A Student Essay
Preserving the Heart of Fort Collins
by Sydney Baer
One does not have to drive far on eastbound Harmony Road to discover the beginnings of the once quiet city of Fort Collins, Colorado. Farmhouses and broken fences are tucked between long grasses and overgrown cottonwood trees. On the flip side, one doesn’t have to drive far on Highway 287, popularly known as College Avenue, before spotting a favorite restaurant or retail establishment. The former agrarian community of Northern Colorado is rapidly evolving at the expense of these rural establishments as the population increases in Fort Collins and its surrounding cities. Fort Collins was voted by Money Magazine to be the “Best Place to Live” in 2006 and has continued to stay in the top ten in years following, attracting thousands of new residents annually. Part of what makes Fort Collins such a great place to live is that it allows individuals, couples, and families to enjoy the advantages of living in an urban society, but still maintains its natural agricultural ambiance. However, this unusual mix of urban and rural community aspects that makes Fort Collins so unique is rapidly being dismantled as the city expands and develops the surrounding farmland.
Fort Collins was originally founded as a military camp set up to protect trading posts in the area from Native American attacks. Soon however, as settlers started making their way along the westbound trails they often settled near the fort, taking advantage of the fertile land and military protection. The town also enjoyed the numerous benefits of the Poudre River, allowing for an intricate irrigation system and creating a successful farming environment for wheat, oats, barley, and beets. Fort Collins became one of the largest agricultural communities in the west. Not long after the city was first settled, the Colorado Agricultural College (now known as Colorado State University), was founded in 1870. This originally tiny college steadily grew in the following years and attracted many intellectuals to a community primarily dominated by farmers. Over time, the population has been reversed, with farmers becoming the minority and Fort Collins becoming heavily populated by professionals, especially in high tech industries. Farmland is increasingly being reduced to provide homes, shops, and offices to support this growing population of urban professionals and their families.
There are several factors that make Fort Collins such a desirable place to live and, thus, attract newcomers each year. One of the factors is education. Besides the 25,000 students enrolled each year, CSU also provides jobs to thousands of professional educators and support staff. In addition, families are lured by the fact that in the local public school system, Poudre School District, students regularly perform higher on standardized tests than other students statewide. “We moved to Fort Collins because we thought it would be the best place to raise a family and also a perfect place to establish new businesses because of the steadily growing population. Also, a deciding factor was the community’s emphasis on education,” said Rob Baer, a Fort Collins resident and small business owner. Fort Collins has a highly educated population and continues to put a great emphasis on the importance of quality public education. Another benefit is the majestic wildlife and outdoor recreational activities Fort Collins has to offer. Fort Collins is located at the base of the Rocky Mountains with great views of snow-covered peaks to the west, and vast open space to the east. This geography also offers a wide range of activities from biking and hiking to fishing and boating.
Fort Collins also offers a variety of jobs from high tech businesses like Intel and Hewlett Packard to manufacturing with companies like Anheuser-Busch and Woodward Governor. Developers are quickly converting farmland into four-bedroom houses and shopping centers for the growing population. This rapid influx of people and the subsequent demand for homes and other community assets such as restaurants and shopping complexes leads to a dismantling of the rural landscape, once the heart of Northern Colorado. To preserve the distinctive culture of Fort Collins and surrounding areas, we need to make it a priority to protect the farmlands on which lies the base of the city, economically and culturally. Evidence of urban sprawl devouring agricultural lands is clearly demonstrated throughout the city from the deteriorating feedlot on south Ziegler Road across from Fossil Ridge High School, to the growing number of “For Sale” signs along south Timberline Road on land that was formally used for growing wheat and corn. In every corner of Fort Collins, the symbols of an agricultural town are slipping away. Abandoned barns and stables are not an uncommon sight, especially in the southeast quadrant of town. On east Drake a once stately, large white barn now stands discarded and decaying as a symbol of the changing times. Northbound I-25 from northern Denver to Wyoming was formerly lined with miles and miles of agricultural fields stretching as far as the eye could see dotted with silos, barns and old farmhouses. Now, however, the driver heading from Thornton to Fort Collins encounters an interstate bordered by restaurants, shopping centers, and new communities.
Consumers often don’t see why the continuous sprawl of urban landscape can possibly be a bad thing because they do not realize the benefits of living near farms and open space. If asked, most people would probably give up that old farm down the road for a new mall or athletic club. But being able to have access to fresh produce and fruit grown locally is just one of the rare privileges of living in a community with local farms and orchards. It can make for a healthier city overall which may be why Fort Collins and Colorado traditionally rank low in obesity as compared to the United States as a whole. Also, in the case of a national food shortage or supply interruption, a community that can sustain itself could be a vital advantage rather than having to depend on other cities or states for food. The proximity to ranching and farming further allows the community an economic advantage as these products are available with less cost for shipping and storage. A rural community can operate with less infrastructure than an urban city and, therefore, with lower taxes. This trend is reversed as growth requires more services such as schools, roads, and police in new development areas.
Fort Collins offers an extraordinary number of organic and vegan restaurants as well as supermarkets that provide fresh and natural products that are locally grown. This provides a different culture than other urban areas because the city is able to focus less on fast food and large supermarket chains and more on locally grown products. Because Fort Collins started out as one of the leading producers in the west of barley and wheat, the city is home to a variety of breweries and hosts the Colorado Brewer’s Festival every summer as well as Tour de Fat. Thousands attend these festivals and they bring Fort Collins an added sense of unity. Corn mazes and pumpkin patches are also enjoyed annually by citizens of Fort Collins and surrounding areas. These festivals are made possible because of Fort Collins’ history of agriculture.
Many organizations nationwide have started to campaign for the importance of making agricultural land a priority around cities. One of the most prominent organizations is the American Farmland Trust. The AFT’s assistant director, Anita Zurbrugg, says, “As agricultural counties transition to more urban land uses, it becomes increasingly important to plan for agriculture. [It is important] to exemplify the obstacles in the way of agriculture, and what planning tools are available to overcome them.”
In order to keep the advantages of living in a semi-rural community, the people of Fort Collins need to manage and plan the growth of the city. Changes need to be implemented that maintain suitable land for farming and agricultural practices and designate other land for housing and development of the urban city. This way future problems and decisions can be planned for ahead of time in a way that is efficient and coordinated with farmers in the area as well as developers.
Protecting the agricultural lands of Fort Collins is not just important to ranchers and farmers; residents of Northern Colorado benefit from a balance of the urban and rural qualities that have made it such a unique and desirable place to live. Although it may seem bothersome or ineffective to protect these old farms, the benefits to the community are worth it now and will continue to be vital in the future.
American Farmland Trust. “Growing Local.” American Farmland Trust. American
Farmland Trust, 2011. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. <http://www.farmland.org/
Baer, Rob. Personal interview. 29 Feb. 2012.