Why Does Boulder Have A “Greenbelt”?
You may hear Boulderites referring to a “greenbelt,” but what is that and why does Boulder have one?
There was huge population growth in Boulder between 1950 and 1970. This growth was due to the presence of the University of Colorado, the intellectual diversity surrounding the university, and a strong local economy. At an annual growth rate of about 6%, the population of the city was set to double every 11 years or so. Being all about sustainability and preserving local culture, the citizens of Boulder took action against the human tsunami threatening to wash out the city.
In 1967 Boulderites voted the first locally-funded greenbelt in the US into existence. A tiny increase in local sales tax would generate funds for massive land acquisitions in the future. By 1998, Boulder had $116 million bucks in one hand, and 33,000 acres of mountain parks and raw land in the other.
The greenbelt idea took hold because of its ability to fix Boulder’s size and improve its ability to renovate older structures in the city. Setting a limit on building area means that once the limit is reached, funds can only go towards the maintenance of existing public structures. Plus, the undeveloped land beyond the cityscape can be used for extensive trail systems, parks, and many wonderful photo-ready adventures. A single afternoon stroll around any part of Boulder’s greenbelt will show you just how many runners, hikers, climbers, dog-walkers, etc. use these public lands.
In 1970 the population was around 70,000 but was projected to double over the next two decades. Boulder residents decided that putting a cap on the population was a necessary tactic. Population regulation would ensure that Boulder retained its personality and livability given its finite area of approximately 25 square miles. 1971 saw Boulder voters casting their ballots for the local government to restrict the population growth rate to a level more manageable than the freakish growth of the 1960s. These restrictions are still being fine-tuned to this day, and keep Boulder’s populace somewhere around 100,000 citizens.
Some would argue that this restriction on resident population growth is the cause of high housing prices in Boulder. However, since the 1960’s population boom Boulder has maintained a housing cost 10-15% higher than that of Denver. The population restrictions were not implemented until 1971, so they could not be the cause. Oddly enough, the soft limits on population did nothing to impede the growth of commercial industries and jobs.
In 1997 Boulder actually had to limit the number of commercial jobs being created in Boulder because it was outpacing the growth of the population. Commercial facilities still had land available to them for building, and they readily used it. The disparity between available jobs and available workers meant that people were traveling into Boulder from other cities and townships for work. But this resulted in overuse of public roads and other city amenities.
Boulder bought some of the commercially zoned land to prevent further problems with overused roads. The city also rezoned some commercial land for residential use. Then Boulder reduced the potential size and density of new commercial developments by tweaking zoning regulations.
Overall, Boulder’s efforts to tame residential and commercial growth were mostly successful. I believe Boulder, and the state of Colorado in general is experiencing a new population boom since 2012, due to the legalization of marijuana. It will be interesting to see what inventive solutions are used to deal with this new phenomenon. I have no doubt that Boulder will strive to maintain its enviable spot on the nation’s list of best places to live. We got #4 in 2015, according to livability.com.