By Dom Nozzi
In Boulder CO, according to local lore, Chief Niwot said, “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”
This is known as Niwot’s Curse.
One of my Boulder friends wholeheartedly subscribes to this adage, and regularly laments the nearly monthly ranking of Boulder as the city with the highest quality of life in the nation. She worries that Boulder being top-ranked for quality of life on a regular basis will mean evermore people will move to Boulder and ruin its stellar beauty.
I chide her by letting her know that it appears her dream is to have Boulder regularly ranked as having the LOWEST quality of life in the nation.
The fact is, I inform her, that to this day, Boulder is nearly always ranked number one for being the best city. This is exemplified by the rankings and the crazy high housing prices – which happens to be a very reliable indicator that Boulder is experiencing anything BUT “destruction.”
After all the “destructive” growth over the past 20 or 30 years, Boulder is a much more pleasant city today than it was 20 or 30 years ago: More and better restaurants, more and better retail, more and better trails and paths, better urbanism, more people on sidewalks and bicycling, and more and better cultural events.
In its misguided obsession with stopping “growth” or “density” or “tall buildings” and easing car travel (thinking, wrongly, that doing that is the key to protecting quality of life), what Boulder is failing to do to protect itself is to guard against the REAL threats: enlarged roads and intersections, and land development regulations that continue to allow various and sundry modernist crapola (ie, hideous buildings that no one loves and everyone wants to see demolished as soon as possible).
And it is not just Boulder. All cities have failed to do this since about the 1940s.
If Boulder Council gained the wisdom and leadership to do the effective things I cite above, it would put those protections in place. By doing so, it would not matter one bit that top rankings were inducing more and more to move to Boulder. Indeed, a lot more in-migration would dramatically improve the city quality of life when coupled with such development regulations.
I’d go even further. Having more and more moving to Boulder would actually help Boulder quality even WITHOUT those protections, as we know from city growth around the nation. All cities that become more compact due to growth see less per capita car trips, more small and locally owned shops and restaurants, more intellectual firepower, better transit, and better culture. This has not only been shown throughout the US, but much more clearly in countless European cities – cities that are FAR more dense — and yet have far higher quality of life.
A common worry: people not liking the idea of Boulder “losing its small town feel” and seeming more like a “congested big city” if its population doubled or tripled? I and millions of others agree that “small town” is better than “big city.” But losing “small town feel” and feeling like a “big city” does NOT come from population growth. It comes from the consensus in Boulder and nearly all other cities that we must widen our roads, enlarge our intersections and replace historic charm with butt-ugly modernism.
In sum, if Boulder put its many big, oversized roads and parking lots on a diet; shrank its oversized intersections; eliminated the requirement that requires new developments to provide parking; used remote, electronic parking meters to price nearly all free parking in Boulder – particularly on-street parking; kept new residential and commercial growth in human-scaled, compact, mixed-use patterns; and replaced its blighting modernist buildings with lovable traditional design (not to mention adding a requirement that all new buildings must use traditional design); it could have four or five times more people and still be loved by the entire community because it is thereby able to retain its small town feel. It’s traditional charm. It’s romantic human scale.
This is not rocket science. All we need is the political will. Which, tragically, is likely to only come from a HUGE crisis like a staggering economic depression, a massive housing affordability crisis, a crushing medical obesity epidemic, or a major roadway death epidemic.
Sadly, none of these will likely be significant enough to give Boulder a huge, much-needed kick in the ass in our lifetimes.