Regenerative Development and Denver’s Sun Valley EcoDisctrict: An Interview with Callahan Seltzer

Callahan Seltzer

IBE’s Brigid McCreery, Sustainability Associate, interviewed Callahan Seltzer about regenerative development and the SunValley EcoDistrict. Callahan leads CityCraft’s Integrated Research Center (CIRC) for the Rocky Mountain Front Range Bio-Region, and is an urban planner whose work focuses on regenerative planning and development processes to improve the physical, environmental, social, and economic health of bio-regional systems. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics and Government, a Master’s degree in American Studies, and a Master’s degree from MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning.

IBE and CityCraft are facilitating Denver’s Sun Valley EcoDistrict redevelopment project team and stakeholders to reach regenerative goals set by community members over the last eight years. Goals include integrated research management in focus areas such as food systems, educational and economic capacity building, and district housing. When completed, Sun Valley will be transformed from a high poverty, high vacancy district with large swaths of surface parking to a next-generation, mixed-income neighborhood. It will be home to 3,000 residents, 300 jobs, and new or enhanced neighborhood services, making it the City’s most vibrant and diverse mixed-use community.

Can you provide an overview of your work?

I’m a city planner by training, but more of an urban systems hacker in practice. I figure out how to break or nudge systems just enough to make real change and heal past social and environmental injustices. I operationalize this in the built environment by building systems to support good stuff that people are doing with and for each other.

My job is as an integrated project leader at City Craft, where I’ve been assembling the capacity building efforts and research for the City Craft Integrated Research Center (CIRC). The purpose of CIRC is to develop metrics and indicators for what regenerative development looks like over time while building local capacity—with community members—for regenerative development that improves the health of our bioregion.

How is CIRC working toward regenerative development?

CIRC represents universities and 18 different disciplines—everything from sociology to economics to hard sciences. Knowing what we know as planners, architects, and designers about the built environment and the damage we’ve done to it over the past 50 years, we ask what it would look like to heal those systems. We’re partnering with universities to figure out together what this healing would look like and how to foster and measure it, with the community driving the research.

We’re striving to get beyond the sustainability paradigm into the regenerative paradigm, doing things in service of the health of the greater bioregion. Regenerative practitioners look across various forms of capital: socio-economic, human, financial, and physical capital. CityCraft begins with a very forensic approach to urban development and planning. Through capital mapping, we try to identify the many wealths and poverties, as well as the interventions—whether they be citizen design, policy, technology, or grassroots organizing interventions—that can start to get at healing those systems and growing various assets (physical, social, financial) on the ground. Academics come at this from all different perspectives, but together we’re trying to figure out what an urban regenerative future looks like in terms of economic systems, social systems, and the built environment.

CIRC is focused on capacity building and participatory action research. We’re engaging directly with technical capacity-building efforts on the ground in Sun Valley around food systems and water systems, and figuring out how this community creates and participates in its own future. It’s not a place for us to conduct research on a population; it’s a participatory framework that enables action.

Can you describe the Sun Valley neighborhood?

CIRC’s area of focus, broadly, is the Rocky Mountain Front Range bioregion and within that, urban Denver and the West Denver neighborhood called Sun Valley. Sun Valley is an EcoDistrict that is undergoing a massive transformation. There are 33 languages spoken there, the population is overwhelmingly youth, and it’s been known as the poorest community in Colorado. It has massive potential and energy that Denver needs to figure out how to plug in to and make sure this community is not on the margin, not on the fringe, but actively controlling its own future.

The population of Sun Valley includes a lot of newer immigrant families from places including East Africa, West Africa, Latin America, and South America. Sun Valley is in the heart of Denver but is spatially isolated; it’s bounded by the Platte River and a highway. It’s an older, industrial pocket that includes a public housing site that is home to 1,400 residents. Affordable housing and public housing have been horribly strapped in recent years with a huge backlog of physical capital needs, and Sun Valley is serving a population that’s typically below 30% of the median income.

You’ve described CIRC’s work generally. Can you share specific Denver metro and Sun Valley initiatives that are focused on regenerative development?

CIRC is working on a number of large data architecture initiatives to streamline or bring together the many sources of data in the Denver metro region into a much more accessible format that any community member or academic can access. So often, communities are studied and the data just sits somewhere, and community members don’t even know they’re part of data. So, CIRC is driven by access, transparency, and the idea that the community should drive the questions; together, we iterate the action resulting from our assessment, creating a cycle of research and action with the community at the center. Community members have the right to use that research to better their lives.

We’re also working on a number of specific research initiatives related to economic development and jobs relevant in our local economy, and how can we grow employment opportunities in Denver for years to come. We’re looking at the potential to stand up a milling operation in Sun Valley or West Denver for cross-laminated timber (CLT) that uses locally-sourced beetle kill pine as a construction material. A team from the DU Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management and some large construction management firms are helping us figure out the viability of this kind of operation. The idea is that it could help solve problems with carbon pooling in our bioregion, while creating manufacturing jobs that serve the growing construction industry. There’s currently no large-scale producer of CLT in Colorado and as it becomes increasingly popular, we can hit that trend right and create jobs.

And, we’re working on a very grassroots effort with a local food-access collaborative to develop financial literacy in burgeoning food entrepreneurs, helping them understand the landscape and ecosystem of food through a series of trainings covering everything from accounting and taxes to food product marketing. The idea here is to grow, in a small scale, the potential for Sun Valley to operate future restaurants and food spaces envisioned in the overall master planning.

Earlier, you mentioned the importance of determining how the Sun Valley Community “creates and participates in its own future.” How is CIRC facilitating this participatory framework, particularly given that the population is overwhelmingly youth?

There are some really amazing community assets in Sun Valley, including Sun Valley Youth Center and Glenn’s Kitchen, that are working actively with youth to help them meet their daily needs (like food and safety). It’s a tight-knit community that looks out for each other.

In terms of how CIRC is engaging youth, we want to grow different kinds of literacy. I think what’s important about community engagement is that we start from the premise that there is equal or greater knowledge in the community than within any expert, academic, or researcher. We don’t always speak the same language, figuratively, and there’s the potential to really coalesce around literacies. I call it “landscape literacy.” I’m really inspired by one of my own mentors, Anne Whiston Spirn, who was my professor in grad school at MIT who did a lot of work with the West Philadelphia water project around what she calls “landscape literacy”—the idea that there is power in the capacity and capability of people to understand the environment around them, to see and recognize patterns, and to determine for themselves how to organize for change. Some equate this to how reading literacy was a hallmark of the civil rights movement. People’s ability to read and write gave them the power to organize and realize their own rights. Just as that was so critical to civil rights in our country, I think landscape literacy is one of the critical answers to inequity, gentrification, all of these things that keep an already disenfranchised population even more entrenched in poverty.

So I think that kids—the future of our cities—need to be able to understand the changes happening around them: the physical patterns, patterns in the natural systems, and evidence that systems are out of balance. Children in high-stress environments may be even more alert to these patterns without even knowing. If they can see how natural systems interact with the human and built environment, they can know and understand their own value in that place: that they have inherent value and knowledge, and that they can change places and systems in ways that benefit them.

That knowledge has to be respected and amplified, and that’s our job as people who are trying to heal or build cities. It’s to grow that, not to create something and pass it on. This has to be participatory and enable future action and ownership. That, to me, is so critical.

This is a lot of the thinking we’re using with the research center and with the Sun Valley EcoDistrict: helping people get the knowledge and tools they need to take control of their own communities, so they can see and solve for gentrification before it displaces. The truth about low-income communities is that these issues will follow them for the rest of their lives, wherever they live, Denver or otherwise. Displacement is a constant battle, and it’s not a one-time “we solved it and you’ll never be displaced again.” Unfortunately, it’s a constant problem because with the market system and depreciation of land value, unless you have ownership, you can’t really control for that. Through CIRC’s work, we hope to help people lift themselves out of poverty.

Has your work on regenerative development through CIRC been inspired by other successful models of community participation?

I’ve worked a lot with social enterprise (private companies that earn revenue through a mission or social cause). I was lucky to work with the group More Than Words (MTW) in Boston on their business expansion planning. It’s a youth-run social enterprise book store that sources two to three million used books a year from across the region that would otherwise be discarded. They employ court-involved youth aged 16-21 to collect, scan, track, catalog, and sell the books through online and brick-and-mortar stores. The youth employees do all of this while figuring out a plan for finishing their schooling and starting their careers. These are kids that face multiple risk factors—they are court-involved, many are coming out of homelessness, aging out of foster care, involved with drugs or gangs, or out of school. They run a phenomenal business and they’re doing amazing work and it’s a social enterprise. They make money by diverting millions of books annually from landfills, reselling 20% of the books and selling the other 80% wholesale to companies that grind them up for pulp and other uses. So they’re awesome and a really good example of urban regenerative business.

I worked with MTW to make sure they didn’t lose their space in the trendy South End of Boston. We worked with the owner for about a year, and they are now building out a beautiful expansion of the bookstore that includes social enterprise market and performance space. So it’s a small thing, but its impact is felt all over the city. They serve close to 200 kids a year who come there and just want to work and are looking for a way to change their lives. I consider them like a missing middle because they’re in the fastest growing part of Boston, but also across the street from Boston’s largest homeless shelter, where many of the MTW youth have slept and continue to sleep. Their work at MTW connects them to their neighbors and to a much longer history of labor and work in this part of Boston; this value of work resonates with the more privileged millennials and professionals who are their customers. We share that; everyone can relate to and respect that.

How did you, personally, get into the field of regenerative development?

I grew up in Dallas, in a neighborhood that was predominantly Latino and very low-income. Growing up, I didn’t have much connection to nature, except to the beautiful oak trees in our backyard. Our neighborhood was in an older, kind of forgotten part of the city, and compared to my neighbors, I had a lot of privilege. But I also saw first-hand how bad urban planning creates inequities in the built environment that are a burden for many generations.

The city had irreparably damaged the creek system that ran under our house by encasing the creek in underground pipes sometime in the early 1900s. This corrupted the root system of the huge, old oaks which, over time, drove down property values because foundations broke, houses cracked, and trees fell and broke roofs. So the water system engineering caused a downward trend in housing values and the neighborhood faced an undue burden of violent flooding, unstable vegetation, bad soils, no shady places for kids to play, and related problems of sitting water that bring mosquitoes and disease. All of this led to kids staying indoors and a lack of “eyes on the street.” These challenges were combined with a food desert, obesity, etc. These are not overdramatized; these are interrelated challenges of that particular place. When I realized that these patterns happen in many urban areas, it was a wake up for me: Why do we mess with natural systems? Water’s going to go where it wants to go—why can’t we design our cities with nature? Can we repair these systems? So that was how I got interested in planning from an early age. When I realized that there was a connection between the oak trees cracking and dying by my house, and the trauma of violence and poverty that my neighbors and friends faced, I couldn’t unsee those connections.

I worked in affordable housing preservation and development for about seven years with a national community development lender and technical assistance provider called LISC. Our work was to preserve existing subsidized affordable housing as an anti-displacement strategy. I worked with small developers, non-profits, and church groups to reinvest and preserve their subsidized affordable housing. A lot of it is getting bought out and converted to market-rate housing and once lost, those subsidies are gone forever, and some of the most vulnerable people risk being displaced and priced out. A specific subset of affordable housing in the U.S. is privately owned and faces a tremendous number of issues from physical all the way up to political. I did a lot of energy efficiency research when I was there, as well, trying to figure out how we finance that affordable housing to lower burden on tenants and owners in tandem.