19 March 2009

Denver Outpacing Burbs

A U.S. Census Bureau report released today shows Denver grew faster last year than all but one of its surrounding suburban counties. . . .

The report showed Denver's population grew 2.7 percent in the 12 months ending July 2008, adding about 16,000 people since July 2007 and falling just short of 600,000.

Only Douglas County, at 3.5 percent, grew faster in the seven-county metro area.

From the Denver Post.

Douglas County, has been one of the fastest growing in the United States many years running, and is a "second ring" suburb/ex-urb at the urban fringe. It is home to urbanized areas including Highlands Ranch and Castle Rock. Several factors limit its capacity to grow further. Douglas County is rapidly depleting its groundwater aquifer and does not have many options to expand it. Rising gas prices and the increased commuting traffic that its growth has created have made getting to work more troublesome. The failure of residents to back a recent school levy has made deep cuts in the local school system, often a main draw for those relocating to the suburbs, necessary. And, finally, the larger the population of Douglas County grows, the more growth in absolute terms it requires to maintain high percentage rates of growth -- absolute growth numbers that the size of the metro area as a whole places practical limitations upon.

Most of the land suitable for development in Jefferson County and Arapahoe County (except for some of Arapahoe County's far eastern portion) has already been developed at a suburban density scale and is prevented from zoning laws currently in place from increasing density. Adams County has more land available and zoned for development, but the surburb tract home developments common there declined in popularity as these starter home heavy developments were hit hard by the mortgage and subsequent financial crisis.

Denver is a nearly landlocked combined city and county jurisdiction. Denver's growth has come through a mix of infill development. This has happened most notably the former airport Stapleton and Lowry neighborhoods, but also projects that would be notable in other cities like Elitch Gardens, the South Platte Valley, residential development in LoDo, and the gentrication and increased urban density of Uptown between City Park and Downtown. There have also many infill developments turning single family homes into duplexes or townhouses in upscale neighborhoods. Denver has also seen more traditional suburban growth in the Gateway and Green Valley Ranch neighborhoods in territory aquired in connection with the construction of the Denver International Airport.

Meanwhile, "Sixteen of the state's 64 counties lost population. Most are on the Eastern Plains. For example, Cheyenne County has seen its population fall every year since 2000 and has lost more than 20 percent of its residents since the 2000 census."

Population declines on the Eastern Plains have been matched by population growth in bedroom communities in the I-25 corridor from Colorado Springs to the Wyoming border like the "Greeley metro area, consisting of Weld County, was the fourth-fastest growing metro area in the nation since 2000." This demographic change is a key engine driving the ouster of CO-4 Republican Marilyn Musgrave, a noted social conservative by Democrat Besty Markey, a pragmatic Democratic in the model of her former boss, then U.S. Senator and now Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Politically, however, the big day is still thirteen months away, in April 2010, when the census will set population figures for redistricting purposes. Colorado is almost certain to end up with the same seven Congressional Districts it has now in the wake of the census, but state legislative and Congressional district boundaries will be adjusted to shift power to places that have grown in population relative to the state as a whole, and to take power away from place that have not kept up with the rest of the state population-wise.

For most of the state, these trends are so well established already that it is fairly easy to guess what the impact will be on redistricting, in the general sense, if not in terms of specific district boundaries (there are just too many degrees of freedom in that determination to make any firm predictions).

The biggest question mark demographically in Colorado will be the Western Slope's oil and gas impacted areas, like Mesa and Garfield counties. These areas saw a dramatic surge in population when oil prices made the Western Slope's high cost oil and gas resources attractive, but has a history of going bust just as fast when oil prices fall. Oil prices are now on the downswing as the economy slows, so some recent population gains might be lost just in time for those departures to have a decade of political impact on that region of the state.

The changes will also probably have more of an impact on the composition of the Republican party than it will on the Democratic party in Colorado. Democratic party gains are coming where the party has tended to be strong, in central urban cities and areas reliant upon tourism economically. The boundaries of Democratic party strength have crept out to working class and middle class first ring suburbs, but geographically it has been a fairly modest change.

For Republicans, in contrast, their rural base has collapsed in most of the state, while their exurban and suburban areas of support have grown strongly. Crabgrass Republicans are squeezing out Sagebrush Republicans.

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