live near North Boulder Park so we have a walkable neighborhood to coffee, grocery, parks, trails, Pearl St Mall (downtown). We feel really lucky to be here. Jon and I are building community in our apartment building (hosting potlucks and hangs, starting a discord and engaging folks, starting a buy nothing gift exchange/lending library) and that’s been going well with a small group of community-minded neighbors. I’ve been working with a number of folks to change the laws here to allow for more community infrastructure (housing coops, more than 3 unrelated people in one dwelling unit) and slowly things are making progress, but could be better.

This week Jon and I are gonna travel to Asheville, NC on a similar journey to you all and see if it’s where we want to settle. We have our own criteria (walkable, bikeable, proximity to trails, approachable land pricing, community, events we enjoy…). The big thing I hear is that Asheville is already very community-oriented. Apparently, there’s already a lot of social infrastructure and culture built into the city and surrounding smaller towns that would support the kind of community building we’d want to co-create already. We’re excited.

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Amazing, we visited North Boulder park on this trip! Beautiful spot & very accessible to lots of amenities. Cool to hear that you have been working for local changes to encourage community infra, how has that process gone?

Exciting! Please report back on how the trip goes and what you learn : )

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Will do! I was thinking of doing a lil write up like you did w the same categories for testing + our own, so thanks for the invitation.

Re: Boulder Infrastructure. Going well given any local government changes typically take years. We got housing coops to be legalized in that you can apply and reapply every 2 years to acquire a coop license (most of us were pushing for coops to just be legal without the government involvement and individual approval). The coop license comes with a lot of stipulations + costs $1600/2 years making it more desirable for a lot of houses to fly under the radar illegally.

Earlier this year city council passed a new legislation legalizing more than 3 unrelated people living in a larger dwelling unit. Now it’s up to 4-5 depending on site-specific zoning. So an improvement. There are so many houses in Boulder that have more than 3 rooms and now people can occupy those rooms legally (which is often cheaper), have renter rights (which many didn’t prior), and increase the density of our town. Unlike the housing coop licensure I mentioned above, people don’t need to go through a process to get a license to live in a community of 5 people, they can just do it. It’s a big win and a long time coming.

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Love the analysis here Jon, wouldn’t expect anything less from a duo like yourselves ◡̈

Couple notes after reading it:

  1. Where does public transit fit in here? - For example, a major benefit of Golden is that you can easily take a train into Denver and also transfer in Denver onto a train directly to the Airport. I know I want my kids to feel comfortable taking public transit when they grow up, so curious if/how this factored into the decision-making for you.

  2. Porches: Fun in the front, boring in the back - This reminded me of my love for stoops in NYC. Something about having a designated default place to lounge and socialize with neighbors creates a layer of serendipity that’s nearly impossible to replicate.

  3. Love the indicators of pro-social values - Hadn’t thought about how busking, kids biking, employees at the shops, or other observations are indicators of broader culture

  4. Big fan of Golden! - If you didn’t do the lazy river while there, you missed out :smiling_face:

Couple Questions:

  • Any next steps from this? I’m left asking, “what next??”
  • Any other states/cities you’re planning on doing a similar examination of?

thanks for sharing!

It’s a huge plus, but unfortunately there aren’t many places left in America with a small town vibe, great access to nature, and public transit. Extra points to places like Golden!

unfortunately we did not have time for this, but we did see the sign for tubing. Salida also has a free community tube share program, which I thought was very cool

What next steps would you like to see?

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What about buying an apartment complex with several floors and converting one floor to a communal area (playground, school, fitness)?

I moved twice to different countries with my kids and one of the first things I do is look for sports club or other activities that gets them out and be with other local kids.


Yes, I think this is a great idea!

Here’s a good TED Talk about a community like this: Grace Kim: How cohousing can make us happier (and live longer) | TED Talk

And here’s a similar project currently being built in Houston: https://www.cohousinghouston.com/

Hey we’re up in Boulder!

Big yes on tubing in Golden. And big yes to public transportation. I’m loving how often the bus to DIA is free.

Niwot had also been on my radar. Tons of very well attended live music public events in the park there (Rock n Rails, Dancing Under the Stars).

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Hey I’ve lived in Carbondale, golden, and Glenwood, frequented Salida and Leadville, and parents live in Boulder. There’s significant tradeoffs imo that come with all those wonderful things you mentioned. Happy to chat more. My mind keeps going to something like fractal in NYC where you can plug in families or different intergenerational groups and still live in a diverse, innovative, thriving culture. I live in a 20 unit complex with a central courtyard that is at the corner of a safe neighborhood for example. Could see it transformed into a village. Small amt of space for a family, though fractal’s use of a third space makes me wonder if that strategy could give parents or kids outlets and essentially expand the amount of space they have


Makes sense, I think we will end up with Cabin neighborhoods in a wide range of places over time. Love a good multi-family complex with a central courtyard! And yes, I think a converted home → third space is crucial for these communities to thrive. See more thoughts here: The Neighborhood for Families

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