Boulder, Colorado, USA


Boulder, city of the Prius.  Where gluten freedom is a right, unlimited energy use is not, and the compost bin is just on your right please, thanks.

Why Boulder?  What is it about this little city that makes it so different from most American cities?  Is it the stark mountain setting?  A strange coincidence?  Something that can be measured in statistics?  Let’s explore.


The median age in Boulder is 29 (compared with 35 for the rest of the United States), certainly due in part to the large university presence–Colorado University at Boulder occupies 689 acres within city limits[1].  97.6% of residents consider themselves of one race, and 88.33% are white.[2]  And things get even more interesting beyond measurable demographics.  A Gallup poll named Boulder the happiest, healthiest city in America,[3] and there is no question that an alternative-crunchy-yuppie-hippie culture reigns strong.  It’s like all the Earth lovers who were tired of being misfits all got together and founded a place where Earth love is the norm.  Really, it would be great if there were some way of expressing that in academic jargon and numbers.

Because of Boulder’s high concentration of people who care about the environment (no census statistics on that, sorry), two distinct issues arise in evaluating sustainability initiatives.  The first is that there is just so much going on, and the second is the lack of any overarching authority on the matter because the importance of “sustainability” is an unquestioned motive in all areas of development.  It may be important to note that most of the entities directly involved in greening initiatives describe themselves as bodies for environmental conservation and do not have the word “sustainability” in their mission statements.  Equally important is the city’s stated value of citizen participation in decision-making to shape the future.  A huge amount of work is put into encouraging votes on matters of sustainability and explaining issues clearly and thoroughly.


Boulder County is located in north-central Colorado between Denver and Fort collins and comprises ten cities and towns as well as a number of unincorporated communities.  The county government has in place a comprehensive sustainability initiative whose mission is “[t]o ensure that Boulder County’s operations and decision-making processes reflect our deep commitment to Environmental, Social and Economic sustainability and to build partnerships to help make the broader community more sustainable.[4]”  Programs and services are divided into the following categories:

  • Building & Housing
  • Community Wellbeing
  • Ecosystems
  • Energy & Climate
  • Food & Agriculture
  • Mountain Sustainability
  • Transportation
  • Zero Waste & Resource Conservation

While the county’s official sustainability plan is not due out until August 2012, current programs include land use legislation and a rebates and incentives program for water, energy, and hybrid vehicles.  Boulder County’s sustainability initiatives are important to take into account in an evaluation of the City of Boulder because of the interplay between the two.  County legislation affects individual municipalities, dictates to a degree what the areas surrounding the City of Boulder look like, and may levy taxes or provide funding for city projects.  Most notable is the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan, which is a joint venture between Boulder County and the City of Boulder to promote sustainability.  The plan breaks down sustainability along the same basic lines as the county program definitions (above) and outlines how the county and city will act to promote sustainability in each of these areas[5].

Within the City of Boulder itself, the bulk of the on-the-ground work towards sustainability happens through government partnerships with existing lay-led organizations.  Most of this work is overseen by the Local Environmental Action Division (LEAD), which is a branch of the city office of community planning and sustainability.  A five-member Environmental Advisory Board (EAB) appointed by the City Council advises council and staff on various issues and reviews decisions that may affect the environment.  Members serve for five years.  If you think Boulderites love acronyms, you haven’t seen anything yet.


Most of the work that makes Boulder “green” takes place under the umbrella of environmental protection.  Focus areas are:

  • Energy & Climate
  • Recycling & Composting
  • Water Conservation
  • Green Building Program

Eco-Cycle and the Center for ReSource Conservation are two key organizations that carry out a lot of the work to bring the city’s goals towards reality.  They were both founded in the 1970s by independent citizens and later joined forces with the city in various ways.  The organizations are non-profit and partially funded by the city.  More on their work shortly!


Despite everything written above, the city overnment actually does do some very important things for conservation and sustainability.  Examples follow:

Boulder is one of just a few cities in the United States to have a greenbelt.  In 1967, Citizens voted to raise local sales tax in order to pay for the purchase of green space surrounding the city.  The greenbelt prevents sprawl, increases biodiversity, provides space for recreation and protected farmland.  As of 1998, Boulder had used $116 million to purchase 33,000 acres of green space.[6]  The effort is written into the City Charter and is maintained by the Open Space and Mountain Parks division of the city government.[7]

In addition to its greenbelt, Boulder maintains a greenways system along its rivers and streams.  Initially designed to protect water quality and biodiversity along Boulder Creek, the system now comprises recreational trails along all of Boulder’s waterways, and efforts are being made to connect trails and create more leeway within the city for walking and biking.  The greenways are the responsibility of the Boulder department of water conservation.[8]

Perhaps one of the strongest points in Boulder’s favor is that it does not have a municipal garbage collection system.  The city contracts out to private companies that charge citizens directly for collection.  While the city has some measure of control over what goes on, it does not subsidize trash collection and therefore does not encourage the wanton disposal of unwanted items.  The city has adopted a Zero Waste Master Plan and hopes to reduce its landfill contributions to almost nothing by the year 2050.  The non-subsidy of trash collection combined with an active push towards other forms of waste management (reduced consumption, reuse, and recycling), make that goal slightly less far-fetched than it sounds.

Boulder residents began recycling in 1976 when Eco-Cycle began picking up curbside in old yellow schoolbuses.  The city took over the operation 13 years later in 1989 and now works actively with the organization to run recycling plants, including the Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM).  As of 2006 the city was working to retrofit the main recycling plant to handle single-stream recycling, which would allow residents to put all recyclable materials in the same bin without sorting.

Perhaps the most incredible thing happening in Boulder right now is the energy proposal underway.  The city adopted a Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2006 to reduce emissions and took on a CAP tax designed to help with implementation costs.  City officials are now toying very seriously with the idea of creating a local power utility in order to gain a degree of autonomy over electricity sources and use.[9]


As mentioned above, Eco-Cycle is a vital part of Boulder’s recycling program.  In addition to maintaining the ChaRM, the organization does outreach, education, and consulting.  Eco-Cycle actively promotes a Zero Waste philosophy and puts structures in place to help Boulder citizens live as close to that ideal as possible.

The Center for ReSource Conservation divides its efforts into three sectors: water conservation, energy conservation, and waste management.  Water conservation focuses primarily on less water-intensive landscape design, but the group offers free indoor audits as well as installation of more efficient showerheads.  The energy conservation branch offers free energy audits and consultations on ways for homeowers to use less to power their homes, such as recommending EnergyStar products.  The less-mainstream piece of the Center’s work is its efforts towards reuse.  They run a ReSource yard in Boulder that collects and resells construction materials and they just started a woodworks store that sells furniture made from reclaimed materials.


Boulder offers a wealth of sustainability initiatives–those mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg–and the platform on which they occur is especially important.  One of the most important reasons for Boulder’s success in its efforts is that they are not, for the most part, top-down.  The city has done a very good job of creating relationships and partnerships with grassroots organizations, and those very entities now do its bidding.  Where city officials do seek to implement measures from the legislative level, they put an enormous effort into including citizens in the process through hearings and votes.  How much diversity (or lack thereof) plays into the picture is difficult to quantify, but it would be nice to think that some of Boulder’s tactics and magic can be replicated in larger and more diverse cities.


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