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Drowning in a Sea of Homes

Drowning in a Sea of Homes


Boulder and North Metro need to build for their future while addressing environmental concerns, confronting racism, and alleviating homelessness.

The suburban dream paints a rosy picture of America, but underneath that green lawn is a whole host of environmental problems and a dark story of discrimination. The low density development that a sea of single family homes creates also reinforces structural racism, environmental issues, and even mental health aspects of daily life.

That white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and a Golden Retriever have been the aspirations for so many families since the end of World War II. Yet that simple — and not so achievable anymore — dream has only been realized by excluding non-whites and focusing on car-centric models of development.

Suburban living is so ingrained in the American experience that few of us ever take time to question and examine its origins and impacts. It is in some way a continuation of Manifest Destiny, the racist idea that white Americans are meant to occupy the so-called “empty” continent, right through Jim Crow era policies meant to prevent African Americans from attaining equality, into our modern reality. Equal segregation, an oxymoron, was the law of the land as suburbs first were constructed in the 1950s. 

Urban sprawl in the United States has its origins in the end of World War II when millions of military members serving overseas in Europe and Asia returned back home. However, the entire concept of “home” was altered by this. Congress recognized that soldiers needed support for their transition back to civilian life. The Bonus March of WWI veterans who were never paid their full monetary compensation from the Great War loomed on the minds of policymakers and politicians alike when crafting a solution.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The G.I. Bill was Congress’ answer to compensating returning service members this time around. It provided cheap loans for returning service members and, on paper, was a policy to help reintegrate military members into civilian life. Military considerations also spawned the creation of the interstate freeway system as a way to quickly transport heavy equipment, like tanks, in case of an invasion by an adversary, namely the U.S.S.R. 

This model of development also explains why European cities tend to have more vibrant downtown areas, more walkability, and less visible poverty. Massive freeways do not typically cut through major European urban centers the way they do in the U.S. These multi-lane freeways create a physical divide through established cities, and the long stretches of road throughout the nation also allow towns and suburbs to spring up in areas that would previously not be suitable for development.

Moving forward, low density development needs to be planned with the acknowledgement that so many have been systematically excluded from these areas and also address the environmental impacts that suburban sprawl presents, while touching on the healthy aspects of more walkable and interconnected cities.

During the 1950s, several University of Colorado professors formed PLAN Boulder, an organization that advocates for planned city growth. Even today PLAN Boulder receives criticism from affordable housing and homeless advocates for not considering the needs of our most vulnerable members of society. Concerned Boulder citizens also created the blue line boundary in 1959, which meant that city water lines could not be extended to elevations above 5,750 feet. Property owners in these areas could still develop their lands, but they would have to use their own sewage systems rather than the city’s, which purposely limited their growth. These founding organizations and principles have shaped the way BOCO has developed over the years.

City of Boulder housing, NoBo

Those in favor of the Open Space program argued that the proposed green areas near the Rockies would benefit everyone because it would provide all the city dwellers with space to breathe. The end result was that the citizens of BOCO eventually became responsible for over 60,000 acres of land. These properties are currently managed by the Boulder Valley Open Spaces program, an organization that has every intention of expanding their horizons in the future. 

However, the Greenbelt Amendment was not the last ruling that was passed to protect Boulder Valley residents from the harmful effects of urban sprawl. By the 1970s Boulder residents had already become worried about the pace of growth in their community. Plans to limit development and population increases were passed, including one known today as the “Danish Plan.” 

A 2% cap was ultimately placed on housing expansion. However, this limit on growth steadily increased the cost of living. A service boundary was likewise implemented in 1970. This line clearly delineates portions of the county that are to be considered rural or urban for planning purposes and public services residents of these areas can expect. The boundary protects rural land by reducing the population and preventing urban sprawl.

The Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP) was eventually created in 1977. This lengthy document governs the basic infrastructures and land use in Boulder Valley and is still referenced frequently today when planning new development. The ongoing fight that has historically pitted growth advocates against environmental concerns continues.


Kristan Pritz, the director of Open Space and Trails for the city of Broomfield said it best: “The entire Front Range area has become a very popular place to live and work. It’s a beautiful area. There are some exciting jobs for people and so on. That means growth, not just for the Boulder area, but for other parts of Colorado.”

Peter Mayer, the co-chair of PLAN Boulder, suggests that urban sprawl has not been an issue in the area, mostly due to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan and similar programs, all of which concentrate growth in urban areas and help preserve the rural outskirts. The growth in the North Metro area is undeniable, with populations and development spreading quite rapidly over the past few decades. 

Overflow from Boulder itself has ended up increasing the size of other nearby towns like Longmont, Broomfield, and Erie. Erie for example has grown from just over 6,000 residents in 2000 to over 60,000 residents in the last two decades. Even if specific plans limit growth within the city of Boulder, the desire for more people to live here has created a sprawl of suburbs in the surrounding areas that were once small towns housing miners and farmers. 

When asked if the current policies were helping or hurting development in the area, Mayer said, “It’s all about what you value.”

But the question remains: How can the citizens preserve the beauty of BOCO and North Metro without pricing potential residents out of the area? Affordable housing is a growing issue, particularly since housing prices continue to skyrocket around the country and the zoning in Boulder County Greenbelt policies restrict development in certain areas.

Loop Net235, E.South Boulder Rd, Lafayette, CO

Many Boulder residents are against higher density neighborhoods that could reduce sprawl. The argument is that creating more places to live could cause housing costs to go down. Lower cost housing allows a more diverse group of residents to have the option of owning a home here. The average Black family has accumulated 1/6th the wealth of the average white family. This disparity traces its insidious roots back to the lack of reparations after slavery, continued to grow into the Jim Crow era, and has borne fruit today in the inability for many non-whites to afford the high-cost suburban lifestyle that urban sprawl encourages. 

Locating affordable residences near transportation hubs would have a positive environmental effect as well. Car-centric models of development have been the standard in the U.S. with developers of suburban areas expecting everyone who lives there to have access to individual vehicular transportation. Low density discourages bus routes and other mass transit options from being implemented. It creates a dependency on cars that increases air pollution and environmental degradation. Currently about 60,000 people commute to Boulder from outlying areas.

“The only solution to affordable housing is government intervention,” Mayer said. He points out that this may require the creation of programs to help middle income buyers make down payments on homes. “The market is not the solution though. The only hope is to require homes to be constructed to be affordable.” He continued, “More important is preserving the affordable housing we have and not allowing it to be replaced.”

To that end, a series of land use codes passed in 2022, creating more mixed use areas in East Boulder. One-fourth of the housing units built there must now be considered affordable. The plan also creates parking maximums to encourage alternative transportation. There are nonetheless some significant safety concerns for residents who end up living near old industrial sites like the planned affordable housing in East Boulder. Less wealthy residents can end up living on formerly polluted land and near industrial operations that can lead to a whole host of health problems like cancer clusters. Even affordable development can lead to reinforced power structures where the wealthy are healthier than those with fewer resources.

“The only solution to affordable housing is government intervention.”

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are another option to consider that will create more living spaces without creating separate zones for affordable housing, but that option was not enthusiastically welcomed in Boulder. The city government has placed limits on these buildings. Boulder County citizens have also fought against the current occupancy rules. 

Another idea is to convert unused retail spaces, like old shopping malls, into housing, in what is called “mixed-use development.” This type of zoning is popular in Europe, with apartments often located above ground-level shops that line the boulevards, but it has yet to take off nation-wide in the U.S. This would also increase walkability, decrease traffic, and create a stronger sense of community where people can work and live in the same neighborhood.

Affordable housing and easy access to job opportunities would also directly help address the homelessness crisis. We as a society cannot continue to allow individuals to live on the streets in such high numbers. There are numerous causes for homelessness, from unaddressed mental health issues to addiction causing financial hardship to the simple fact that the cost of living has increased so much that it now takes four minimum wage workers to afford a two-bedroom apartment, with homeownership absolutely out of the question. 

The American Dream with the white picket fence that has driven development for the last 70 years or so needs to be re-envisioned. What is becoming a waking nightmare for so many can be alleviated by just increasing the amount of affordable housing. There are several avenues that developers, residents, and city officials can take, from ADUs to rezoning to mandating more affordable housing. Something needs to be done. 

Instead of wading through a sea of homes, the vision for a more environmentally sustainable future could be focused on creating spaces that are walkable, affordable, and diverse. Mixed-use developments would give more reason for city officials to plan public transit routes. Re-zoned empty retail spaces could be converted into desperately needed housing. The border between “downtown” and “suburb” may need to be blurred to accommodate growth and potentially reduce the feeling of alienation and loneliness that many people feel. 

Urban sprawl and the associated high housing costs in Boulder and surrounding areas affect so many of the most pressing issues society faces today. From environmental concerns of car-focused development to the systemic racism built into the creation of suburbs and home ownership to the obesity epidemic that can be partially helped by creating more walkable areas to homelessness that springs from a lack of affordable spaces to live to the mental health of individuals who feel alienated, alone, and lacking community, envisioning a new American Dream could help solve the nightmares we face today.


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