In 1992, my dad, known for his both his ability to grow, and get axed from, some of the tech industry’s seminal firms like IBM, 3Com, and Novell, got a job offer from a storage startup in Boulder, Colorado. As a misfit bike-obsessed teen, I couldn’t be happier to leave our then-south-suburban Chicago home for Boulder’s always-sunny, prairie-meets-mountain setting.
When my family arrived in Boulder, it was still a quaint, one-hundred-thousand resident town with a fluctuating student population. Locals were mostly former and practicing hippies, serious athletes, academics, and engineers (often some combination thereof). With its dramatic setting, health-obsessed population, big research university, along with its more esoteric institutions like Naropa University (née Institute), Boulder was a small, idyllic pocket of liberality in an otherwise conservative, agrarian state.
After graduating high school and attending a couple years at the University of Colorado, I felt increasingly bored and culturally undernourished in “The People’s Republic of Boulder,” as it was known. It wasn’t necessarily Boulder’s fault: I was a big-city boy living in a small town. In August of 2001, I decided to move to New York City in search of diversity and excitement.
Arriving in October of 2001, New York City did not disappoint on the excitement front. In fact, after nineteen years in the city, I became so fecund with excitement I had to make a hasty retreat to Boulder to deescalate.
In my absence from Boulder, I found a town transformed…but not in a good way. Boulder was transformed in the same crass, hyper-resource-consuming, culture-flattening way towns are being transformed around the planet by global wealth.
A good portion of Boulder’s hippy, athlete, and nerd population were priced out of the city, displaced by swarms of generic, often-empty, NetZero-McMansion-dwelling, Tesla-driving 1-percenters and their generic, store-bought cosmopolitanism.
Meanwhile, the town’s workers (read: anyone without an extensive investment portfolio) were pushed ever-further out to freshly-entitled, car-dependent subdivisions in Boulder County’s outskirt towns like Louisville, Longmont, and much further beyond.
In 2019, 56- percent of Boulder’s workers were living in and commuting cities from outside the county. The mass importation of workers brings at least 46,000 cars into the county daily and perpetuates an unsustainable and unjust economic development pattern that relies on the world’s biggest and richest corporations for job growth (e.g. Google, Ball, etc.) and a housing development pattern that relies on the wealth from world’s richest individuals, who have no incentive to unfreeze unjust land use patterns to make room for the non-rich.
This dynamic thrusts most affordable and multifamily housing to the city’s outskirts and satellite towns, while prime locations are littered with inefficient, bloated, new single homes purchased by small, wealthy households, who tend to be older and have incomes that are decoupled from local economics.
Housing instability and homelessness, always prevalent in Boulder, increased while I was away, exacerbated by an active assault on Boulder’s lower and moderate income communities.
According to the Daily Camera, Boulder’s median home sales price was $1,557,500 in March 2021–up from $1 million just a year prior. These prices are against a 2019 city AMI (area median income) of $102,000 for a three person household. Without relying on government or family assistance, there is no way Boulder’s workers can afford to purchase Boulder’s homes.
To further illustrate this assault, consider a grassroots activist group called Bedrooms Are for People, which is fighting Boulder’s discriminatory occupancy limit laws that prohibit more than three unrelated people from sharing a home–even if that home has more than three bedrooms; even when the Boulder area has a massive affordable housing shortfall and “doubling up” is the simplest way to create affordable housing options, especially for people in need of last resort housing; even when this multiple-person household formation is far more environmentally and socially responsible than permitting more small-households of well-heeled, wealthy home-buyers, who are statistically responsible for the lion’s share of local and global greenhouse gas emissions.
Many longtime Boulder renters, shops, and restaurants I speak to seem to be struggling under the weight of inflation and escalating rents, driven by this arrival of wayward global capital looking for a pleasant place to set up shop.
Boulder was long-regarded as one of North America’s most walkable, bike-friendly towns. But now, formerly bike and pedestrian friendly streets and intersections are filled with aggressively-driven and environmentally ruinous SUVs, pickup trucks, and other large vehicles (including two ton plus EVs making trips to the pharmacy). Despite its robust bike infrastructure and manageable size, Boulder streets and parking lots teem with single-occupant driven vehicles, while the sidewalks, bike-paths, and bike racks are barren.
And Boulder’s Climate Action Plan is fantasy fiction that panders to the interests of cars and big gas and oil (the state plans to increase fracking by 86-percent over the next decade). Colorado’s efforts to reduce GHG emissions are tepid, incremental, unscientific and focus on a protracted transition from big infrastructure gas, oil, and coal power to big infrastructure renewables.
The state’s fires, forest infestations, and water shortages have been steadily growing in violence and magnitude in recent years, yet the state continues to focus on economic and land expansion instead of forbearance. There is glaring omission of limiting growth and/or changing land use–changes that, while controversial, are science based and would spur real climate results.
Boulder’s new building code, ostensibly environmentally-focused, only requires NetZero construction–likely what is considered the highest standard of building efficiency since there’s no mention of Passive House or carbon-capturing construction–on single-family homes over 3,000 square feet, a size and housing type that’s arguably inherently unsustainable and at a pricepoint that’s only relevant to multimillionaires in Boulder County (median listing price is $474/square feet, or $1.42M for a 3,000 square foot home).
Efficiency requirements are less stringent on smaller homes and multifamily properties because legislatures say they don’t cost-burden lower income homeowners with efficiency improvements. Given that the county isn’t offering to subsidize those upgrades and retrofits to help those lower income households, one can assume legislatures want to burden lower income Boulder residents with high bills, poor thermal comfort, and an induced contribution to the destruction of the earth’s environment.
I got to opine for almost an hour about the state’s reactions (or lack thereof) to poverty, affordability, worker protections, climate-preparedness, and housing regulation on the Climate Change Realty with Ethan Shapiro. I also talk about what I’d do differently.
While the conversation focuses on Boulder and Colorado, I see it as the story of our modern world, where the whims of the monied few–who can’t conceive of not getting what they want–chronically blot out the genuine needs of people and planet.
I’m hoping that by naming and calling things as they are, and through educating the public about practical alternatives to the status quo, humankind can take its first steps towards the global transformation needed to preserve life on earth for this generation and for generations to come.
The fate of the Colorado is deeply personal.
Before his passing in 2012, my father established himself as a force of nature in Boulder, state, and national climate activism. A great deal of his force powered the state’s blue-ward transition and my dad was very friendly with current governor Jared Polis, who liberally used my family’s living room and connections for Democratic fundraising. In fact, to my knowledge, Jared first announced his governor run in that same Friedlander-purchased living room.
The same stewardship holds true Boulder’s current U.S. Congressional representative, Joe Neguse, who was greatly aided by my dad and the liberal political conditions and community he created.
My dad would find both Jared and Joe’s efforts–i.e. an environmentally wayward and destructive growth plan and a laissez faire attitude to economic, social, and racial stratification–woefully insufficient given the magnitude of the problems. (Don’t get me started on Colorado’s private prisons, which have increased 84-percent in volume since 2019.)
To me and my dad, Boulder and Colorado’s insufficient response to climate and social injustice is amoral and must and should be stopped.
Whatever Boulder County or Colorado state thinks it’s doing to protect the states lands and the people who take care of it, I assure them it’s not enough and it’s not serious.
The Change Order Group is committed to solving the problems that need to be solved in the way they need to be solved. We recognize the need to address the concerns of status quo stakeholders, but have no interest in maintaining broken systems. Our utmost concern is the fastest path to economic and environmental salvation, which is not always the politically expedient and (immediately) financially lucrative path.
We are committed to building a world that works for everyone, not just for those who with millions of dollars. Our team of researchers, designers, marketeers, investment experts, planners, and architects have little interest in fixing or improving the status quo. We are out to transform it.
Whether it’s Boulder or one of the innumerable towns undergoing the same ill-conceived economic transformation, the Change Order Group wants to help. We not only bring the best solutions for myriad real estate-centered economic, social, and technical challenges, but the pathways and personnel for execution.
We are eager to work with municipalities, developers, investors, and community groups in developing technical and social playbooks for building a sustainable, just planet. Our services include:
- Master-planning, with strong focus on resilience, climate impacts, water, food, waste, energy, social, and economic systems.
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*Change Order Group, LLC is not a licensed architectural firm, but has licensed architects in New York and Washington States. We welcome collaborations with regional architects.