May 1, 2023

Editorial: Coordinated growth strategy needed as region’s population barrels toward 1.6 million

Imagine that you are expecting a wave of extended family members planning to move into your home. You have plenty of notice, with time to figure out how to house and feed them. You have time to plan for transportation, health care and recreation.

But you opt not to plan, and instead are beset by a wealth of problems.

That’s what we face in Northern Colorado, with hundreds of thousands of new residents heading our way.

It’s a pretty staggering statistic: While Colorado overall added only 28,629 new residents in 2022 compared with the prior year, Larimer and Weld counties together added 14,430, reflecting half of the net gain for the state.

And growth in Northern Colorado has only just begun, spurred by less-expensive housing, a diverse economy and high quality of life. The two counties are projected to reach a combined 1.1 million residents by 2050, up from 717,000.

Add in Broomfield, which could reach 128,000 residents, and slower-growth Boulder County, with a projected 2050 population of 391,891, and the four counties of the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado could reach a combined population of 1.6 million in just 2½ decades.

We’re not ready.

From transportation to affordable housing, homelessness to urban sprawl, water to health care, the four counties face enormous challenges in accommodating the growth that is to come.

While regional cooperation is bringing much-needed improvements to Interstate 25, and with coordination through the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization, the challenges will only become greater.

How will we handle increased traffic along U.S. Highway 34 between Loveland and Greeley? What can be done to ease even existing congestion on other east-west roads between I-25 and U.S. Highway 85? What’s next for I-25, with a wave of new commercial developments likely to cause backups almost as soon as the current improvements are completed?

Regional transit options will become critical components to serve commuters among three dozen or so communities.

Would-be home buyers who can ill afford Boulder increasingly will shift to Broomfield, Larimer or Weld counties, potentially adding to commuting congestion. How can these counties and municipalities coordinate efforts to build affordable housing?

Health care — an industry that has grown in recent years — will continue to expand to serve growing populations, but where is the coordination among health systems to avoid redundancy in facilities and services?

How will Northern Colorado protect its water resources from thirsty neighbors such as Aurora and Thornton? 

Homelessness affects an increasing number of communities in the region, but too much focus is placed on communities such as Boulder or Fort Collins, when a regional approach to the problem is warranted.

And those aforementioned three dozen or so communities? It makes little sense for every one to grow exponentially, creating problems with sprawl, traffic and loss of farmland, as well as duplication of governmental services.

Regional cooperation between Larimer and Weld counties does exist in economic development through the Northern Colorado Regional Economic Development Initiative, or NoCo REDI, which helps coordinate eco-devo strategies.

Other examples include efforts to attract, build and retain a talented workforce.

Let’s use such efforts as a model for managing and accommodating the growth that’s already underway, and prepare for the new residents to come.

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