March 28, 2006
Bobos and the New Urbanism
Posted by Victor Fleischer

As I mentioned yesterday, our new condo in Boulder will be in the Holiday Neighborhood, a development in North Boulder.  It's considered an example of New Urbanism design.   Some of the key features are:

1.  Sustainability.  It's a relatively high-density project, with both townhomes and multi-unit condo dwellings.  The idea is to cut down on suburban sprawl.

2.  Mixed-use.  The development includes not only residential space but retail space, and lofts for people working at home. 

3. Environmental-sensitivity.  The development uses "green" building materials and is designed with energy-efficiency in mind.

4. Pedestrian-friendly.  There are sidewalks, several "pocket" parks, and stores to walk to. 

5.  Affordable housing.  Some of the units are set aside for "affordable" (non-market rate) housing.  Some of the units are even "co-housing" units, where residents share community living areas like kitchens and laundry.  (On co-housing, see Mark Fenster's article.)

Unlike some other New Urbanism designs (think Seaside, Florida, which you saw in The Truman Show) the Holiday neighborhood is more loft-y in feel.  It's very "Boulder-Chic," as Miranda would say.430277_1

What I find interesting about the project is how it depends on a market demand for socially responsible policies.  This isn't corporate social responsibility for its own sake.  Nor is it top-down social engineering.  The project is working because consumers want the product.  (To be sure, some of the features may have been included to please local regulators.  As you might imagine, it's not easy to build in Boulder.)

Like the Prius, or Whole Foods, or Eco-Tourism, the new urbanism design creates a premium product.  It's the housing equivalent of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.   Conspicuous consumption you can feel good about.  But I'm not kidding myself -- notwithstanding the affordable housing set-asides, this project is more white-collar than blue.  The project succeeds only to the extent it satisfies upper-middle-class preferences.  (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)  The retail establishments include a coffee and dessert shop, a high-end pizza place, a health club, a bicycle shop, and, soon, a high-end restaurant and wine shop.  It's ground zero for Bobos in Paradise.

One thing that I've yet to figure out is whether the Bobo-branding of real estate will work in other locales.  Boulder Chic relies on simultaneous inputs of money and socially-liberal views, and Boulder has oodles of both.  One reason it may still work elsewhere, however, is that you don't have to be a true believer in each and every aspect to appreciate (and contribute to the consumer demand for) Bobo-branded products.  Some people shop at Whole Foods because it's organic; others shop there because they have high-quality salmon, or because it's trendy.  Miranda and I aren't really environmentalists, but we happen to like walking to things and buying local. 

Suburban sprawl is a social problem.  I wonder if we've overlooked a partial solution in the form of unmet demand for non-sprawling housing.  Maybe entrepreneurial developers elsewhere will cater to the high-end New Urbanism market.  Build it and the Bobos will come.   Or is it just a Boulder thing?   

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