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  • Writer's pictureClif Harald

Place-based Economic Development Case Study: Boulder, Colorado

Updated: Mar 29

This is the second of three posts about the place-based approach to economic development. The first post highlighted strategies used by communities in their place-based economic development programs, as well as a brief introduction to the idea of quality of place. This post features Boulder, Colorado as an example of a leading practitioner of the place-based approach.

Boulder, CO with University of Colorado and the Flatirons
Boulder, CO

Place-based economic development builds on the idea that each community has distinctive attributes that shape its economic vitality and resiliency. It embraces a whole community approach, prioritizing investments in infrastructure, open spaces, housing, businesses, arts, culture, and other qualities of a place valued by residents, workers, employers, and visitors.


Boulder, Colorado employs a variety of strategies and practices in its approach to place-based economic development. The city intentionally capitalizes on its unique characteristics and opportunities as it works to protect its quality of place, reinforce its economic vitality, and enhance its resiliency. Some of the community’s highest priority place-based economic development strategies are highlighted below.

Protecting Quality of Place 

Boulder recognizes the importance of the quality of its place to the desirability of the community as a place to live, work and recreate. The city invests in placemaking initiatives that preserve open spaces and natural areas, leverage infrastructure for connectivity and livability, create vibrant and walkable neighborhoods, support a diverse and innovative business ecosystem, promote outdoor recreation and bike- and pedestrian-friendly mobility, and celebrate culture and the arts.

Pioneering Growth Management

Boulder has pioneered smart growth management for decades. In 1967, residents approved the nation’s first sales tax to acquire land for permanently protected open space. The city implemented its original Residential Growth Management System in 1976, at the time an innovation in regulating residential growth. And today, Boulder is an early adopter of policies allowing higher residential density and occupancy rates in traditional single-family neighborhoods to enable more affordable housing.

Partnering on Education and Workforce Development

Boulder prioritizes education and professional development programs that sustain a highly educated citizenry and a skilled, productive and adaptable workforce. Leaders in public, private and nonprofit sectors partner with educational institutions such as the University of Colorado, area community colleges and public schools to ensure that degree and certificate programs, research initiatives, workforce training, internships, and apprenticeships align with industry and community needs.

Investing in Community Culture and the Arts

Boulder’s strong sense of community identity and connectivity is nurtured by a vibrant mix of cultural programs, arts offerings and food and beverage purveyors. From arts festivals and concerts to farmers markets and street fairs, ubiquitous cultural events celebrate local talent and creativity. The city is recognized as a top-ten “arts-vibrant” community for its local artists, galleries and museums, and recently doubled its public investment in the arts. After becoming famous when named “America’s Foodiest Town” by Bon Appetit, Boulder’s reputation leapt again when Michelin bestowed accolades on nine local restaurants.

Sustaining an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Boulder’s dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem emerged in the 1960’s and today supports a broad range of businesses across industries as diverse as technology and science to wellness and lifestyle. The ecosystem supports startups and small businesses through a network of accelerators and co-working spaces, VCs and other early-stage funders, training and mentorship programs, and meetups and networking events. The ecosystem fosters collaboration between businesses, research institutions, and investors to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship.

Prioritizing Existing Businesses

Boulder’s economic development efforts have always placed a higher priority on supporting existing businesses over recruiting new companies. The city proactively cultivates relationships with local businesses of all sizes and in all stages of development to understand their needs, address challenges, and facilitate their expansion. By supporting existing businesses, Boulder helps retain and grow local jobs and industries, while helping sustain the community’s economic prosperity and enhancing its resilience.

Supporting Industry Clusters

Boulder has identified and proactively nurtures industries that align with the city's workforce, infrastructure, educational, and financial assets. Key industry clusters include aerospace, biosciences, energy, natural foods, outdoor recreation, technology, and tourism. By supporting these clusters through targeted investments, workforce development programs, and infrastructure improvements, Boulder enhances the competitiveness and resilience of its economy while preserving its unique identity and character.

These strategies are representative of Boulder's investment in its whole community approach to place-based economic development. Other strategies are employed as well, all of which build upon the many distinctive attributes that shape Boulder’s economic vitality and resiliency. These investments collectively reinforce the quality of place that make Boulder such a desirable community in which to live, work and recreate.

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