A vision for the heart of a sustainable city, the proposed Depot Square transit-oriented development project at Boulder Junction. Boulder planners ask: What should a “sustainable city” look like? Can it be a place – or set of places – that expresses the very values that make Boulder a diverse but cohesive community, where people can negotiate differences and find common ground?
A vision for the heart of a sustainable city, the proposed Depot Square transit-oriented development project at Boulder Junction. Boulder planners ask: What should a “sustainable city” look like? Can it be a place – or set of places – that expresses the very values that make Boulder a diverse but cohesive community, where people can negotiate differences and find common ground?

When you think of Boulder, Colo., you probably imagine pedestrian-friendly Pearl Street, with its quirky one-off stores, street performers, and summer festivals. You can live comfortably in downtown Boulder without a car; you’ll find high-quality groceries, restaurants, banks, and most neighborhood services in easy walking distance, as well as an efficient public transportation system of bike-friendly buses used by everyone from the homeless to high-paid executives. But this is west Boulder. Get on your bike and pedal about three miles southeast, and you might think that all of a sudden you’re cruising through a Kansas City, Mo., suburb.

Residents often describe Boulder as a “tale of two cities”—east and west. The east half of Boulder looks like most any Middle America suburbia, with its wide, car-crowded boulevards, shopping centers, parking lots, and squiggly subdivisions of single-family homes set along a maze of curving streets and lollipop-shaped dead ends. It’s just the kind of pace that progressive urban thinkers want to retrofit into walkable, connected, sustainable communities of the future.

When I read that Boulder’s senior urban designer, Samuel Assefa, and the Department of Community Planning and Sustainability were taking on the challenge of integrating east Boulder with west, a task that looks as big as integrating East and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I wanted to know how the city hoped to achieve it. If suburbia can really be retrofitted, Boulder would seem the most likely place for an early success. There’s no more liberal and forward-thinking a town than Boulder, which boasts the highest educated population of any city and was named the No. 1 Most Educated Metro Area by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as recently as October 2011.

Winning Over the Suburbs

By and large, urban thinkers like Christopher Leinberger, of the Brookings Institution and a Vision 2020 chair, believe that a focus on energy-efficiency strategies, while important, will not curb the American carbon footprint sufficiently to meet 2030 Challenge goals. “The majority of the answer is going to come from demand mitigation, especially in the United States,” said Leinberger. By demand, he refers to the average per capita carbon consumption rate required to live where you live. On average, people living in well-connected, walkable communities have the lowest annual energy use per household, 85.3 million Btu, while car-dependent suburbs consume about 109 million Btu per household each year.

The solution, in agreement among most sustainable community planners, will come through a rapidly increasing social “reset” away from automobile-dependant suburbs toward higher-density, walkable areas, like west Boulder. To an extent, this reset will require re-envisioning and then rezoning suburban areas like east Boulder, to make them less dependent on cars and more interdependent with the rest of the community. But retrofitting suburban neighborhoods into integrated, walkable communities is not as easy as retrofitting attic insulation, not because the technical means do not exist, but rather because people resist change.

“When we talk about eliminating cul-de-sacs and reconnecting streets, people often have concerns because such ideas imply significant change from the status quo and established patterns they are accustomed to,” said Assefa, after I asked him if improving east Boulder would be easier than similar efforts have proven elsewhere. After all, Boulder enjoys a more progressive political base and a fine tradition of thoughtful planning than most cities, and there’s the attractive example of west Boulder nearby. “So what’s the plan?” I asked Assefa.

Assefa walked over to one of the large planning maps that paper his office walls and began showing me before and after views of several of Boulder’s most attractive neighborhoods, pointing to landmarks and explaining how public initiatives had served as catalysts for successful areas, such as the river walk, outdoor market, and Civic Center. I got a primer in the slow, evolutionary art of urban planning. “We start with the public right of way, the area we control, and we refine the parking requirements, building setbacks, height restrictions, sidewalk widths, and allowable uses to stimulate a finely grained development pattern.” In other words, the process begins by redefining the zoning code to establish regulations that encourage the development of places to be, rather than thoroughfares.

Once the right rules are in place, public infrastructure follows, planting a tree-lined canopy, building a landscaped median, installing benches, adding classic lamppost lighting, and changing the street and sidewalk surfaces to a material like brick or embossed concrete. These improvements signal, “Hey, this street is special and different,” it’s not just to drive through, but rather an important public place, which Assefa said incorporates several functions, including multimodal transportation along with commercial and cultural services.

Leading by Example

Assefa led me to another map, this one drawn on a roll of paper that stretched along one wall of his office from end to end. On it, he pointed to the Arapahoe Avenue corridor, the main street that connects suburban southeast Boulder to urban west. Along this corridor, Assefa showed me the result of ideas developed during a design charrette for a stretch of Arapahoe directly north of Arapahoe Ridge, a typical, suburban tract, and south of a large commercial district, an island of offices and stores floating in a sea of street-front parking lots. Here, marked with colored pencil over the existing street grid, the designers had imagined redeveloping a single block that could become a place-making urban outpost, linking areas of employment (north) to residential neighborhoods (south) with an attractive “third place” sandwiched in between, offering small stores and eateries that people in both the commercial and residential neighborhoods could walk to and enjoy.

“Once people see what is possible, their attitude and outlook about the public realm changes,” said Assefa. Wide-ranging change follows. But the planning process for significant transformation of the public realm often takes a protracted course. Assefa walked me through typical steps required for such projects. Depending on the scale, the public process could take a year to 18 months from proposal to City Council approval. Next, the city may need to raise money, following plan approval, and may have to float capital bonds for voter approval. If sufficient voters approve, then begins the process of designing, reviewing, redesigning, and, after another year or so, constructing the first catalyst, or pilot project. Then another five to 10 years or more can pass before these first projects prove themselves in the market and then begin to affect how the areas surrounding them develop.

The city cannot do such projects alone, Assefa explained. “In addition to the larger community, we engage with the development community for public/private partnerships. We have to convince private developers, for example, that outcomes like slowing traffic, planting trees, enhancing the public realm, and parking behind instead of in front of their buildings will actually increase their project’s desirability and value.”

Tellingly, at this year’s Congress for the New Urbanism conference, one plenary session was devoted to this public process and convincing the skeptics. The tactics discussed seemed like exercises in developing saintly patience. In the end, the biggest obstacles to meeting the 2030 Challenge goals on a national basis are not technical, but philosophical. The how and why exist today, as well as many successful examples. But given the local nature of real estate, the greatest hurdle comes with showing skeptical residents, neighborhood by neighborhood, and one developer at a time that sustainable community design patterns are both viable and desirable. When I last spoke with Assefa, he told me the Arapahoe corridor plan had been put on hold, with the city focusing on projects like a proposed plan for the Civic Center, an area encompassing 9th to 17th streets and Canyon Boulevard to Arapahoe Avenue and the implementation of the Transit Village Area Plan at Boulder Junction, projects on fertile ground where public and private interests already see eye to eye.

The Civic Center area has been in some sort of planning since 1992. The Boulder Junction has been in planning since 2004, and one of the first two major developments proposed under the plan, a 319-unit housing development at 3100 Pearl, broke ground this year. The second, Depot Square Plaza, a mixed-use development that includes a hotel, residential development, an RTD bus facility, and a reuse of the historic transit depot already on site, will follow, with projected completion in 2015. Assuming other good projects on the books will similarly require 10 years or more to come to fruition and then another five to 10 years to become the default mode for development, we may still be on track, but without a decade to spare, toward reaching the 2030 Challenge goals on a communitywide basis.

During a recent conversation with John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, he told me to expect a huge shift over the next five years, with changing attitudes accelerating sufficiently to achieve a carbon-neutral development pattern by 2030. He predicted it would not happen through the unbearably slow process of convincing stubborn skeptics with arguments, but through market forces. As people see the projects that planners like Assefa are working on today, the attraction of great places becomes irresistible.