Open Space, CU South and civil rights: A first step toward “Just Sustainability” in Boulder


Dear Council Candidates,

I thank you for having the courage and tenacity to run for Boulder City Council. The vast majority of you have received endorsements from one of two blocks of political campaign committees, the “environmental” block consisting of PLAN-Boulder and Forward Boulder, and the “Justice and Sustainability” block which includes groups like the Sierra Club and Boulder Progressives. As a long time Black resident of Boulder, I ask: Why would you pursue and accept the endorsement of PLAN-Boulder?

I have observed the fierce public debate regarding CU’s plans for its South Boulder property which include the construction of up to 1,100 units of badly needed affordable housing units. But I think most people are missing the fact that this is not simply an environmental issue. It’s also a racial and social equity issue which requires equitable planning.

The American Planning Association describes equitable planning projects as those that pursue “the triple-bottom-line outcomes of environment, equity, and economy.” This three-legged policy stool forms the very foundation of the concept of sustainability. Unfortunately, many Boulderites limit their definition of good policy mostly to impacts on land and animals and in the case of CU South specifically, of flooding.

Internationally renowned Urban Planning professor Julian Agyeman seeks to change this paradigm by asking activists and politicians to seek policy outcomes that achieve Just Sustainability. This framework adds two more legs to the three-legged Sustainability stool: Geographic Equity and Procedural Equity.

This requires us to extend our concept of “community” beyond the borders of Boulder. Such an approach would seem reasonable if people truly cared about the environment and President Biden’s liberal agenda, including fair housing.

A U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) webpage states that on its first days in office, the Biden administration “declared that the affirmatively furthering fair housing provision in the Fair Housing Act, ‘ . . . is not only a mandate to refrain from discrimination but a mandate to take actions that undo historic patterns of segregation and other types of discrimination and that afford access to long-denied opportunities.’”

The federal law, which was originally part of the 1964 Civil Right Acts, mandates the city “to do more than simply not discriminate; they must take meaningful actions to overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities.” In addition, Boulder must “determine who lacks access to opportunity and address any inequity among protected class groups” and “promote integration and reduce segregation.” This report is called the “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing.”

Boulder’s 2015 report mentions PLAN-Boulder as “a strong citizens lobby interested in land preservation” and that “over 45,000 acres within the City have been preserved as open space.” But, it also states that: “the two major implications” of the open space program “on housing choice have been a decrease in housing affordability and choice because of less available land and what is termed leap frog developmentin which in-commuters must travel farther—across open space from other communities—to access jobs and services in Boulder. Leap frog development adds transportation costs for those who must commute. It is estimated that 59,000 people commute to Boulder for work. According to a robust 2014 Housing Choice Survey, approximately half of in-commuters would choose to live in Boulder.”

In addition, the draft of the City of Boulder’s recently enacted Racial Equity Plan states that “Some ways the city government has strengthened and increased racial inequity include: Heigh[t] Restrictions . . . The Green Belt—Buying up the open space around Boulder in an effort to preserve nature creates restricted movement in and out of Boulder and drives up cost of housing due to limited residential parcels” as well as Zoning” and Gentrification . . . to preserve natural landscapes, without replacement of housing . . . ”

This is an open admission that the preservation of “open space” and other restrictions have an adverse effect on racial equity (the language was softened in the final version).

The policies, procedures and practices that the Save South Boulder (SSB) campaign and PLAN-Boulder insist upon solely in the name of environmental protection are not sustainable and they are unjust. In a city that a PLAN-Boulder co-chair recently called a “liberal bastion,” shouldn’t racial and social equity be considered in land use policy?

CU South will take hundreds of cars off the roads, provide affordable housing and do so in a socially just way by allowing a more diverse faculty and staff to teach a more diverse student population. This will lead to higher levels of regional geographic equity and do so in a procedurally equitable way. Building on vacant land (aka open space) surrounding our city would do the same. People need places to live near where they work and learn, not just places to walk their dogs and play Frisbee golf.

Please oppose SSB’s and PLAN-Boulder’s socially and racially exclusionary housing policy initiatives on CU South and city land. If SSB and PLAN-Boulder really cared about sustainability, not merely environmentalism, they would seek more balanced solutions to CU South and the myriad of other land use issues in Boulder.

A long time Black Boulder resident gave an interview to Boulder Weekly in an article titled “Black in Boulder: Boulder racism through the eyes of people of color.” She said, “I think generally speaking, people in Boulder pride themselves on being very liberal, very progressive. On top of that, they’re very well-off overall. I think that idea of liberalism sometimes blinds to the notion of where people in this community contribute to the perpetuation of white privilege or white supremacy—even if they aren’t of mind or heart a person who thinks that these other people are less than.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Tim Thomas/Boulder

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.