Monday, February 2, 2009

Thoughts on Boulder

We left Denver early one morning and headed for Boulder. Boulder is a strange mash of outlying suburb, college town, liberal mecca and playground for the ultra-wealthy. The good weather and topography make this a surprisingly cozy community. The latte sippers take their leisure side by side with bums, mediocre artists, two-bit street performers, and obnoxious students.
Plopped at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, the local range is the Flatirons. Residents take full advantage of the wilderness parks that sit within walking distance of the city. The location of Boulder Mountain Park was more a stroke of good luck than a well thought out plan to provide nearby recreational space, but it is a critical element of Boulder and cities in general.

Most urbanized places today are totally under the control of humans. Places of decay would be the exception, and they work in the same way as wilderness areas. Cities are full of intentional space. Some of this space is draining and some of it restorative, but all of it is designed or otherwise crafted by humans. Upon occasion, you'll see a small "nature preserve" within a city, but they are typically too small to become immersed in. This keeps people from being able to forget about the intentionality of the unintentional.

Large swaths of wilderness--or in the Rust Belt, decay--provide unintentional space for people to explore. I'm convinced that not everybody needs these spaces, a dichotomy that leaves some loving big successful cities while others can't stand them.

Some people like discovery. They like to find things that someone else didn't build. They like to exercise a part of their brain that is a bit different than the rest. Boulder accommodates these people, other cities should too.
The eco-agitators have left their mark in Boulder. It has one of the most highly developed bicycle networks of any city. Above is a shot of just one of the dozens of bicycle highways that connect the various developments of the city. They didn't just stick to this high-tech (expensive) approach; Boulder was the first city where I saw signage encouraging cyclists to get off the shoulder and take up a whole lane of the road. In an auto centric city, bicycles are a good but insufficient solution to the mobility problem. Some people use them, some don't.

The bicycle highways are interesting, but I think a city with a well connected street grid does just as well without all the extra construction. For cities full of twisty, dead-end suburban streets and frantic collector roads, they make a lot of sense.

In their latest act of crazed environmentalism, Boulder County just instituted the most stringent residential building code in the country. Boulder County is plagued by incredibly rich people. They live out in the sticks and build enormous mansions. The new building code is based around the HERS rating system from Energy Star. The bigger the house, the more stringent the energy requirements are. Built homes actually need to be tested for their energy usage before they receive final approval.Energy isn't everything that goes into sustainability, but it's a big piece. Forcing these mansion builders to be a bit more responsible is a step in the right direction. Boulder county is far and away the most progressive leader on energy issues. It's a model that doesn't necessarily merit copying in other places; not every place has the same economic and weather conditions as Boulder.

The HERS scale does offer enormous benefits though and forcing built energy inspections is a good idea. Adding an energy inspection to any standard forces contractors to be a bit more careful when they do their work so they can avoid costly fixes. When it comes to making a house incrementally more efficient, the little things add up.

At the heart of downtown Boulder lies the Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall. The Pearl Street Mall is an old place, agitations for it began in the 1960s and it was constructed over 30 years ago. Four consecutive blocks of Pearl Street were closed to vehicular traffic as a way of competing with suburban malls. Most shops along the stretch are independent though many corporate tenants have begun to creep in.
The space was originally designed for the enormous space needs of the horse and buggy. Merely closing the street to automotive traffic would have left the vast expanse between the buildings empty except during major events. The Boulder solution was to fill the space with brick, trees, playgrounds, benches and public art. Aside from the bums and buskers, the street doesn't look so much different than a walkway in an indoor mall.

Boulder has taken an effective but expensive approach to preserving a chunk of downtown vitality. The area surrounding the mall is somewhat stark compared to the rest of the downtown area. The enormous amount of parking needed for such a large pedestrian free area has mostly been housed in large structures, but overflow and budget conscious shoppers have gobbled up street parking on neighboring streets. This effect has caused many nearby businesses to use surface lots.

The Boulder Pedestrian Mall is modeled on suburban malls, and the result is the same as suburban malls. The area surrounding the mall doesn't get any boost from its presence. Instead, these places of excessive single use act as vitality vacuums. In the early morning or at night, they are almost completely empty. During the day, the surrounding area is swamped with cars.

The fact that it exists at all is a testament to the ability of Boulder residents to affect their space. The project took 15 years to accomplish, but the empowerment of a community is one of the best things a city can offer its citizens.

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