Community-University Partnership: The CU Denver Department of Planning & Design and Mile High Connects

May 19, 2016

An urban planner’s “primary obligation is to serve the public interest.” The planner’s code of ethics states planners must be conscious of individual rights; concerned about the long-range consequences of present actions; understand the interrelatedness of decisions; provide information on planning issues that affect citizens; engage people in the decision-making process; seek social justice by expanding choice and opportunity for all persons; promote design excellence that preserves and conserves the natural and built environment; and deal fairly with all those in the planning process (AICP Code of Ethics, Adopted 2005[1]).  To that end, supporting the multi-pronged agenda of Mile High Connects is a natural fit for the CU Denver Department of Planning and Design. Our department believes that Mile High Connects’ work epitomizes ethical planning, and we support this work through collaborative research, advising students on capstone projects for Mile High Connects, serving on Mile High Connects Advisory Committee, and connecting Mile High Connects and its partners with other resources and organizations that can support their work.

Research: Our current research supporting Mile High Connects’ work focuses on transit equity, including access, quality, and affordability. We are wrapping up the results from a Transit Equity & Well-Being survey of 230 residents in Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, Northeast Park Hill and La Alma/Lincoln Park. The survey asked residents about their reasons for using, or not using, transit; to which of the 12 most common destinations they regularly took transit; whether their ability to access certain destinations or commitments has been hampered by transit issues; and how they would rate their social well-being on seven life domains: economic, health, community, relationships, happiness, learning, and satisfaction. The study results will help to inform Mile High Connects’ work on promoting improved bus and rail transit access to all neighborhoods in Denver, and particularly those with the greatest need. More specifically, the findings will reinforce the importance of Mile High Connects’ interrelated strategy to leverage transit for jobs, housing, and neighborhood improvement. In the survey, heavy transit users, who generally were more likely to earn lower incomes, did not report high levels of satisfaction with their health, although they were more likely to walk and bike to destinations. They also reported lower satisfaction with what they were achieving in life, their standard of living, and their future. However, those who regularly used transit to access at least six of the 12 destinations were significantly more likely to report greater satisfaction with feeling a part of their community. Conversely, participants that had at least one job reported higher levels of satisfaction with their health, relationships, feeling a part of the community, and their future. Surprisingly, employment status was not associated with respondents’ satisfaction with their living standard, feelings of safety or security, or what they had achieved in life. This research shows the importance of looking at additional outcome measures when identifying the benefits of the physical characteristics of place. Further applied research will help to identify how to devise strategies that combine targeted social services, job training, and other place-based supports, as well as physical designs and funding sources that improve transit accessibility.

Through research and advisement, we also are supporting MHC’s work to identify funding to pay for the 50/150 Affordable Fare Campaign. With Gary Community Investments, Enterprise Community Partners, and health care groups, we submitted a proposal to Robert Woods Johnson’s Culture of Health grant program. If funded, the grant would help us to launch a Pay for Performance pilot. The pilot would issue affordable fares to clients of public service providers throughout the Denver region. The goal is to identify the financial and social benefits to both the participants and the providers from more affordable accessibility via public transit. The measurable benefits could be captured and used to fund the remaining gap in the 50/150 campaign.

In 2014, we were actively involved in the Sustainable Communities Initiative grant from HUD that Mile High Connects helped to secure with DRCOG. The results of our study of the transit stations in the region in terms of affordability, development, employment, and accessibility, and to develop an affordable housing strategy for the Gold Corridor are available from DRCOG and on our Masters of Urban and Regional Planning Community Website. The reports provide detailed geographic, demographic, and economic information for each of the existing stations and the future stations along the Gold corridor. The Gold Corridor Housing Strategy also identifies tools and policies the cities and counties along the Gold Corridor could adopt to improve the sustainability of the area, including maintaining and increasing affordability.

Student Capstone Projects: In the last few years, Mile High Connects has  been a client for several CU Denver Master of Urban and Regional Planning students’ Capstone projects, including work on first-last mile connections, lifeline routes, and anchor institutions. Through the Capstone process, Mile High Connects and the student define the project together and our department’s faculty members provide oversight and guidance on the methods, analysis, and report of findings. These interactions allow students to learn how research and technical assistance can support grassroots advocacy, coalition building, and policy making to improve equity throughout the region, while applying the skills they learned in their other classes.

The CU Denver Department of Planning and Design is committed to this ongoing relationship and the multiple benefits it provides for learning, community engagement, policy making, and, most importantly, improving access to opportunity for all residents in the Denver region.

[1] American Planning Association. 2005. AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Available from