Beginning in 1950, the city of Fort Collins, Colorado, experienced very rapid population growth and spatial expansion. Development was occurring in leapfrog patterns, requiring new infrastructure and leading to more pollution-causing traffic. In 1975, the City began a comprehensive planning initiative to encourage compact and orderly growth that incorporated mixed uses of land. The city hoped this effort would reduce energy consumption, increase housing for low-income and handicapped individuals and protect the environment.However, such a large-scale initiative could not progress with the existing zoning system, which restricted many types of development the city was hoping to encourage.
In order to effectively reduce sprawl, the city thoroughly altered its zoning codes by adopting the Land Development Guidance System (LDGS) in 1981. LDGS combines the questions of use, design, intensity, and location into a single decision-making process, eliminating the costly delays that characterize most conventional regulation. All land in the city is available for any use as long as the site and building design minimize negative effects on its neighbors and the development aids the city in achieving its broader land use and social goals. Fort Collins' planning department is the first to place so much faith in the private market and to delegate to it the land use decisions that had been traditionally determined by the public sector. The freedom from rigid zoning regulations creates much more negotiation power for the planning board. For example, the city may allow developers to build more profitable, higher density projects if they are willing to provide public amenities such as open spaces and parkland over and above those normally required.
Although use of land is more flexible, LDGS specifies detailed criteria that each project must meet, which depoliticizes the zoning process. The mandatory set of standards for each project includes compatibility with existing neighborhoods, protection of environmental resources, and excellent site design. In addition, a certain percentage of a second set of criteria must also be satisfied in order to proceed with the proposal. The rules and expectations are made clear to both developers and neighborhood groups so that there is substantial predictability in development decisions and reduction in controversy, avoiding historically emotional appeals before the Planning and Zoning Board. A public hearing must be held in the preliminary stages of development proposals, encouraging citizen participation earlier in the process. As a result, neighborhood groups have been strengthened and are increasingly involved in the City's planning.
According to the residents of Fort Collins, the development patterns of the city have visibly changed since the implementation of LDGS. Well designed and attractive neighborhood shopping centers are located within walking distance of residential areas, and an increased number of neighborhoods are served by these commercial centers. The density and mixture of land use have both increased since the introduction of LDGS. Residents assert that the quality of landscape and building design has improved dramatically, making Fort Collins a more attractive city. Even with all these enhancements, house prices and rents have remained comparable to neighboring communities.
Fort Collins successfully introduced a system that links long-range planning with short-term development by streamlining the zoning procedure, trusting the private sector to foster creativity in project design, and opening the process to the public so that the entire community is cooperatively working together towards sensible expansion practices.