The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What happens when cities say no to growth

Housing costs skyrocket and shortages can negatively affect everything from education to diversity

Opponents of making it easier to build duplexes, triplexes and other “missing middle” housing in Montgomery County protest last year in Wheaton, Md. (Katherine Shaver /The Washington Post)
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A community group called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods successfully sued the University of California at Berkeley over its expansion plans, invoking the California Environmental Quality Act. Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods’ position is that students are driving up housing costs, displacing residents and degrading the environment. As a result, a judge ordered UC-Berkeley to reduce its head count by 3,050 students. On Thursday, the California Supreme Court refused to put that decision on hold, meaning that the university will probably need to reduce the number of students offered admission.

The Bay Area has not built enough housing to keep up with the growing population. But residents have resisted efforts to build more housing that might change the character of the neighborhood. In California — and elsewhere — similar dynamics have contributed to a housing shortage and affordability crisis that show no signs of abating.

This is not a new situation, particularly in western states. Starting in the 1960s, some cities used planning measures to curtail growth. “Californiacation,” was the name for growth gone awry — or, as singer Joni Mitchell lamented, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Other cities did not want to end up like Los Angeles, which had grown rapidly since the early 20th century. With larger populations came newcomers, sometimes immigrants and people of color, as well as fights over water, public access to nature and the construction of new infrastructure.

A notable example of a proactive approach came in Boulder, Colo., which voted in 1967 to install a protective “greenbelt” around the city edges. The city bought up its iconic mountain backdrop and swaths of land on its eastern edge to make a barrier meant to limit suburban sprawl and provide more recreational opportunities, all done in the name of environmentalism. Fifty-five years later, the results are twofold: The city has the most extensive urban trails in the country, but there has also been a meteoric rise in home prices. This history tells us that limits to growth often involve a loss of economic diversity. Conservation of nature is rarely about protecting the outdoors alone, but gets conflated with other social projects — as in Boulder’s case, a refusal to become an economically and racially diverse city.

The idea of the greenbelt was not native to the American environmental movement in the 1960s. In the late 19th century, Victorian-era London was a smog-filled, tightly packed nightmare. From this emerged the Garden City movement, which advocated for carefully planned towns outside of London with Arts and Crafts-style buildings.

Greenbelts were part of this movement. The concept was formalized with the publication of “To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform” in 1898 by the self-taught British urban planner Ebenezer Howard. He advocated for building new towns from scratch in the countryside with a maximum of 32,000 residents each. They would be designed as a series of concentric circles that separated farming, industry and housing, and connected by rail to other towns with picturesque green land in between settlements. The idea was not so much anti-urban, in the English Romantic tradition, as suburban. No one was going to get lost in the brambles of pure wilderness, they would just be closer to a nice picnic spot. It was also an escape mechanism for the middle classes, who were desperate to separate themselves physically and socially from urban workers.

In the 20 years after Howard published “To-morrow,” he created two garden cities with carefully selected residents. Most were middle-class intellectuals, accused of being eccentric by their rural neighbors due to their attire (sandals!) and community theater productions. Howard hoped that after these communities paid for land and construction costs, they would become something more than suburbs, with intensive local governance, cooperative industries and even the functions of mini-welfare states (old age and disability insurance). However, in a matter of years, garden cities became purely aesthetic (Arts and Crafts homes in leafy suburbs) without any social obligations. They were merely places for people with money to escape London, devoid of the Utopianism or community that Howard had imagined.

During the Depression in the 1930s, greenbelts were reborn as “big government” projects to address urgent housing needs in the United States. Rexford Tugwell, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” liberal economist for New Deal projects, helped to plan communities in Maryland, Ohio and Wisconsin. These towns started off with more economic inclusiveness than the London versions, but after World War II, they were consumed by surrounding suburbs. Their liberal mission to alleviate housing insecurity was caught up in a wider exodus from urban areas spurred by government-backed mortgages, cheap housing, subsidized highways and White flight.

The idea of greenbelt suburbs remained attractive to developers, although it often seemed to function more as a form of property boosterism than a unique planning blueprint.

Boulder in the 1960s was a college town that was quickly being discovered as a hub for technology companies. It was selected as a site for an IBM branch and hosted the National Institute of Standards as well as the National Center for Atmospheric Research. But job growth and popularity among outdoor enthusiasts were not universally well regarded by locals. They preferred to think of Boulder as a sleepy college town rather than a destination city.

In the late 1950s, a group of environmentally minded citizens had started the group PLAN-Boulder to address suburban sprawl and population growth. The group included college professors directly inspired by Howard and activists who had previously organized with the League of Women Voters. They first created a “blue line” of elevation on the Flatiron Mountains that prohibited delivery of municipal services to proposed homes climbing up the hillsides. This shrunk the number of dwellings permitted on the fringes of the city and helped build local support for Boulder enacting major growth restrictions in the future. PLAN-Boulder then set its sights higher and lobbied for a greenbelt, which was approved by a ballot initiative in 1967.

When work began on acquiring parcels for the greenbelt in 1968, it became clear that city officials not only wanted to protect against the endless suburban sprawl that they saw in places like Los Angeles, but also limit population altogether. Responding to books like Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” (1968) and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” (1962), Boulderites merged environmentalism with slow population growth. Many embraced the tenets of Ehrlich’s organization, “Zero Population Growth.”

In 1976, they passed the Danish Plan that limited housing permits to keep growth to 1.52 percent annually, while also controlling urban density through height limits (begun in 1971).

By making the construction of apartment buildings difficult, the city all but locked in sky-high real estate prices and an affordability crisis. Housing prices rose near new municipal land purchases, leading some members of the city council to warn against greenbelt-triggered real estate speculation. More broadly, home prices increased in Boulder at a far faster rate than the rest of Colorado, while the city’s population growth slowed considerably.

The effect has been the narrowing of the city’s population to a hyper elite, while essential workers live on the other side of the greenbelt. Boulder has protected its own nearby land for recreational use, but it hasn’t avoided suburban sprawl. Instead, Boulder has numerous satellite cities that leapfrogged over the greenbelt — forcing many people to drive across the open space twice daily when commuting for work.

Howard envisioned urban greenbelts as something enacted on a regional scale. But the state government in Colorado had no interest in consolidating suburban growth between the 1970s and the 1990s. Instead, a 150-mile mega strip of suburbs from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs was formed with insufficient care for preserving space, water resources or local agriculture.

Boulder’s experiment created a bucolic city with amazing recreational opportunities for the few who can afford to live there. Yet, without the densification of the city with apartments or a regional growth strategy, greenbelting turned out to be a highly selective form of population control. Instead of providing a truly public amenity, Boulder’s circular open space looks more like an emerald necklace, enjoyed only by those who can afford to live nearby.

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