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Claudia Hanson Thiem, Columnist.
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You wouldn’t know it from our political discourse, but Boulder is a shrinking city. At least, that’s the story from the U.S. Census Bureau, which last week released estimates showing a third consecutive year of population decline (dailycamera.com/2020/05/20/census-data-boulders-population-declines-for-third-straight-year/). In normal times, this would be reason enough to pause. In the absence of growth, what do the constant demands for development moratoria and population caps really mean? But declining numbers are even more concerning as Boulder weathers the absence of many students, commuters, and visitors — key parts of the city’s social and economic fabric. Because the same politics and policies that have so effectively controlled resident population have left the city particularly vulnerable to this second, unprecedented loss.

Claudia Hanson Thiem, Columnist.

Let’s have a closer look at the numbers. Census Bureau estimates put the City of Boulder’s 2019 population at 105,673, down nearly 1,500 from a peak in 2016. And while the long-term trend has been upward, population growth in the last two decades has averaged less than 1% per year. Boulder’s housing supply has also grown slowly, with the city granting permits for just short of 3,600 new units from 2010 to 2018. That’s well below the longstanding 1% annual growth limit, even when permanently affordable units — which are exempted from the cap — are included.

This is hardly a picture of unrestrained growth. Instead, news of population loss in the desirable core of a thriving regional economy should raise a very different issue. Even before the pandemic, Boulder was being hollowed out.

The census estimates join other indicators — falling school enrollments, increasing average ages, and rising median incomes, among others — that paint a picture of declining demographic diversity. Most notably, fewer people spread across more housing units suggests the absence of children and young families. It’s a logical outcome of rising housing costs — which make high incomes or accumulated wealth a condition of entry — and the dearth of smaller homes for empty-nesters, retirees and childless households. But it also means a decline in neighborhood vitality, reduced economic activity and a lot of empty bedrooms.

Population losses are also bad news given Boulder’s well-known jobs-housing imbalance, which already results in some 60,000 nonresidents commuting into the city for work. Local anti-development voices may have exaggerated population gain, but recent employment growth is very much real. Here, diverging numbers are a reminder that Boulder has become a daytime city, with thousands of 9 to 5 residents and a servant class that return to homes elsewhere. Rather than integrating these workers into the community, the city has chosen to pay a steep price for their guaranteed exit. Excess pavement, traffic congestion and after-hours dead-zones epitomize the hollow city.

For years, Boulder’s political establishment has insisted that the solution to these problems is not to house more people within city limits, but to choke the jobs machine. To reduce the draw of the core — whether to commuters, students or tourists — in the hopes that what (and who) remains might re-form a complete and comfortable community.

I’ve always found that approach stifling and exclusionary. And after the virtual suspension of Boulder’s office and service economies, it looks even worse. The impacts of distancing prove just how much of the Boulder good life depends on the presence — and spending — of people long kept at arm’s-length. With the timeline for their return uncertain, the sales-tax dependent city faces a staggering budget shortfall. And many after-hours dead zones now feel deserted by day.

If concerns about local population growth were exaggerated before the current crisis, they’ll feel even more cynical in a newly empty city. So let’s finally retire that distracting rhetoric and focus instead on what makes places resilient and vital.

It has always been the people.

And now is the time to invite them back. Not as commuters or visitors, but as full-time residents.

Let’s rebuild a local economy that is less exploitative of outsiders. Let’s make it easier to construct modest housing; to accommodate economic and household diversity in single-family neighborhoods; and to develop the walkable, mixed-use landscapes that reduce traffic and parking needs. And let’s invest more in a rich public sphere, with space to circulate and be sociable without excessive crowding.

Advocating for more people in Boulder is, of course, a heresy. But a larger resident population was in fact part of the original greenbelt city plan. The architects of Boulder’s growth boundary and height limit anticipated 130,000 inhabitants by 1990 — a number that subsequent policies and political resistance have deferred until 2040. These missing residents would have lived in a five-story downtown core and surrounding compact neighborhoods — the human-scaled landscape of ADUs, plexes and small apartment buildings that aggressive downzoning has since stymied.

So as Boulder responds to the double blow of population loss — the slow bleed of youth and the sudden departure of our daily guests — it might be helpful to recall that portion of the 1970s dream. It wasn’t scary then, and it shouldn’t be today. More residents might be just what’s needed to restore life from within.

Claudia Hanson Thiem, thiem.claudia@gmail.com

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