A Local Perspective: Boulder Attracts International Attention for Open Space Program

December 7, 2009 - (4 min read)

by Matt Appelbaumm, councilmember, Boulder, Colo. 

The City of Boulder, Colo.,, like other progressive, university towns, is sometimes described as “25 square miles surrounded by reality.” A more accurate description, however, would be that Boulder is 18 square miles of urbanized city surrounded by 70 square miles of city-owned open space. Boulder’s remarkable Open Space Program is known worldwide, and was recently showcased at an international environmental conference in Japan.

In early November, the Japan Ecosystem Conservation Society held “The Conference on Local Governments’ Efforts for the Conservation of Biodiversity – A Key to a Sustainable and Robust City.” The focus of the conference was on building sustainable cities that coexist with nature and promote the protection of biodiversity, with a key goal of compelling Japanese politicians, particularly mayors, to better protect natural lands and their ecosystems.

Two foreign speakers were invited, myself representing the City of Boulder, and Hans Monninghoff, the deputy chief executive and director of economic and environmental affairs for the City of Hannover, Germany. My conference presentation described Boulder and the history of the Open Space Program, its ecosystems, biodiversity and many uses. 

Located at the edge of the Great Plains at an elevation of 5,400 feet and nestled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder is home to the flagship campus of the University of Colorado, several federal scientific and research laboratories, numerous high-tech companies and probably the largest concentration of atmospheric and climate scientists in the world.

Boulder has been protecting its surrounding lands since the late 1800s, initially by purchasing its “mountain backdrop” from the federal government. Following rapid population growth in the 1950s and ’60s, Boulder’s citizens voted for the first sales tax in the U.S. dedicated to the purchase of open space – defined as lands that will be kept permanently undeveloped and that are large enough to sustain natural ecosystems and the plant and animal life within. An agreement between the city and the county to keep Boulder a compact city surrounded by undeveloped land allowed for the acquisition of large amounts of private property thus creating the current open space system of more than 45,000 acres.

The open space system protects several critical plains and foothills ecosystems and a wide diversity of flora and fauna, some of it endangered. In fact, the Boulder area has the greatest biodiversity of any place in the non-coastal United States, including more than 700 species of trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses, and ferns. Open space is home to more than 250 species of birds including golden and bald eagles, and supports 60 mammal species including mountain lions, black bear, deer, fox, and the prairie dog colonies that provide the food and shelter for many of the other animals.

Some of our open space lands are leased for farming and cattle grazing, while other areas are available for recreation, including hiking, bird watching, rock climbing, mountain biking, and horse riding on more than 140 miles of trails, attracting more than 5 million people from throughout the region each year. And although the business community was initially quite wary of the program due to its cost and the removal of significant land from development, the presence/protection of this open space has long been acknowledged as a critical component of Boulder’s quality of life and “brand,” attracting well-educated entrepreneurs and contributing to the city’s economic vitality.

Although challenges remain, Boulder’s open space continues to be strongly supported by our citizens and is known worldwide as a premier example of environmental protection and preservation. As Boulder strives to make itself a more sustainable community, the Open Space Program demonstrates that people and nature can coexist in a successful and vibrant urban environment.

Details: For more information about Boulder’s Open Space Program, contact Councilmember Appelbaumm at appelbaumm@bouldercolorado.gov. For more information about NLC’s Sustainability Program, contact Tammy Zborel, senior program associate, at zborel@nlc.org


The National League of Cities (NLC) is the voice of America’s cities, towns and villages, representing more than 200 million people across the country. NLC works to strengthen local leadership, influence federal policy and drive innovative solutions. Stay connected with NLC on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.