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  • Green Belt, White City:Race and the Natural Landscape in Boulder, Colorado
  • Abby Hickcox (bio)

Boulder, Colorado, is often lauded, and often praises itself, for its proximity to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, its outdoorsy, active lifestyle, and its high quality of life. A New York Times article boldly proclaimed that "if you're a bike-riding, cliff-rappelling, latte-loving, eco-certified boho tycoon, there is heaven on Earth—and it's called Boulder."1 Originally a gateway to smaller mining towns, Boulder is located at the point where the long, flat prairies and plains stretching west from the Mississippi River are suddenly vaulted into the sky, just twenty miles from the Continental Divide. Walking west from neighborhoods on the western edge of the city of Boulder brings a challenging change in elevation, from the once treeless prairie to a hilly and cliff-accented forest full of ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, mule deer, bears, mountain lions, peregrine falcons, and hundreds of miles of trails. Very few houses are perched on the foothills because construction was prevented by the city's century-long history of environmental conservation.

In addition to wildlife on the trails, one finds Boulder residents hiking, trail running, loaded with climbing gear, or astride a mountain bike. One thing the hikers, bikers, climbers, skiers, picnickers, and swimmers have in common is that, if prompted, most will praise the beauty of the landscape, the enjoyment of fresh air, and the great opportunities for exercise and enjoyment provided by Boulder's conservation landscape. The symbol commonly used to represent [End Page 236] Boulder is the profile of the Flatirons, the huge orange-brown rocks that tower above the city.

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Figure 1.

Historic postcard of the Flatirons, overlooking Boulder.

Not only do the Flatirons dominate the view from the city, they also represent the city's orientation to the swath of green in which they are nestled. Planners and residents of Boulder appear to have an affinity for all things characterized as green, "eco," hippie, environmentally progressive, organic, outdoorsy, athletic, or healthy. This characterization is expressed explicitly in local newspaper, magazine, and radio advertisements. It is visible in the number of outdoor-gear stores and environmentally themed boutique store-fronts in Boulder's downtown. It is expressed less explicitly in residents' everyday conversations, including those overheard in locally owned, Italian-themed, bicycle-decorated coffee shops in which avid rock climbers one-up each other with name-dropping matches.2

Those who live in or visit Boulder cannot help but notice not only the high quality of life but also the high cost of living, which results in an above-average concentration of residents with high incomes or healthy trust funds. The average household income in the City of Boulder in 2000, for example, was over seventy thousand dollars, more than twice the national average.3 Paired with the startling number of wealthy residents is the much-remarked-on majority of white residents and a relatively small number of racial or ethnic minorities. It is not uncommon to hear residents and visitors comment on how "white" Boulder is or on how few black people one sees on the street. In addition, some African American residents express feelings of isolation and special attention in public places in Boulder.4 These [End Page 237] perceptions of Boulder's natural beauty, high quality of life, and wealthy, white population are linked in subtle and complex ways in both residents' geographic imaginary and the city's history.

In this essay, I look at how Boulder has come to be seen as so green and so white. I draw on preliminary field research, including surveys, interviews, and participant observation, as well as personal experience living in Boulder and conversations with Boulder residents about my research.5 I use both ideological and discursive analyses of landscape to sketch a view of the natural landscape as an agent of history and ideology in Boulder. The idea of landscape creates a conceptual space in which to trace the articulations of the social and material worlds, so it has the potential to bring together representational, metaphorical, social, material, and embodied realms. Recent...


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