Population Growth vs. Migration in Boulder and the World

The Boulder Blue Line has a short post entitled This Law Cannot Be Repealed by Albert Bartlett, who is an emeritus professor of Physics at CU, and who is most well known for speaking about the absurdity of “sustainable” growth and what exponential growth really means.  He’s also one of the original architects of Boulder’s “Blue Line”, which has limited growth beyond certain boundaries within the city and county.

I agree with Bartlett on a lot.  Unconstrained population growth is undoubtedly, in a global context, an epic disaster.  In his collection of essays Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley noted of overpopulation that “Unsolved, that problem will render insoluble all our other problems.”  Similarly, the unconstrained geographic growth of towns and cities is a catastrophe, resulting in very low-density, car-dependent development which exacerbates the consequences of population growth by increasing the amount of resources that each individual consumes, in terms of land and energy and material goods.

Parks are for People

Urban density and good public space make scenes like this possible.

However, Barlett’s post on the Blue Line is a strange and almost cartoonish conflation of the two problems.  He remembers, and apparently pines for, the days when Boulder was a small town with a population of 20,000.  It sounds like he’s appalled that the city’s population has increased 5-fold since then.  But global population growth and regional migrations are not the same thing.  Boulder’s growth is not intrinsic — it isn’t that Boulderites are breeding too enthusiastically.  Demographically, we are below-replacement in the kid department, and graying overall.  Boulder’s population has grown mostly because people have moved here.  From somewhere else.  Because it’s nice here.

The situation for the US as a whole is similar.  Creating a new person imposes new resource utilization.  Moving someone from one place to another does not.  In fact, if someone moves from the ‘burbs of Houston or Los Angeles to downtown Boulder, or downtown Denver, or Manhattan, or San Francisco, or Chicago, or Portland, Shanghai, Singapore, Copenhagen, etc., they are almost certain to have reduced their overall resource consumption.  This is a lot of why I agree with imposing geographic constraints on local growth.  Communities which are dense are friendly to walking and biking and unfriendly to cars.  Done well, they are more pleasant to live in and reduce our per-capita footprint.  In a dense urban environment we occupy less land per person, we drive less, our buildings use less materials per person in their construction, and require less energy to heat and cool.  We need less pavement and fewer miles of pipes and wires per person to live a high quality life in cities than when spread out in single family housing on the fringe.

Autumnal Cafe Courtyard

If we had more people in the core of Boulder, this wonderful pocket park would be as sociable and buzzing on a sunny Tuesday in November as Central Park was on a Saturday in July.

Certainly it’s possible to make bad cities, but that shouldn’t be anybody’s goal.  If people want to move to Boulder (and it seems that they do) then we should welcome them, under the condition that they live within the geographic boundaries we’ve already set out.  Beyond some population that will necessarily mean de-prioritizing private automobiles in our transportation system, and that’s fine, since at higher densities mass transit becomes more economically viable, and the economic and social opportunities within easy human powered range become more diverse.

I grew up in a town of 20,000 people in rural California.  It was a stifling social and economic backwater.  Small towns are intrinsically limited.  You either stay in them and stagnate, or you leave to find opportunity elsewhere.  If Boulder turns away the interesting and educated migrants who want to make their home here, we probably won’t become a backwater, but we do risk becoming even more of a “boutique” community, exclusive and out of reach, and that’s a different kind of stagnation, also worth avoiding.

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell, as Edward Abbey liked to say, but the “growth” we’re talking about locally, and increasingly the “growth” that’s taking place globally is not actually an increase in population, it’s a mass migration of people from the hinterlands to the cities, or in the US from the small town and exurban fringe to the urban core.  Anybody who cares about population should cheer this development, as historically people who come to cities have had many fewer children than those who live in the country.  Women in cities have more economic opportunities, and tend to be more educated and have more control over their reproductive choices that rural women.  I disagree with Stewart Brand‘s take on nuclear power (and geoengineering), but on cities, I think he is absolutely right: they are a solution, not a problem, in the context of environmental degradation and resource constraints.

Rather than stubbornly holding on to a 50 or 100 year old small-town identity, we should do our best to be a very good small city — an example of how livable and vibrant a dense community can be, of how you can put a couple hundred thousand people in one place without destroying their surroundings.  The Blue Line has a vital role to play in this, but it shouldn’t be to keep people away.

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