City of Madison

Former City of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz

Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's Blog

Affordability & Sprawl

September 28, 2009 2:51 PM

I was in Boulder, Colorado for about 15 hours last week. I traveled there (at Boulder's expense; we are watching our travel budgets these days) to be part of a panel called "Separated at Birth: Experiences from Boulder's Like-Minded Communities." Like Madison in 2006, Boulder is celebrating its 150th birthday as a city this year and the panel discussion of representatives from Aspen, Portland, Santa Fe and Madison was part of the festivities.

Like Madison, Boulder's the home of a big university and a place with a lot of natural beauty. We have the lakes; they have the mountains. Like us they've had a long history of progressive government. Like us they love process. The audience laughed and groaned in empathy when I told them it took us 60 years to build our Frank Lloyd Wright inspired convention center.

It's a healthy and vibrant place, which I like a lot. But one thing that is very different about Boulder is their approach to how the city grows. For the last three and a half decades Boulder has limited its growth both up and out. The city has a 55 foot height limit on buildings all over the city (that's about five floors), and it is ringed by a necklace of green space that keeps the city itself hemmed in. Madison has a height limit of about twice that size for buildings within a mile of the Capitol Building to help preserve views of the dome. We have no peripheral growth boundaries as such although we are subject to boundary agreements we've negotiated with our neighbors and to urban service area amendments that must be granted by the Regional Planning Commission.

The combination of vertical and horizontal growth boundaries in Boulder has resulted in a significant affordability problem. Professors at the University of Colorado who were at the panel discussion told me that it's common now for professors to have to live far outside Boulder. Average house prices in Boulder are now around a half million dollars, twice the average price here in Madison.

In addition to driving away affordability, the greenbelt also seems to increase, not decrease, sprawl. Development leaps the greenbelt to places even further from the city center.

Like a lot of people who developed their environmental consciousness in the 1970's, I used to love the idea of greenbelts and height restrictions. But our ideas need to evolve with experience. Even before I was mayor I had reached the conclusion that the answer to sprawl is to build strong cities and to accept greater heights and densities within them so that people both want to live in cities and can afford to live in them. While I don't have a problem with our Capitol view preservation height limit, I generally view height limits and rigid growth boundaries as anti-urban polices that are, in the end, also not in the best interests of our natural environment. The solution to sprawl is good cities, not choked cities.


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