A few years ago, when we walked the Painted Prairie site in Aurora – just 18 miles from downtown Denver – with our long-time friend and client, Chris Fellows, we immediately noticed an important ridge on the property. As Chris describes in this video, we realized we were standing on the very edge of the high prairie; the edge where the Platte River Valley drops below you, and the Rocky Mountains rise in the distance. This moment felt powerful and yet peaceful, and we knew this was an important place where people could feel a familiar and calming sense of home as soon as they arrived.
WHERE PRAIRIE MEETS CITY
We’ve teamed up with Chris and many others on multiple projects in Denver’s suburbs for decades, including Forest City’s redevelopment of the former Stapleton International Airport. Forest City’s success in Stapleton – creating a diverse residential development with retail, office and industrial components that generate billions in economic impact and employ thousands – has set the standard and paved the way for much of the region’s growth. But it’s more than that. The team’s (including Civitas’) commitment to sustainable development, community building and environmental stewardship creates a deep and long-lasting sense of community that is often missing from conventional suburban communities. In fact, our approach is inspired by decades-old, often pre-war urban neighborhoods, where you find eclectic house sizes and styles, diverse demographics, walkable amenities and green spaces coming together in an intentional-yet-organic way. This integration sparks a real sense of participation and pride and generates long-term resilience.
This would be the goal with Painted Prairie from the start. Chris Fellows didn’t want homogenous. As he recently told the Denver Post, “the easiest and cheapest thing to do in planning and building the new community would have been to sell lots to one builder for a singular type of product.” But cheap and easy isn’t sustainable. Chris has always been motivated to focus on people and the land first, and to understand design in order to deliver a better community. He knows that when you invest in shared spaces that give residents a sense of pride and belonging, the ROI actually goes up. This philosophy is deeply embedded in our own DNA too. By applying principles of new urbanism, even on the prairie, we help to build meaningful, sustainable, values-driven communities. There’s a front porch mentality that welcomes diversity. Offering a mix of housing types with a wide range of home prices contributes to affordability too. Of course, Painted Prairie was conceived before the pandemic, but boy, isn’t it exactly what we all need right now: openness, accessibility, community and connection.
SETTLING THE PRAIRIE
With these principles in mind, we thought long and hard about what it takes to settle the prairie and considered all of the beauty and tragedy that’s been seen here for generations. We recognized that to settle on this land sometimes requires heroic interventions, and yet the prairie does not need to be replaced or removed. It’s more diverse and interesting than many realize, and it’s magnificent when paired with the backdrop of the mountains and the open sky, and with the weather patterns that form over the prairie’s expanse. This really lit a fire in us and motivated us to embed the prairie into the community rather than butt the two into each other. Our career-long passion is to understand and extract beauty from the native landscape, and to connect people with that self-sustaining nature, and with the story of the land.
Water is a big part of the story, too, especially at Painted Prairie. Within the site you’ll find the last mile of the High Line Canal, a nearly 70-mile manmade canal that was built in the 1880s for irrigation and recreation. It’s named after the method of designing a canal to follow the land and its natural contours, allowing the water to flow naturally with gravity rather than pumps. Not far away in Strasburg, Colorado, the center-pivot irrigation system was invented in the 1940s, too – the massive quarter-mile sprinkler trusses on wheels that you now see on farms around the globe, and that form the circular field patterns that you see from your airplane window when you’re flying over the US Midwest. Before development, water was pushed around by the wind, shaping the prairie and its flat grasslands and undulating dunes. When we now occupy the land, we need to understand and respect these stories; and as designers, we need to help tell them.
TELLING THE PRAIRIE’S STORY
Painted Prairie is designed to pay homage to the prairie and its colors and textures. The first phase is already well underway, with hundreds already calling Painted Prairie home. When the community of 3,600 homes is complete, there will be more than 30 acres of open space across 7 parks, each featuring native landscapes and plants that you would find out on the plains of Colorado. A central Town Center will include outdoor gathering spaces for concerts, movie nights and markets, along with a mix of retail, restaurants and hotels. And throughout the community, residents will enjoy playgrounds, dog parks, gathering spaces, trails, community gardens and artist installations.
Through landscape design and art, we can tell stories of what’s native and what’s been brought here, and how people have connected with the land – the prairie – for generations. For example, in one of the parks that features a shade pavilion and barbecue amenity, a local artist has been commissioned to carve abstracted images of native grasses, antelope and prairie chickens, and other native symbology into squares of Coreten steel, resembling a Colorado quilt block pattern. Nearby, gridded circular patterns are carved into the land, to resemble the patterns created by the pivot arm irrigation systems, juxtaposed with wind-shaped dunes. Other parks feature plants that exemplify the past, present and future of the prairie; while others offer space for cultivated gardens that illustrate culture more than nature – harvesting community and connection more than crops. This mix of abundance and diversity gives residents and visitors the opportunity to connect with the land in whatever way is meaningful for them.
THE PRAIRIE IS PERSONAL
My own personal favorite is within Painted Prairie’s 22-acre High Prairie Park, built at the highest point of the development with unobstructed views of the Rockies’ front range. A mix of subtle and specific design elements point to the mountains that have ski resorts (or have had ski resorts throughout history) to make a point about water extraction from these mountains – about water and snow being an important resource for this region. Old wooden ski chairs have been turned into swings that hang on arching steel, oriented toward the ski resorts. It’s a wonderful place to sit (or swing) and contemplate the awesome nature that surrounds us.
There’s a romance to the prairie that I’m sure the region’s pioneers felt when they first settled here 150 years ago. I grew up on the prairie and know that feeling too. I know what it feels like to go out and catch a frog in the wet grasslands in summer. To get snowed in for a week in the harsh, cold winters. Painted Prairie has that romance, and I knew from the start that I had to be involved in designing it. On this last high point of the plains, the first settlers likely stopped and looked west toward the mountains and thought about their future. Some paused and rested before moving on, others stayed and made it home.
Are you passionate about principles of new urbanism and community building too? Let’s connect.
Craig Vickers, RLA,
Craig is a dedicated, high-energy designer with over 27 years of experience with Civitas. His tireless passion for creating distinct, beautiful and lasting public spaces involves the integration of urbanism and health. Craig’s love for human expression through design, coupled with his passion for nature, brings meaning and authenticity to his work. Craig’s experience is broad, ranging from public space and park design in complex mixed-use urban environments to the planning and design of more contemplative environments including cultural destinations, higher education and corporate campuses. His experience working across the country has given him tremendous insight into understanding cultural distinction and the ability to diagnose complicated problems. Craig’s leadership ability and drive for excellence is exemplified in projects such as Belmar Town Center, The Salt Lake City Government District Master Plan, The San Diego Convention Center Expansion, Museum Park Miami, the Stapleton Park Open Space System and the Marine Stadium Park and Waterfront in Miami, FL. Craig has won ULI, ASLA and AIA design awards for a wide range of landscape architecture and Urban Design projects.
Craig is a Registered Landscape Architect with a Bachelor’s Degree from Colorado State University. He is actively involved in the community through his work on the City of Golden Parks and Recreation Board, The Colorado State University Landscape Architecture Advisory Board, The Design Review Board for the Belleview Station Mixed –use development as well as additional volunteer efforts.