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Monday February 6th 2023

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Does Dense Make Sense? Part 1. Population Growth Trends


Editor’s note:  PLAN-Boulder County has issued a report entitled Does Dense Make Sense? This is the first part in a six part series extracted from the report.

Colorado and Boulder County have a long history of continued growth.  Between 1970 and 2008, Colorado’s population grew 125%, outpacing the annual, national rate for 38 straight years.  Colorado is estimated to be among the top 20 states for job growth in 2010 and will see corresponding levels of population growth.  In fact, for the next 30 to 40 years, the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States are predicted to be in the western states along the mountain ranges — cities such as Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver.

Boulder is the densest city in the Rocky Mountain west for cities with populations greater than 50,000.

Boulder County has experienced a series of population booms, with the rate of growth peaking in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Table 1.  Boulder County Population Growth

Census Population Increase/Decade
1900 21,544
1910 30,330 40.8
1920 31,861 5.0
1930 32,456 1.9
1940 37,438 15.4
1950 48,296 29.0
1960 74,254 53.7
1970 131,889 77.6
1980 189,625 43.8
1990* 226.374 19.4
2000 271,651 20.0
Est. 2008 293,161 7.9

Projections for growth inside the city limits of Boulder (Area I) anticipate that Boulder will reach “buildout” in 2035 with a population of 119,400 based on current zoning.

Table 2.  Existing and Projected Housing Units, Population and Employment for the City of Boulder (Area I)

Existing 2010 Projected 2035 Projected Buildout
Housing Units 43,878 49,900 49,900
Population 103,600 119,400 119,400
Employment 96,800 116,000 160,800
Source:  City Staff updates.  Note: for Housing Units and Population, projections are based on the assumption that there will be 268 new units per year, which is the historical average(roughly a 1% population growth rate per year). For Employment, projections assume an average annual growth rate of 0.8%.

If Boulder County does in fact continue to grow, where will all this growth occur?  Some people would like to see increased densities inside the City of Boulder.  While areas inside the City of Boulder certainly have opportunities for commercial and residential redevelopment, it is interesting to note that with over 4,000 persons per square mile, the City of Boulder is already denser than Denver (3,940 persons per square mile) and is the densest community in the Rocky Mountain west among cities with more than 50,000 people.

Table 3. Density Comparisons of Towns and Cities in and near Boulder County

City Area (sq. mi.) Current Pop. Density (persons per sq. mi.) Projected Population (year) Projected Density (persons per sq. mi.)
Boulder (Area I) 25.48 103,600 4,066 119,400 (2035) 4,686
Denver 154.9 610,345 3,940 N/A N/A
Erie 48 18,150 378 25,650 (2015) 534
Lafayette 8.9 26,448 2,972 28,385 (2013) 3,189
Longmont 25.65 86,303 3,365 N/A N/A
Louisville 7.9 19,004 2,406 N/A N/A
Lyons 1.2 1,915 1,596 N/A N/A
Nederland 1.6 1,500 938 N/A N/A
Superior 4.25 12,500 2,941 17,000 (~2020) 4,000
Sources: Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan 2010 Trends Report, DRCOG, City of Boulder 2008 and 2009 Community Data Reports,

Boulder’s current population of 103,600 includes 29,000 University of Colorado students.  According to the University’s Flagship 2030, the student population could grow by another 8,140 students.

It is also interesting to compare the City of Boulder with other communities across the United States of similar size, student population and political/environmental orientation.  Cities such as Palo Alto, Fort Collins, Madison, Missoula, Boise, and Eugene all have much lower densities than Boulder does.  Ann Arbor’s density is approximately the same as Boulder’s.  The density figures listed below are night time figures, meaning the density that one would see at the end of normal commute hours.  The City of Boulder’s daytime density is higher during the day because the City experiences a net influx of about 40,000 people each day.  Boulder’s daytime density could be as high as 6,000 persons per square mile.

Table 4.  Density Comparison between the City of Boulder and Other Similar Communities

City Area (sq. miles) Current Population Density (persons per sq. mile)
Palo Alto, CA 25.98 60,171 2,316
Fort Collins 53.38 138,736 2,599
Madison, WI 84.7 235,626 2,781
Missoula, MT 23.9 68,202 2,854
Boise, ID 64 205,314 3,179
Eugene, OR 40.54 153,231 3,779
Boulder 25.48 103,600† 4,066
Ann Arbor, MI 27.7 112,852 4,074
†2010 population estimate, all others are 2009 population estimates
Stay tuned for Part 2.  Regional Transportation
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