Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

Boulder and Bremen have been our two home towns for a little over a year now, and we are spending half our time in each.  Boulder is located on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, just northwest of Denver, and Bremen is located about 40 miles from the North Sea in Germany west of Hamburg and east of Amsterdam. They are both special places with very different histories.  Bremen’s history goes back over 1000 years as an independent city-state, except under the regimes of Napoleon and Hitler as the former popular mayor of Bremen Henning Scherf always liked to say in his speeches. Boulder on the other hand is celebrating its 150th year this year.  Bremen has always been a major trade center, and since the latter part of the 19th century it has been an industrial center as well (the second largest Mercedes plant in the world is there, along with a factory that makes major parts for the Airbus airplanes, and it has always built ships in its extensive harbor complex).  Boulder started out provisioning the miners in the gold rush of the 1850s and 60s when gold was found in the Boulder canyon (which comes right down to the city center today) and in the nearby hills.  Enterprising farms built up an agricultural base in Boulder and the University of Colorado was founded there in 1876, the same year Colorado became a state in the United States.  Today it is a thriving community of a little over 100,000 people with a mixture of university life (20,000 students), high tech industry, government research laboratories, and its original agricultural base.

One thing that has struck me about these two very different communities is the very strong sense of environmental activism and purpose which has been a part of both of their stories.  In Bremen the Green Party was founded in the 1970s, and they have played a role in the city-state government since then (currently they are part of a coalition government in Bremen).  They have also played an important role in national German politics.  Joschka Fischer, who was a Green party member from the early days and is now a former German Foreign Minister became, in the course of his career, one of the most admired German politicians today.  Boulder has been involved with its own awareness of environmental since the early part of the twentieth century.  Most significantly, it was the first community in the US to vote for a sales tax for the purchase of a greenbelt in 1967.  Today there is a greenbelt of 45,000 acres surrounding the city completely.  This is an area the size of Manhattan Island! 

When one drives into Boulder from any direction, one notices this Greenbelt, especially when driving in from highly populated Denver area on US 36.  In the Denver suburbs reaching out towards Boulder, one sees massive housing developments on all sides, but suddenly, it is peaceful and pastoral on the sides of the road and you know you are in the Greenbelt, and there is Boulder nestled down in the valley below surrounded by this wonderful  space of tranquility. It is quite unique.  Bremen is full of bicycles and has an ample supply of places to ride them.  It is one of the leaders in Germany in affording bicycle routes for its citizens, and most of them are not on the road, but run along alongside and independent of the pedestrian sidewalks and the lanes for the street cars, and the cars.  They make an effort to have all these transportation media (streetcar, car, bike, pedestrian) going parallel but not interfering with each other and, often with their own streetlight signals.  You can get all over the city easily on a bike.  It is similar in Boulder, with bike paths everywhere, but most are simply an extra small lane on a given street, and it is not nearly as protected from traffic as in Bremen.  On the other hand, Boulder has created an extensive “Greenway” hike and bike path which covers most of the city and is independent of the street system, with a system of tunnels along creek beds going under the major intersections.  It is especially delightful to ride along Boulder Creek with majestic trees and the creek gurgling along the rock and boulder bed as it takes the water from the mountains to the plains.

Both cities have often used the small traffic circle or a simple concrete barrier forcing a driver to slow down to make a curve around the obstacle to slow down traffic in various residential communities.  Again the environmentalists here have made their point, and one does slow down and one can appreciate the neighboring streets so much more than one would if one were to zoom through there in our normal hurried states.  Boulder and Bremen, two cities worlds apart, but with a lot of similarities.


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