Stopping Growth in Boulder, Colorado

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 18, 2018

I will always remember a planning professor I had back in college who was enraged by the common thought many residents have in US cities: “I moved to this town. You can pull up the ladder now!”

In these sorts of conversations, I notice how common it is for many to not understand basic economic and development issues.

In the American legal and economic system, elected council members (and their professional staff) are almost entirely reactive. Council members almost never (if ever) proactively “invite” a business to move to town (particularly in Boulder).

Instead, it is the business that makes the decision about whether it is sufficiently desirable to locate a business in the town (such a decision is based on the quality of the workforce and the quality of life — both of which are very high in Boulder).

That business decision can also be influenced by taxes, fees, and development regulations, but if the quality of life and workforce is high enough, those things are unlikely to dissuade a business.

Therefore, to be somewhat proactive in reducing jobs (or slowing “growth”), Boulder should lower its quality of life and urge well-educated residents to leave (does anyone want to use that strategy?). I for one enjoy living in a community that has such a high quality of life and quality workforce that many quality businesses seek to be here (despite rather high fees and taxes, and strong regulations). Their wanting to be here is a strong sign that it is wonderful to live here. And that we have quality people living here.

It also needs to be pointed out that due to such things as the US Constitution, communities have little or no legal ability to stop growth. That may be why no US city has EVER stopped growth (a great many US citizens — not just in Boulder — would like their city to stop growth).

Given all of this, it seems unfair to blame city council members for inviting businesses to locate in Boulder (they don’t) or to blame them for not stopping population growth (they don’t have a legal means to do so).

One tragic aspect of the obsessive efforts in Boulder to STOP GROWTH, or failing that, to at least MINMIZE DENSITY, is that there is very strong evidence that higher densities catalyze higher levels of innovation in the community (not to mention the many significant benefits that higher density, more compact development delivers with regard to transportation, social health, public health, environmental health, and economic health). What this means, in essence, is that those in Boulder who have succeeded in putting a brake on innovation, reducing population growth, and minimizing development density have made innovation, transportation, social and public health, environmental health, and financial health much worse in Boulder.

As an aside, Boulder does slow growth rather effectively. But not because anything the City does directly. Growth is slower than it would be because relatively few people can now afford to live in Boulder.

As has been suggested previously, I have to wonder how many of those who complain about the 60,000 car commuters each day are themselves car commuters? And how many realize that lifestyle and travel choices allows one to be much less bothered by those 60,000 car commuters? (because in-town, car-lite living is much more affordable than remote suburban, car-heavy living)

How many realize that because the City Council has little if any ability to control which businesses move here or how many people move here, time is much better spent by citizens and City Council to work on adopting or revising existing development and transportation regulations and policies so that when the nearly inevitable growth of people and businesses comes to Boulder in the coming decades, we will have controls in place that will ensure the growth occurs in ways that enhance Boulder rather than degrade it.

In my opinion, Boulder has been so single-mindedly focused on trying to stop growth that it has been too distracted to work on adopting needed regulations and policies.

Which, by the way, are rather out of date.

 

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