Cool Planning in Boulder

I spent the day at a workshop organized by the city with Smart Growth America and Otak, looking at how cities in the US can change their transportation and land use policies to create more livable, healthier, less carbon intensive, more fiscally sustainable communities.  Otak put together the Cool Planning Handbook for Oregon a couple of years ago, laying out the basic toolkit

It was nice to spend the day with a bunch of other Boulder folks, talking about our Actually Existing city, and not just abstract concepts.  We looked at huge printouts from Google Maps, and marked them up, with the current centers of activity and best potential locations for re-development along walkable, bikeable, transit accessible lines.  For instance…

  • The more intense development of the CU East Campus, to the point where it rivals the Main Campus in terms of square footage, with student housing and classroom space, in conjunction with the build-out of Boulder Junction and the Transit Village Area Plan just to the north will potentially create an eastern urban center of gravity for the city
  • Both the east Arapahoe corridor and East Pearl/Pearl Parkway will potentially knit that eastern urban core into the existing older core — the University, Uni Hill, and Pearl St… if we can create human scale connections between them, and mitigate a lot of the surface-parking blighted strip mall wastelands between them today.
  • Table Mesa, Basemar, The Meadows shopping center and the Diagonal Plaza could all be much better neighborhood hubs.
  • NoBo needs a grocery store.  Will it get one as the Armory and other planned infill goes in up there?
  • Could the service-industrial spaces along North 28th St. and East of Foothills Parkway between Valmont and Baseline be transformed into a walkable version of itself?  Lofts over light industrial spaces?  That kind of land use (which we do want to keep in the city!) doesn’t have to be such a sprawling mess.
  • What would it take to fully develop the Broadway corridor, both north and south, to provide the neighborhoods to the east and west of it walkable access to amenities without invading their space too much?
  • How can Colorado and 30th St. be made part of the new walkable core in the next 10-20 years?
  • How can transit oriented development (TOD) in Gunbarrel tie that outlying chunk of the city in with the core?

We talked about needing more buy-in from the origin end of a lot of our in-commuting trips — how do we get the L-burbs to give people access to the transit that can get them to jobs in Boulder?  Can they do TOD?  Can we have get better bicycle park-n-ride facilities?  And then, how do we make more of the city accessible to in-commuters that are coming on transit?  Can we get real BRT on the Diagonal?  On East Arapahoe?  All the way up and down Broadway?  What would it take to make the East Boulder office parks work for people who aren’t driving?  Where do they have lunch?  Or go to the dentist?

The day didn’t turn out to be a very contentious discussion.  After describing a particular policy option, our hosts often noted that we already had that policy in place.  From a technocratic point of view, there’s a lot of agreement on what we should be doing.  Our problem is actually getting it done — funding it, and building the political support and leadership to change the city.  And we need to change the city, if we are to have any hope of addressing climate change in a serious way.  East Boulder will never be walkable, and will never have decent transit service at its current intensity of use.  Similarly many of our single-family residential neighborhoods are too large and too diffuse to support any kind of non-conforming infill mixed-use — there just aren’t enough potential customers within the 5-minute/500m walking radius to justify adding new businesses.  We talk a lot about supplying amenities for pedestrians and cyclists and transit riders, but we don’t talk very much about actually supplying the pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders themselves!

My suspicion is that there’s a lot of latent demand for the kinds of things we talked about today, from people who are less engaged in the public processes.  University students are famously transient, but the population as a whole is persistent.  Younger professionals and the highly skilled technological workforce we have are somewhat more persistent, but they’re still prone to moving for career and family reasons, and that makes it hard to get them to participate in processes that often last 5-10 years (which is too long anyway).  A lot of the “interested but concerned” people who would like to ride their bikes if the infrastructure felt safer aren’t connected with bike advocacy… because they don’t currently bike.  A lot of people who would like to live in a slightly more urban environment aren’t engaged because any individual who brings that up in polite conversation hears something to the effect of That’s Not Boulder from the powers that be, and maybe they weren’t planning on living here for 10+ years anyway.  We need an organization that gives those people a voice, and that can be urged to vote in a bloc if need be.

There’s a kind of painful irony in the fact that the last time Boulder was transformed in short order was when we built out all of our sprawling superblocks.  The backlash against that and a lot of other mega-projects changed the way planning got done — here and elsewhere in the US — and made it much easier for a vocal minority to stop things they didn’t like.  That same bias toward hearing vocal opposition rather than broad silent support has paralyzed us.  Doing nothing is better than doing actively bad things, but we need to do more than nothing.  We need to un-do the bad things we’ve already done.

So I want another workshop, and here’s what I want it to cover:

  • How do we build political support for smart growth policies?  What community organizing tactics and strategies should we apply?  Who needs to apply them?  What regional and national organizations can support us in that?  Who are our core constituencies, and how do we activate them?
  • How do we fund all this work?  It was pointed out that public investment spurred the re-development of the Holiday neighborhood and NoBo, as well as the ongoing work in Boulder Junction, while a lack of public investment helped contribute to the land-use disaster that is the 29th St. mall.  If we don’t have a big tract of city land we can leverage, what can we do?  Long term, what’s the best way to reduce the per capita cost of building and maintaining the city’s infrastructure?
  • Assuming we’re going to get to climate neutrality by 2050, what does the city need to look like?  How will that transportation and land use system be different from what we’ve got now?  How many people do we need to have in the city to make it work?  What are the quantifiable waypoints between here and there?  What if we wanted VMT to be 80% lower in 2050?  What would that city look like?  What would Boulder look like if it had the population of Zürich, Switzerland (which is about the same area as Boulder) or the same area as Delft, in the Netherlands (which has the same population as Boulder)?  What if we un-developed a lot of the sprawling eastern areas?  What if we removed the Foothills Parkway?  These might not be the right changes, but they’re the right scale to be discussing.  Incremental adjustments to an urban form that sprang from the suburban building boom of the 1950s and 1960s won’t get us where we need to go.
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