Gulf between haves and have-nots is widening – even in idyllic Boulder

The attractive Colorado city’s green belt is under pressure as property prices soar

Boulder, Colorado, where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains, is considered one of the best places to live in the US. Photograph: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The American city of Boulder, sitting where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains, regularly features amongst the happiest, brainiest, healthiest, foodiest and friendliest places to live in the United States.

Known 20 years ago as a sleepy college town popular with rock-climbers, the city’s 300-plus days of sunshine a year, 300 miles of bicycle paths and proximity to the Rockies – you can drive 30 minutes in a car from here and find yourself at the bottom of a ski lift – has attracted more and more migrants.

Boulder has a population of about 100,000, including 60,000 students at the University of Colorado, who set a solid foundation for the rapidly growing local economy. The city swells to about 150,000 every day with commuters from Denver, just 30 minutes away by car, and surrounding areas.

Filled with coffee houses and yoga studios, Boulder’s laid- back atmosphere and diverse culture has made it a magnet for sporty types, high-tech and highly-skilled entrepreneurs, and eco-friendly foodies. The city is likely to become even happier in the coming months when recreational marijuana stores open following Colorado’s legislation of the drug for general purchases on January 1st.


Off leash
The city is also dog-lover heaven, with a popular off-leash policy; one-in-three residents own a dog. Organic restaurants serving artisanal cooking and local food dominate the streets. Colm O'Neill, a member of Cork's 1990 All-Ireland Senior Football winning team, owns a popular Irish pub here.

Boulder ranked ninth in the best-performing city in the US last month in a listing by California-based economic think tank, the Milken Institute – six places higher than in the previous year’s listing.

The city boasts the highest number of PhDs in the US. On Thursday night a guy on Pearl Street, the hub of Boulder’s nightlife, was, for a few dollars, offering passers-by the chance to look at Jupiter and its moons through his telescope.

Politically, many of the city’s residents sit far to the left in the political constellation. People considered right wing in Boulder would be regarded as progressive liberals if teleported to another part of the country.

"Noam Chomsky for mayor!" said local journalist and publisher Bob Wells. "We are far enough from the centres of power that we are able to indulge in idealism and uncompromising values."

But even this cool idyll cannot escape the gulf between the haves and have-nots that is widening across the US as the middle class disappears in the gulf between rich and poor.

This gap is becoming pronounced in Boulder as one attractive feature of the city has put the lower-paid – teachers, emergency workers and service industry staff – at a deepening disadvantage.

In 1967, concerned that a doubling in population would create ugly urban sprawl beyond its pristine mountainous boundary, Boulder’s council created an “open space” policy preserving 45,000 acres of surrounding land. A one-cent sales tax increase covered the cost and helped rebuild thoroughfares.

The policy worked, turning the city into a hub for climbers and bikers, and has maintained Boulder’s postcard-perfect streets. But, more recently, it has raised property values to record levels and the cost of living. A once relatively classless town has become more class-tiered with the influx of the affluent, trust- funders and baby-boomers with new inheritances and retirement nest eggs. The beaten-up Subarus of once bohemian Boulder have been replaced by spanking new Cadillac Escalade SUVs.

Boulder withstood much of the pain of the US housing collapse that accompanied the great recession of 2008-2009 and has recorded a recovery in property prices that outstrips many parts of the US.

Property recovery
The city was last year among the top 20 areas leading the property market recovery, taking 14th spot in a ranking compiled by property tracker RealtyTrac. Boulder's property prices have risen 40 per cent from the bottom in 2009, compared with a US average of 19 per cent.

In the same period, Colorado’s minimum wage has risen just 10 per cent to $8 (€5.84) an hour. The low number of new apartments and houses being built and quick second-hand property sales has pushed property values even higher.

A recent two-day brainstorming session by the city’s council put housing strategy as one of the top priorities facing Boulder as they figure out a way to make the most of the limited land left to live on.

Among the proposals being considered is a relaxation on land use, including lifting a restriction on the number of unrelated people who can live in a house from three and a measure to allow people to rent out a renovated second property next to their homes, such as a carriage house. The council is also looking at co-operative housing so that low-income workers can afford to live in Boulder.

This might lead to a larger population and an increase in anti-social problems – more litter, more traffic, more noise, etc – but this is the downside of Boulder’s “better to fill in than spread out” spatial strategy to maintain the beautiful surroundings that have made this western American city such a happy place to live. The alternative might be more damaging to the city’s treasured liberal heartbeat.

"You just cannot have a stable society where you have such a split between the rich and the poor," said city council member Lisa Morzel. "You need a middle class for stability."