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Earth Day: Tree Inequity in Denver

On this Earth Day let’s honor the great Denver Mayor Robert Speer.  Elected three times to lead Denver (1904-1912), he was an ardent supporter of the so-called City Beautiful Movement. 

Speer and other Denver leaders recognized the importance of trees, the evaporative cooling they provide as well as the beauty they bring to a city.  They sought to make Denver the Queen City of the Plains, an oasis amid the high altitude grasslands east of the Rockies.

Aside from the cottonwood trees that grow on the banks of the South Platte and local creeks, virtually every tree you see in Denver has been planted by someone.  Against the odds of a semi-arid climate, trees have been nurtured by humans in an area where, on their own, they would likely die.

The fact is many trees did die. Dutch Elm disease, lightning strikes and development over the years have all taken their toll.  The Park People have a great resource guide to help people in Denver understand what trees have the best chance of survival on our prairie.

The Park People, through their program Denver Digs Trees, recognizes our need for trees and this weekend volunteers will fan out across the city to plant more than a thousand new trees in 28 low income neighborhoods.  In neighborhoods in dire need of shade, it can cost as little as ten dollars. Watch for the 2023 sign up to be announced soon so you can jump on the tree bandwagon.  

Now, as Denver continues to grow and more concrete and asphalt is poured, the city’s tree canopy is woefully lacking.  While most Denverites live within a ten-minute walk of a park, trees shouldn’t be relegated to just parks.  Treelined streets will keep our homes cooler and make our city more beautiful.

Trees are not a magic bullet for combating climate change but they are a good start. There’s much to be done.

Let’s begin with downtown Denver where an estimated 1,800 trees cover about 4 percent of the area. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says Denver’s tree canopy ranks downtown at the bottom of the list of America’s 20 largest cities.

As the 16th Street Mall undergoes revisions, there are plans to add 400 to 500 trees at a cost of $9 million. You can’t just plunk trees in the ground here. Trees must have proper access to irrigated soil to survive. In the high-rise jungle of downtown, that’s expensive.

As Denver races against the climate change clock, The Union of Concerned Scientists says by 2050, the city will experience 20 to 35 days a year of 95 degree or hotter days. The City Forester’s Office says Denver is planting about 6,700 trees a year but that’s not near enough to reach a goal that would increase the citywide tree canopy from 13 percent to 20 percent.

Tree equity gaps exist in Denver.  A recent study by the Nature Conservancy says neighborhoods lacking tree canopy are 14 to 15 percent hotter than neighborhoods with trees and lawns. Sadly, many of those neighborhoods lacking trees are low-income neighborhoods like Globeville-Elyria Swansea.  Perhaps the worst example is Sun Valley where approximately 90 percent of the people live under the poverty line.  American Forests says Sun Valley’s tree coverage is a low 3 percent.  Compare that with West Highland with a tree canopy of 18% and only 12% of people living in poverty.  

Denver’s efforts on trees and green space could use improvement. Citywide, the Trust for Public Lands says just 8 percent of Denver’s 155 square miles is populated by parks.  That compares to 21 percent in New York City and 13 percent in Los Angeles.  There are initiatives to create more parks but mostly on a small scale. 

A voter-approved measure to require rooftop gardens on buildings was watered down by the Denver City Council and most new developments plant few trees and have little green space.  A 2006 vow by former Mayor John Hickenlooper to plant a million trees in Denver fizzled.  Only 225 thousand were planted.

The bottom line is that, like the past, it takes work to make the Denver the Queen City of the Plains.  It also takes commitment from its citizens to plant and maintain trees on right-of-ways and yards.  Trees cool our neighborhoods and help conserve energy.  They help keep the air healthy and reduce flooding and heat related illnesses.   

On this Earth Day, let’s pledge to make Denver cool and green again, for everyone.

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