POSTED ON THE DAILY CAMERA: 01/05/2019
Boulder likes to think of itself as a leader amongst progressive American cities. Our growth boundaries and affordable housing requirements were bold policies when enacted, and our more recent municipalization effort has helped accelerate the adoption of renewable energy sources.
But if the recent actions of our City Council are any measure, we have lost our appetite for forward-thinking planning. While the current Council majority doubles-down on a no-growth/no-change strategy, other cities are redefining what’s possible in the realms of inclusionary and climate-friendly housing, land use, and transportation policy.
Amongst the new leaders, Minneapolis has gone the farthest towards reimagining the urban fabric. Minneapolis 2040, the city’s recently-approved comprehensive plan, emerged from an inclusive process of community engagement, which included the voices of renters, people of color and immigrants. It allows duplexes and triplexes in all residential zones, abolishes parking minimums for new construction, and allows for higher-density development along transit corridors. In combination, these components of the plan begin to dismantle the racist and classist legacies of single-family zoning, permit more and lower-cost housing near employment centers, and improve conditions for walking, biking, and transit use in the city.
Other cities are enacting or considering pieces of Minneapolis’ approach. In early December, San Francisco eliminated parking requirements, a step that could reduce the cost of new housing construction by $20,000-$50,000 per unit. Sacramento meanwhile passed a transit-oriented development ordinance that eases parking minimums and restricts car-oriented land uses near its light rail stations. In Portland and Seattle, commissions are crafting plans to promote the gradual creation of mixed-use neighborhoods. Portland’s Residential Infill Project proposes legalizing duplexes and triplexes, and creates incentives for building multiple units when existing houses are scraped. The Seattle Planning Commission has similarly recommended changes to zoning, lot size and occupancy limits that would move all neighborhoods away from the low-density, single-family model.
Critics may argue, as they often do, that Boulder is different. But our development patterns and the problems they’ve created are substantially similar to those of the new urban leaders. These cities are employment centers in thriving regional economies. They are experiencing population growth and rising housing prices, and have high percentages of land reserved for low-density residential uses. And all have faced resistance from long-time homeowners and other entrenched interests. With political will, we could adapt their strategies to fit our own circumstances.
That will, of course, is the crux of the matter. As Boulder resists scalable solutions and systemic change, the consequences of inaction are increasingly clear. Indeed, the most recent round of climate reports reminds us that our problems are no longer just those of affordable housing and wasteful commuting patterns (if indeed they ever were). To limit further climate change and to mitigate its effects in an equitable manner, we need rapid movement towards more compact and pedestrian-oriented urban development.
If a majority of City Council lacks the desire to lead on these issues, it falls to others in our community to pressure them to follow. We can hold out the actions of Minneapolis and its peers as evidence that change, while difficult, is possible. And we can use these models to remind our elected leaders that bold action on housing and environment is the new and necessary normal for progressive cities.
Claudia Hanson Thiem lives in Boulder.