Two years ago, the city of Boulder, Colo., engaged in a communitywide discussion to update the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP), a policy document that guides city development. During this “robust public process,” the city determined that the Community Design Section of the BVCP needed to be updated, along with a few other sections, says Samuel Assefa, senior urban designer with Boulder’s Department of Community Planning and Sustainability.

One of the new elements introduced in the Community Design section of the 2010 BVCP, was a definition of “sustainable urban form,” the criteria describing what makes a city—or at least Boulder—sustainable. According to Boulder city documents, the sustainable urban form is defined by five components: compact; connected; complete; green, attractive, and distinct; and inclusive.

Compact:

A compact development pattern with density in appropriate locations to create and support viable, long-term commercial opportunities and high-frequency public transit.

Connected:

  • An integrated multimodal system with abundant, convenient, and pleasant ways to get around on foot, by bike, and by local and regional transit service. * Opportunities for people to connect to nature and natural systems.

Complete:

  • Daily needs within easy access from home, work, or school without driving a car.
  • A quality of life that attracts sustains and retains diverse businesses, creative entrepreneurs and investment in the local economy. Green, Attractive, and

Distinct:

  • Comfortable, safe, and attractive places to live, work, learn and recreate that have a distinct, memorable character and high-quality design and that promote healthy, active living.

  • A public realm that is beautiful, well-used, and enriched with art, trees, and landscaping.

  • Buildings, streets, utilities, and other infrastructure that protect natural systems, minimize energy use, urban heat island effects, and air and water pollution, and support clean energy generation. 

  • Preservation of agriculturally significant lands, environmentally sensitive areas, and historic resources.

Inclusive:

  • A diversity of employment, housing types, sizes and prices, and other uses to meet the needs of a diverse community.

  • Welcoming, accessible public gathering spaces for interaction among people of all ages, walks of life, and levels of ability. The idea is to put sustainability front and center as a unifying framework to meet Boulder’s environmental, economic, and social goals. But to achieve this in real time, the city needs to turn sustainability principles into practical, urban management guidelines. 

The city needs scoring tools that accurately assess existing neighborhood needs and gauge the suitability of new development and redevelopment. “The goal is to help create a refined urban design strategy through the development of a design toolkit that guides future developments. The urban form sustainable indicators’ matrix is one component of the design toolkit,” says Assefa. To get started, the city turned to the University of Colorado’s College of Architecture and Planning. “The city looked at various urban assessment tools, but they were unable to find existing indicators that lined up with the specific values outlined in Boulder’s comprehensive plan,” explains Brian Muller, associate professor of planning and design at the College of Architecture and Planning and the faculty coordinator for the university’s Land Use Futures Laboratories.

So the city asked the university to help develop criteria. Leveraging the considerable research and creative resources available at the University of Colorado’s College of Architecture and Planning, the city signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the university for a collaborative effort to develop a sustainability matrix, which the city will use as a metric to evaluate sustainability. “At this point, we are starting with sample areas with distinct characteristics in their urban form and land use, such as the Civic Center/Downtown area versus the Boulder Junction area. These areas will be used to test and develop indicators that could be applied at a parcel level as well as at a neighborhood level or citywide,” explains Assefa. In other words, the matrix will eventually serve as a scoring tool for city departments to develop neighborhood-level sustainability strategies. But for now, its development also serves the research and pedagogical objectives of the university.

The University of Colorado’s architectural and planning labs–or studios–are designed to provide practical experience for students, solving real and shared community problems, versus working out hypothetical design and planning exercises. In this vein, the university regards the city as a client. Students and faculty meet regularly with city staff and have already drafted a preliminary set of sustainable form indicators , from which students are working. About 250 students and 30 instructors are participating in 25 studios working on projects ranging from neighborhood surveys measuring sub-area walkability, attractiveness, functionality, and safety to project-specific evaluations of proposed public improvements.

Due to the complex and comprehensive nature of urban ecology, including public health, watershed management, and transit, to name just a few, the College of Architecture and Planning has engaged a multidisciplinary team, including the departments of Engineering, Environmental Science, Medicine, and Computer Science, “building links across the full breadth of the university’s research and creative resources,” says Muller.

“We started with pretty crude tools, but now we’re working on geo-computational modeling that promises to provide ever more refined indicators and methods of evaluation.” Other efforts throughout the United States include Chicago, which has effectively developed indicators to monitor progress toward goals established in its Climate Action Plan.

Currently, the most extensive effort to establish standards for indicators for local governments is being undertaken by the ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, of which Boulder is one of 10 U.S. cities named as a beta community in a pilot program to develop a national indicators system, according to Assefa. Muller sees the ongoing relationship between the college and Boulder as a new paradigm in university-community cooperation. “Instead of working on single-semester projects, we are forging a strong, ongoing relationship that provides a wonderful learning experience for students and exploits a valuable community asset, the research, and creative expertise of the university.”