Overpopulation isn’t the Problem

Some folks in Boulder like to make analogies to exponential global population growth in discussions about our local land use decisions (see for example Frosty WoolridgeFrosty Woolridge again, Robert Baker, David Brandt, or the venerable Al Bartlett himself). These analogies are inappropriate in multiple ways.

First, steep declines in fertility worldwide have largely defused the population bomb. Second, even if the bomb were still ticking, the population changes we see in Boulder, and more generally the Front Range of Colorado, the US and the booming megacities of Asia aren’t about population growth per se, they’re about migration.  In the developing world, it’s migration from rural areas to cities. In the already rich countries, it’s mostly migration between cities, often from low-wage regions to areas with better jobs and higher quality of life. Or it would be anyway, if we actually let people build housing in those places.

How we choose to build and rebuild cities to accommodate these migrations and humanity’s peak population later this century will largely determine our ultimate impact on the Earth’s climate and biosphere, and the quality of life that humanity has access to.  Contrary to many “population bomb” narratives, the main problem here as it relates to climate isn’t the impact of large numbers of poor people, because small numbers of rich people are responsible for the overwhelming majority of current greenhouse gas emissions.  How we accommodate those wealthy, high emissions populations makes a big difference, both directly, and through the example it sets for the rapidly expanding global middle class.

Continue reading Overpopulation isn’t the Problem

No Vision for East Arapahoe

Typical East ArapahoeI went to the Open House for the city’s Envision East Arapahoe project last night. This process was originally supposed to look at transportation improvements and potential land-use changes along the East Arapahoe corridor. But based on the presentation from and some conversations with staff, it sounds like they’ve scaled the project back on the land-use side to only considering what the best split between employment/retail/housing would be for the 4,300 jobs they estimate could be out there under current zoning but which haven’t been built out yet.  When you compare that number to the existing ~34,000 jobs in the study area, it’s clear that no change in the character of the corridor is going to be considered.

Which is amazing, because it’s horrible for the most part now.  People who have to walk and bike through the area use words like “hellhole” and “wasteland” and “disaster area.”  But I guess Motordom seems to think it’s just fine as is.

The city has apparently been inundated with “Don’t make it like Boulder Junction!” comments, and so have been scared off from doing anything substantial to the land use.  Of course there’s still lots of flowery language about bike and pedestrian amenities, but they’ll be of little use if there are no destinations in the area to speak of, and it continues to have a giant freeway running through the middle of it.

At this point it feels like the best outcome within these constraints might be to stop throwing planning resources toward land use changes at all (including the 4,300 jobs/housing/etc) but get a real BRT line along Arapahoe, so that if/when we come to our senses on land use, the transit trunk line capacity is already in place to potentially support redevelopment without creating a traffic disaster.

It would be nice if there was at least one scenario modeled in all this — if they’re going to continue putting staff hours into it — that included substantial changes to the zoning.  Just to see what it looks like in terms of VMT, GHG emissions, potential street cross-sections, etc.

It would also be nice if the superblock between the east CU campus and Boulder Junction got special treatment, and were looked at with an eye toward knitting those two urbanizing areas together into one cohesive whole.  It’s miserable to walk or bike through now, built to very low intensity with a ton of surface parking, but it could be a wonderful mixed use district served well by the new transit hub and in easy walking distance of the University.  Restaurants, lab and office space for university spin-offs or startups, some housing, etc.  More than any other part of the Arapahoe corridor, that place seems to have a context that demands some re-envisioning in the shorter term.

The whole package goes to Council tonight (Tuesday, 10/28) for their feedback.

Quantifying the Cost of Sprawl

Sprawling single-family suburban development is more expensive than compact land use.  There’s more infrastructure per capita and per unit area (pavement, power lines, water and sewage lines, etc), in conjunction with much lower tax revenues per unit infrastructure.  This is true if you look at either the capital (up front) costs or the ongoing operational costs.  Most subdivisions aren’t actually prepared to pay their own way when the bill comes due.

As Coasts Rebuild and U.S. Pays, Repeatedly, the Critics Ask Why

The New York Times looks at our national policy of paying to rebuild vulnerable coastal communities, no matter how ill advised their developments might be.  In effect, we’ve encouraged people to upscale their beachfront shanties into expensive vacation homes, increasing the value at risk next time a storm hits.  As the seas rise, ever more money will be sent down this gopher hole.  Instead, we should prohibit future development, map out the most vulnerable locations, and draw up buy-out offers ahead of time, so when disaster strikes, it can be used as an opportunity to re-direct investment into less risky areas.

The Silos of the Status Quo

Strong Towns looks at the absurdity of having separate city departments of transportation and land-use planning, which often end up directly at odds with each other, even when they’re both doing their jobs.  In Boulder this dynamic has been bad enough that the city recently made the two departments go to conflict resolution training together.  Like, inter-departmental couples counseling or something.  Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have done a whole lot of good.