Taking a Boulder Stance on Urban Growth

Regional cooperation can lead to better land-use planning.

“A lot of people can see the potential benefits of land preservation and tighter growth boundaries,” said Peter Pollock. “The challenge is that the land development system is based on many individual kinds of motivations, within what is often a very diffuse system of governance.”

Pollock is the Ronald Smith Fellow with the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. He worked on planning policy at the City of Boulder, Colo. for nearly 25 years.

Set against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, Boulder is located at the foothills and surrounded by natural land that stretches to the Continental Divide. These notable features were of high value to the residents of the city, which resulted in efforts to maintain the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape.

“Boulder is a community that has been very interested in trying to control sprawl,” said Pollock, “so they have done a number of policy initiatives to try to maintain a more compact urban form.”

Post World War II, Boulder was in a very expansionist mode with lots of new growth and new development occurring. Community reaction to that growth resulted in the protection of natural land and its open spaces that border Boulder. Residents recognized the possibility of losing some of the natural quality that gave the city its unique character if that expansionist mode continued.

“One of the major challenges in a program like this is that folks who are working the land for agricultural production might look to an expanding city as an opportunity to sell the land for urbanization,” he said, “so one of the challenges we had was to set the policy clearly so that folks knew what their expectations might be in terms of future sales of property.”

That clear policy included where the city would expand, and that the land outside the expansion area was likely to remain in a rural character. That really set the expectations on land value in order for the City to acquire it. Pollock noted that the initial campaign to control Boulder’s urban sprawl came from pressure from its citizens. As a result, a sales tax measure was passed in 1967 with the purpose of acquiring the land around the city’s boundaries. The City eventually created the Open Space and Mountain Parks Department to focus on the acquisition and management of the huge land resource.

“Lots of these initiatives came directly from citizen action with people saying they wanted to grow in a different way,” said Pollock. “I would say that Boulder is now a community looking inward to the growth within and trying to maximize the quality of life within our boundary.”

The City purchased land outside its boundaries to create what is referred to as a greenbelt or open-space system. At the time, most of the purchased land was being used for agricultural production and it was determined that continuing that use would help maintain the land productively over time.

“The open space system is over 40,000 acres of land and about one third is now in agricultural production,” said Pollock. “It deals with the twin issues of trying to maintain a compact city form and control sprawl, but also to preserve natural land and land used in agricultural production.”

He noted that the land was purchased primarily from private landowners, and was often leased back to agricultural producers so they could continue to work the land for agricultural purposes.

“I’ve often thought it was a real act of foresight, and in some ways bravery, to go out there and buy that first acre of land with the concept of something as bold and big as a greenbelt around a whole city,” he said. “I think it is a combination of long-range vision, but also the knowledge that these things happen incrementally over time and that what counts is sticking to something.”

An example from Boulder’s perspective was the benefit of urban containment by creating a growth boundary. According to Pollock, urban development has been enhanced and the city has also achieved many of the benefits of land preservation outside that boundary. However, they couldn’t have done this without cooperation with their neighbours.

Pollock noted that the City didn’t initially take the opportunity to look beyond its boundaries. Current issues the City is dealing with are a balance between jobs and housing, lots of commuting into the community, and high housing prices are all results of not having taken that broader regional perspective.

“The key challenge is how to create that regional context within which the issue can be viewed,” he said. “It really is a sense of working together as a community with a regional perspective to preserve the values that we’re all interested in protecting for agriculture and other land preservation goals.”

Land Use 2014 will be held May 7 and 8, 2014, at the Westin Edmonton.