I’m just back from a trip to the USA, where I attended a workshop on future perspectives for Arctic air pollution research. While I originally intended to write about the workshop here, I’ve decided to postpone that article and want instead to write about my experience of the host city, Boulder, Colorado - a city with a multitude of sustainability initiatives.
Boulder is one of the happiest cities in the U.S. - and one of the most sustainable ones
Leaving the city’s stunning setting in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to one side for the moment, I have to say that Boulder is one of the most sustainable, locally driven and environmentally conscious communities I have ever observed. Also known as the ‘People’s Republic of Boulder’, this broad-minded town of around 100,000 inhabitants was a popular hippie destination back in the 1960s. With progressive policies, it has taken its own unique development path. Boulder was the first city in Colorado to ban smoking in bars but also pushed to legalise marijuana in the state. The city continually ranks highest for well-being and quality of life in the United States: it tops the poll for the 10 Happiest Cities (Moneywatch.bnet.com); is ranked No. 1 in America’s Top 25 Towns to Live Well (Forbes.com); and comes second in a list of cities ranked in order of how many people commute to and from work by bike (U.S. Census Bureau).
I left wondering how a community can gain such a reputation for environmental consciousness and decided to dig a bit deeper. First of all, the Boulder community epitomises the concept of ‘living locally’, which essentially means that the people of Boulder try to live, work, and play in their own backyard by supporting local business, practising sustainability, and being virtuous wardens of Boulder’s natural resources.
Fostering sustainability: Boulder is home to many green initiatives
While many cities around the world have designed action plans and strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental impacts, Boulder is one of the few that have made notable efforts to endorse a community’s vision for sustainability. This mission is being accomplished through government or non-profit programmes that strive to achieve important sustainability results and are mostly guided by a collaborative mindset, i.e., thinking in terms of ‘we’ and not ‘me’. Boulder County has itself adopted an Environmental Sustainability Plan to encourage more local participation in strategies to protect and conserve natural resources, reduce waste and pollution, promote healthy lifestyles and contribute to a healthier environment.
Here are just some examples of successfully implemented green initiatives that are widely supported by the community:
- BuildSmart is a green building programme for new residential construction introduced in early 2008 that sets mandatory requirements and optional recommendations to improve energy efficiency, conserve water and resources, and reduce waste generated by new construction projects.
- EnergySmartis a collaboration of the City of Boulder, Boulder County, the City of Longmont, utility partners and the US Department of Energy. The service provides technical assistance, information, resources, financing and rebates that make energy efficiency upgrades easier for businesses.
- 10 FOR CHANGE CHALLENGE is a free programme in which businesses commit to reducing their energy use by 10% per year. Member benefits range from energy efficiency assistance to business development and publicity. Member businesses also network and compare sustainability best practices.
- Boulder’s Water Conservation Program works with businesses to conserve water, both indoors and outdoors. The programme offers landscape consultations and rebates to help manage water use. The efficient use of water leads to lower water and energy bills and helps to support a sustainable community.
- PACE is a free programme in Boulder County committed to providing local businesses with technical assistance to improve their energy efficiency, waste management and water conservation. PACE is a partnership of local governments committed to creating an environmentally sustainable business community.
Renewable energy sources play an important role in Boulder's path towards sustainability
It is also worth mentioning that in 2006, Boulder introduced a ‘carbon tax’ on the use of electricity generated from fossil fuels, the first of its kind in the United States. The tax is levied on residential, commercial, and industrial energy users, and those who use less energy pay less. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are exempted from the tax. The carbon tax generates about USD 1.8 million each year, and these funds go toward implementing the Boulder Climate Action Plan. Proceeds also help to fund public education, energy audits, energy consultants who help residents and business owners identify energy inefficiencies, as well as investments in public transit and multi-use recreation trails. In this way, Boulder has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions and achieved one of the highest rates of installed solar capacity per capita in the country, according to a report produced by the city. Benefits like these have helped to cement public support for the carbon tax to the point that in 2012, 82% of voters chose to extend the tax programme for another five years.
Finally, I had the opportunity to talk with some of the charming and proud Boulder residents, all of whom stress that “no one owns Boulder”. That makes me think that the same applies on a global scale: we as society do not own the soil we walk and work on. It is just borrowed, and for that reason we should respect and nurture it. Once people become aware of this fact, we will then be able to function as a community like the People’s Republic of Boulder.
Kent E. Portney Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously: Economic Development, the Environment, and Quality of Life in American Cities, Volume 67, MIT 2003.
Photo: Campus of the University of Boulder, (c) istock/twilightproductions