January 03, 2018 News » Cover Story

Why reinvent the wheel, when we can simply steal great ideas from elsewhere? 

Steal this issue

Most of us were raised to believe that being first is best: The first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. The first human to walk on the moon. The first of your friends to buy a new iPhone X.

This is how you get into the history books, or at the very least brag your way up the social and professional ladders of life. Right?

Well, maybe. But this article isn't a tribute to trailblazers like Amelia Earhart, Neil Armstrong, or that one guy who spent over $1,000 on a phone. This article is dedicated to the people whose names we don't remember because they came second, third or 25th. These aren't innovators; they're people smart enough to benefit from the struggles of others, follow in the footsteps of braver forebears, and save money on used technology.

This article, in other words, is about wholesale theft, and more specifically, our fervent belief that our second-tier city can be first rate by taking the easy way out, glancing at the smart kid's test answers and walking in the well-trodden paths of the real winners.

In the following, we take a peek at solutions other cities have applied to tough problems, salivating over their cool ideas and coveting systems that work better than ours.

We're hardly the first concept kleptos. This issue drew inspiration from countless articles we've read over the years, as well as Michael Moore's 2015 documentary Where to Invade Next, which looks at what America can learn from other countries. (Favorite quote: "My mission: I will invade countries with names I can mostly pronounce, take the things we need from them, and bring it all back home.") We also recalled T.R. Reid's 2010 book, The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, which examines countries — including France — with better health care systems than ours. (Sound a little too socialist for the old US-of-A? We loved Reid's recent comment to a local crowd on that topic: "I think what's un-American is paying more than France and getting less." Touché.)

So anyway, you could say that to kick off 2018, we are stealing the idea of stealing other people's ideas. Sorry not sorry.

— J. Adrian Stanley

click to enlarge KETTLE FIRE CREATIVE
  • Kettle Fire Creative

Sanctioned graffiti

Denver's River North (RiNo) neighborhood is packed with street art, thanks in part to Robert Munro and his team at CRUSH. In 2016 alone, the organization teamed up with RiNo Arts District to put up 80-plus new murals throughout the neighborhood. It's an impressive effort, to say the least, making otherwise-dull walls and buildings a little more engaging. So why doesn't Colorado Springs have a program like this?

"I'd say that there is a good playing field, and certainly we have enough blank walls to play with," says Claire Swinford, Urban Engagement Manager for the Downtown Partnership. "The piece that's lacking is funding for something like CRUSH here."

CRUSH is currently funded entirely by public investors, but during the program's early years — it launched in 2010 — it was supported in part by funds from the city of Denver. That said, in October, the Downtown Partnership collaborated with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic to put up a vinyl wall piece celebrating the social justice legacy of Leonard Bernstein on the El Paso County sheriff's building. Swinford also notes that if a business is interested in a mural, the Downtown Partnership has contacts, and so long as there's no advertising component, the city has been supportive. — Griffin Swartzell

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Shutterstock.com

Bike-friendly cities

What we do: The Springs is trying to be bike-friendly. A master plan for bike infrastructure is being wrapped up, and the downtown master plan puts an emphasis on bike infrastructure. The city is also working on key projects like completing the Legacy Loop trail around downtown. But the Springs tends to add bike lanes mostly when it improves roads for cars, and there's a big emphasis on saving money while trying to be more bike-friendly.

What they do: There isn't just one city to look to when it comes to bike infrastructure. So many cities have seriously stepped up their game in this area for important reasons: Bike infrastructure attracts millennials and young professionals; it's good for the environment and improves public health; it increases real estate values; it decreases congestion.

There's a lot of great examples to follow. Check out this video of how Vancouver, British Columbia, became one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, with half of all trips in the city now made by bike, foot or mass transit. Other great places to seek out bike-friendly cities are the League of American Bicyclists awards and Bicycling magazine's 2016 list of the 50 best bike cities. In case you're wondering, Colorado Springs did not make the magazine's list, but Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins all did.

Here's our big takeaways from other cities' successes: First, there's always going to be conflict, and not every project is going to work. People drive too, and building great bike infrastructure means considering the needs of all commuters. So, cities that want to create functional bike infrastructure — and yeah, that includes controversial protected bike lanes — must be willing to stick their necks out. Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins officials have all made calls that landed them in the hot seat with their constituents, and sometimes they've had to redo a street to make it work better.

Second, go big or go home. The cities that are bike-friendly didn't get that way by passively adding bike lanes when it was cheapest and most convenient. They did it by being aggressive about their plans and investing some money. If you want to persuade more people to use bike infrastructure, you have to build a system — at least in your most heavily biked area of town — that is connected, welcoming and safe. Period. — JAS

click to enlarge Laurie Johnson, right, and Brandy Dietz, left. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Laurie Johnson, right, and Brandy Dietz, left.

Mandatory recycling

Fort Collins passed a Pay-As-You-Throw ordinance for single-family homes in 1995, and according to Caroline Mitchell, senior environmental planner in the city's Environmental Services Department, in the past two decades, that's meant 95 percent of residents have signed up for curbside recycling service, and today more than half of what the community discards gets recycled or composted. What that PAYT looks like: Locals pay for 32-, 64- or 96-gallon trash carts, with bigger carts costing more. In addition, trash haulers must provide households with up to two 96-gallon wheeled carts to hold recycling along with their trash service, at no added charge.

"The Pay-As-You-Throw ordinance has been a keystone for Fort Collins' recycling and waste reduction programs," Mitchell says. "It has led people to make a commitment to reduce trash and conserve the resources that can be recovered through recycling, and at the same time save money on their household's garbage bills."

Colorado's landfill diversion rate stands at around 12 percent, compared to the nation's 34 percent. Denver reportedly recycles around 20 percent, and the Springs doesn't have enough data to provide a good estimate for its recapture rate, according to Ryan Trujillo, city sustainability and support services manager, and Kathy Andrew, El Paso County's environmental division manager. Neither is comfortable offering a guesstimate, but let's presume if it were a commendably high number, someone would tout it as fitting for Olympic City USA.

Laurie Johnson, recently appointed executive director of the Colorado Association for Recycling, says CAFR's ultimate goal would be a "pay-as-you-throw type situation" for Colorado Springs.

Earlier this year, based on advocacy by Brandy Dietz of Springs-based Colorado Industrial Recycling, CAFR selected the Springs as a pilot city for a regionally based council model, now headed up by Bestway Disposal's Alicia Archibald. As a first effort toward increasing diversion of all recyclables, the team is underway with early conversations with the business community and civic leaders. They aim to create an ordinance — to ban, for commercial entities, the disposal of old corrugated cardboard (the sturdier stuff used to make shipping boxes).

Colorado Springs City Council President Richard Skorman says, "I am open to looking into this proposal. The real benefit is that cardboard is a big contributor to our landfills, and there is a local market to process it and good financial payback for recycling. The requirement could be a 'win-win,' allowing garbage haulers and their customers to pay for other commercial recycling through the profit they make on cardboard."

Johnson says CAFR selected cardboard because its value's currently high — it's more valuable than scrap metal — and it's heavily used in the commercial sector, hence being "economically viable." Archibald confirms there's a healthy domestic market for cardboard resale, so it's not reliant on costlier export markets. And regarding potential push-back from businesses, in our prior reporting, Rasta Pasta proved it was actually able to save money by diverting waste. Via a composting program and recycling through Bestway, the eatery was able to schedule fewer trash pickups, thereby lowering its overall bill. Since that time, several neighboring businesses have followed their lead, including Skorman's Poor Richard's complex.

Archibald notes how grocery stores have for years baled and sold their cardboard back to brokers, seeing its value in both avoiding a trash fee and making money back. She prefers the term "volume-based pricing" over "pay-as-you-throw," which is already what Bestway does for its residential customers, offering different rates to accommodate those who generate less trash by recycling — which is half of their customers.

Regardless of what it's called, Archibald asks, "What if we could do this? We have the infrastructure for this, the other large haulers do too. What's stopping us?" — Matthew Schniper

  • David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons

Affordable housing

What we do: In El Paso County, we're short more than 24,000 affordable housing units and counting. Rents are rising while wages remain stagnant, which means a median-priced two-bedroom apartment ($1,051 a month) is unaffordable to at least a quarter of the workforce. And real estate experts say the market isn't going to cool off anytime soon, given the rate of population growth and pace of new development.

Funds to address the growing crisis are in short supply. They come primarily from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in the form of block grants that support the work of local agencies providing emergency shelter, transitional/supportive housing and other resources for the homeless. Because of shifting federal policy, banks and corporations will soon have less incentive to invest in what tax credits there are for building/preserving affordable units, eroding the most important tool for subsidizing such projects.

Local stakeholders are primarily focused on reducing development costs so those savings can be passed on to buyers and/or renters.

What they do: If our affordable housing crisis is bad, Denver's is worse. Over 100,000 more people live there now than in 2010, with about 1,000 newcomers arriving every month. Rents rose by nearly 50 percent in roughly that same time. About half of renters are cost-burdened (meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing).

The building boom in Denver has been far more explosive than the handful of cranes seen around downtown Colorado Springs. But their city/county government, rather than dance around the affordability issue, has in place a mandate: Ten percent of all new developments with 30 or more units must be affordably priced at 80 percent of area median income. There are some alternative ways to satisfy the obligation, like building affordable units at a different site or paying into a fund that supports related rebates, grants and other incentives. The program has been in place since 2002 and was revamped in 2013 and 2014.

In addition, Denver City Council created a new affordable housing fund in 2016 built from two permanent revenue sources: a voter-approved property tax and an impact fee on new residential and commercial development. A typical homeowner in the median-priced single-family home ($300,000) pays $12 a year into the fund. Denver expects to generate an estimated $150 million over 10 years to support permanent housing and supportive services for at-risk residents, low- and moderate-income workforce rental housing, and moderate-income for-sale housing.

And those are just two prongs of Denver's housing plan, designed to accommodate growth while also preserving neighborhood character and affordability. Whether it's enough to properly address the issue is, of course, debatable, but it still represents a far more proactive and aggressive approach than the one taken here. — Nat Stein

click to enlarge COURTESY SELF SERVE
  • Courtesy Self Serve

Sex education

For the last 10 years, Albuquerque, New Mexico, has hosted a unique adult shop called Self Serve that educates medical professionals, domestic-violence task forces and the general public.

"We are the only health- and education-focused shop in New Mexico," says manager Hunter Riley, and if there are any similar shops in the Southwest, they're few and far between. As noted above, Self Serve has a long-standing relationship with Albuquerque's medical community. It started with training and referrals for dilation therapy, a non-surgical response to pelvic radiation therapy, menopause and other conditions that cause scarring, shrinking or loss of elasticity in the vagina. Since then, Self Serve's medical partnerships have expanded to include work with medical residents at University of New Mexico Hospital.

"We go and help them understand more about sexuality, sexual health, [adult] toys," she says. Most recently, Self Serve was tapped as a resource for the state-run Intimate Partner Strangulation Task Force, helping law enforcement and medical professionals develop better guidelines for identifying this often-missed form of domestic abuse while differentiating it from consensual BDSM activities. Riley adds that, on a given day, as many as half of Self Serve's customers show up on a medical referral.

"[Local medical professionals] may not have an answer," she says, "but they know they can send their patients to Self Serve."

The store's website, selfservetoys.com, has links to educational resources and a directory of area health care providers. Self Serve also hosts a wide array of classes on sex and sexuality.

"We have classes about communication and how to keep it hot in a long-term relationship," Riley says. "We have classes about mindfulness and helping people feel comfortable in their bodies. We have a class on mindfulness for survivors of sexual assault trauma."

Frankly, every city should have access to a resource like this. — GS

click to enlarge PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck

No cars

What we do: Drive everywhere. The city spends tens of millions of dollars on road repairs, marking bike lanes and then patrolling for violators. Despite that, pedestrians are killed in traffic each year, and it's anyone's guess how much damage all that exhaust (cough, cough) does to our lungs. Not to mention the expense of parking all day, and the risk of fender-benders eating a hole in your pocketbook. But it's possible to reserve certain urban quarters for pedestrians and two-wheelers only, like some European cities have done.

What they do: Walk whenever possible. Among those banning vehicles in certain areas are Madrid, Paris, and Chengdu, China, where plans are being drawn to allow residents to reach any location in about 15 minutes by foot, FastCompany reports. In Milan, Italy, residents are given free public transit vouchers for leaving their vehicles behind. — Pam Zubeck

click to enlarge PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck

Tiny homes

What we do: Think big. New homes sprout in the region at a pace of 2,000 to 3,000 a year. With few exceptions, they offer a place to spread out, put your feet up and be the king of your castle in a space that averages roughly 2,600 square feet. Many are hugely bigger.

But what about those who'd like to downsize to 200 square feet or less and not have a big mortgage hanging over their heads?

In the Pikes Peak region, tiny homes are almost impossible to accommodate, because they're considered manufactured homes, which are inspected by the state and not allowed in some parts of the city, or they're classified as campers, which can't be issued a permit by the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, says Regional Building Official Roger Lovell.

While some tiny-home owners might want to hook into the city sewer system and city electrical, which is problematic if classified as a camper, others want to keep the roof over their heads mobile. Another problem is zoning restrictions, Lovell reports, which require homes to be located on a permanent foundation.

Now there's hope for living little. El Paso County Commissioners on Dec. 12 approved changes in zoning laws in unincorporated areas to allow tiny homes as long as they meet certain safety, functionality and appearance requirements. "Length of stay" rules for RV campgrounds were removed. Also, tiny homes will be permitted as "accessory structures" in other zones, subject to compliance with requirements of the subdivisions.

What they do: Think small. According to TheSpruce.com there are some 15 tiny home communities being established across the country. Spur, Texas, is the first town in the nation to welcome tiny homes, and Savannah, Georgia, is allowing tiny homes to be placed on one-acre lots in an area established just for them.

Sprout Tiny Homes, which recently moved from La Junta to Pueblo, is leading the way on two Colorado tiny home developments — in Salida and Walsenburg, where homes will range from 260 to 760 square feet. — PZ

click to enlarge COURTESY ARTSPACE
  • Courtesy Artspace


The "starving artist" archetype is funny enough until it's true. Colorado Springs hosts a surfeit of artists who don't make enough from their work to live, especially with rising housing costs. Granted, that ensures a hip and artsy workforce to staff our trendy cafés in order to make their rents, but if we just lessened the financial burden on creative folks, they could actually spend time creating. We don't invest in artists here, despite the fact that arts and culture generate an estimated $153.3 million in economic activity in the region, according to results of a recent study released by the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region.

In Minneapolis in 1979, one organization noticed a similar issue in its community, and set out to give artists a bit of a break. Artspace, which now boasts 46 facilities in 19 states, endeavors to meet the needs of artistic communities by providing affordable live-work space, studio space and/or co-working space. Artspace rent remains at or below HUD levels of affordability — in perpetuity — offering at least one sustainable housing solution to a city's creative community.

An Artspace development is by no means a fix-all for the affordable housing crisis we find ourselves in, but it may provide more support to artists than we can currently offer. Plus, while we should be rightly concerned about gentrification, established Artspace developments seem to have had little effect on surrounding costs of living.

The Downtown Development Authority has recently committed to funding the next phase of an Artspace facility here in town, so rather than coveting this idea, we may soon consider it successfully stolen. — Alissa Smith

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO
  • File photo


What we do: Colorado Springs offers a variety of programs for homeless people, from transitional and "housing first" models to temporary and emergency shelters, counseling, skills training, addiction recovery programs and other help.

What they do: A little over a decade ago, Utah set a goal of ending chronic homelessness — or getting folks off the streets who have been there for more than a year, or who have been homeless off and on for four years, and who have some sort of condition that keeps them there, whether a physical disability, disease, mental illness or addiction. To put that in context, most homeless people (about 80 percent), in Utah or any other state, aren't chronically homeless. Most people who are homeless at any given time have simply experienced a crisis. With a little help, they'll get back on their feet.

But chronic homeless folks are the ones you think of when you say the word "homeless." They're also the ones that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimate are costing taxpayers between $30,000 and $50,000 a year in services such as free medical care for repeated trips to emergency rooms and stints in jail.

A couple years ago, Utah made headlines for reducing its chronic homeless population by 91 percent. While there has since been analysis that has shown that some of that decrease was the result of changes in the way the population is measured, there's no doubt that the state made huge progress. Utah's "housing first" approach was simple: Give homeless people homes for little or no money, before asking them to become sober or to deal with mental health issues.

What Utah found was that if you give people a home, they're likely to stay off the streets and work on their other problems in time. Oh, and it's cheaper.

Take a moment and think of what that would look like in Colorado Springs (assuming that we found the money to do it). Our most vulnerable would be housed and treated with basic dignity. Our parks and trails would be free of camps, safer and cleaner. And, ultimately, we'd spend less money. — JAS

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Shutterstock.com

Universal basic income

In October 2016, folks in Colorado Springs gathered to welcome a driver-less Uber truck that had just hauled 2,000 cases of Budweiser here from Fort Collins. The press understandably treated the event as a novelty story, the kind you file next to Amazon drones and insufferably talkative robots.

But there also are more serious ramifications to such developments, and not just for the Uber drivers who are now watching their backs more than ever. A Gallup poll conducted last year indicates that 26 percent of workers believe that the jobs they have right now will likely be taken over by robots, artificial intelligence or other technological advances within the next 20 years. Half of those believe this will happen within just five years.

In an era when workers are now referred to as "human capital," that concern is understandable.

Enter Finland, a land known for frozen lakes, northern lights and, most recently, the realization of Ayn Rand's worst nightmare. The Nordic country recently marked the first anniversary of its Universal Basic Income experiment. The two-year pilot program grants 2,000 unemployed citizens, chosen completely at random, approximately $650 per month. This money replaces their unemployment benefits, but will continue to be paid out even if they find a job. The government's reasoning is that people could take on part-time work without fear of losing their benefits.

As radical as all this may sound, the basic concept has been advanced by a range of prominent public figures, including Bertrand Russell, Martin Luther King, Mark Zuckerberg and even Richard Nixon. In fact, similar experiments took place in Denver and a number of other American cities back in the '70s, at the behest of then-President Nixon and under the direction of — wait for it — Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

The idea failed to gain political traction, but times were also very different then: Computers were largely consigned to air-conditioned university labs, while General Motors was many years away from closing its Flint, Michigan, plant and sending those jobs overseas.

Could that all change now? Last September, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 43 percent of Americans are in favor of a Universal Basic Income. In Europe, polls indicate that two-thirds of people would vote for such a measure. (Of course, those countries also support universal health care, so what do they know?) Meanwhile, a Silicon Valley incubator called Y Combinator, which reportedly gave $1,000 a month to a few dozen Oakland residents, recently announced its plan to expand the program to 3,000 recipients.

Of course, the private largess of venture capital companies isn't necessarily something you can take to the bank, which means that government programs appear to be the best way forward. In the meantime, there's always the Colorado Lottery. — BF

click to enlarge COURTESY SCFD
  • Courtesy SCFD

Taxes for arts and culture

What we do: The City of Colorado Springs' Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax (LART) puts a surcharge on hotels, motels and rental cars, which goes into a fund to sponsor special events, marketing initiatives and occasional capital improvements that attract tourists and encourage economic activity, such as Territory Days and the Tejon Street Bike Fest. The LART committee's draft plans for 2018 include contributing to a festival for the soon-to-open Ent Center for the Arts, funding for the under-construction U.S. Olympic Museum and more — an estimated $6,390,222 in total investment. LART is the closest the city gets to directly funding arts and culture, but it's limited. Our current LART rate, set in 1980 and never increased since, is only 1 percent on car rentals and 2 percent on hotel rooms. Remember: This is largely paid by tourists, not locals.

What they do: Denver's model for funding cultural and artistic institutions also comes from a tax, though a more extensive one: One cent from every $10 purchase in the Denver metro area goes into the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, a fund that is then distributed to cultural organizations in seven counties (not including El Paso).

It rounds out to about $50 million annually, almost eight times the Springs' LART expenditures. (The city of Denver's lodgers tax, by the way, is 10.75 percent.) The big difference: Any agency of local government or 501(c)(3) nonprofit can benefit from this fund, as long as their primary purpose is "enlightening and entertaining the public through the production, presentation, exhibition, advancement or preservation of visual arts, performing arts, cultural history, natural history, or natural sciences," according to the SCFD website. SCFD currently supports more than 300 organizations.

The arts- and culture-focused nonprofits in Colorado Springs that have to scrape together grassroots fundraising year by year would benefit massively from a dedicated fund and guaranteed income. A special district like the SCFD would support the development of Colorado Springs' artistic community and widen access to the arts by supporting free days and reduced-price programs. Short of this, we should look to at least double our LART with a dedicated percentage supporting local arts and culture organizations. — AS



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