Denver looks to tree-planting to help shade city as heat islands grow and new greenspace proves elusive

City forester laments “concrete is definitely getting poured faster than we are planting trees”

By Bruce Finley | | The Denver PostPUBLISHED: January 3, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. | UPDATED: January 3, 2021 at 9:10 a.m.73

Denver leaders who for two decades have backed densification, paving over greenspace with concrete and asphalt to accommodate more people in the city, now are turning to trees for relief from worsening heat islands that amplify climate warming.

But urban ecologists and city officials say trees alone won’t be enough to keep Denver habitable as temperatures increase. They urge a far more ambitious expansion of greenspace.

“And concrete is definitely getting poured faster than we are planting trees,” city forester Mike Swanson told The Denver Post.

Heat islands — dense urban areas that are much warmer than their surroundings — have widened, data shows, with Denver emerging as one of the nation’s most “impervious,” or paved-over, cities. Older neighborhoods where houses have yards may be more resilient, researchers have found, because compared with redeveloped parts of the city, these landscapes don’t radiate as much heat.


Facts Regarding Denver’s Need for Parks and Open Space

Revised 12-15-20

  • Denver’s population has increased from 498,402 in 1998 to estimated 734,135 in 2020, a 47 % increase.
  • “Excluding undeveloped area around DIA, 48% of Denver is now paved over or built up. This is up from 19% in the mid-1970s. Expected to 69% by 2040.”*
  • With only 8% of its land used for parks and recreation, Denver has fallen from 13th place in 2012 to 22nd place in 2020 in the Trust for Public Lands Park Score for America’s 100 largest cities. In comparison, the percentages of land used for parks and recreation in some other cities are: Washington, D.C.—24%; New York City—21%; San Francisco—21%; San Diego—19%; Portland, Oregon—18%; Boston—17%; Minneapolis—15%; Los Angeles—13%; Seattle—13% and Chicago—10%. According to the Trust for Public Lands, the 2020 national median percentage of land used for parks and recreation in America’s 100 largest cities is 15%.
  • “Park space per person in Denver has fallen to 8.9 acres per 1,000 residents, down from 9.4 acres per 1,000 residents in 2006 and 9.5 acres per 1,000 residents two decades ago — far below the national average of 13.1 acres per 1,000 residents, city data show. (By comparison, Portland offers 23 acres per 1,000 residents.) Denver officials project the acreage will decrease further to 7.3 acres per 1,000 residents as Denver’s population tops 857,000 before 2040.”*
  • “It would take at least 1,500 acres of new green space to stop the decline and hold steady at about 9 acres per 1,000 residents, and 3,000 new acres of parks to approach the national norm of 13.1 acres per 1,000 residents, city planners said.”*
  • “Since 2012, Denver has experienced more than 50 days a year with temperatures topping 90 degrees. A 2014 Climate Central analysis of National Weather Service data found that Denver has one of the nation’s most severe ‘heat island’ effects, with a 4.9-degree increase compared with the surrounding, and mostly treeless, high prairie.”*
  • Denver is ranked 10th worst out of 229 metropolitan areas for ozone pollution.** In 2019, the EPA downgraded Denver’s ozone rating from “moderate” to “serious.”
  • According to the Denver Parks and Recreation Department’s Game Plan for a Healthy City: “The science is clear, our planet is facing a global crisis attributed largely to human behavior that is changing climate patterns around the world…. Parks, recreation, and the urban forest are vital infrastructure to our city’s health. Trees and vegetation in our parks as well as along our parkways and streets help clean the air we breathe and provide shade that decreases the cooling load on our energy infrastructure during our hot months. Our parks and urban forests hold, clean, and infiltrate stormwater, decreasing the load on our storm sewer system.”

*Source: Bruce Finley, Denver Post, January 13, 2019; **Source: American Lung Association 2020 State of the Air report

A Short History of the Park Hill Golf Course Land

As one of Denver’s first real estate barons, George W. Clayton owned vast amounts of land when he died in the 1899 without any heirs. His estate was transferred to the George W. Clayton Trust (“the Trust”), and from 1899 to 1984 the City of Denver (“the City”) was the Trustee of the Trust. One of the many parcels of real estate was the farmland that later became the Park Hill Golf Course (“PHGC”) in 1930. The Trust still owns the beautiful Clayton Early Learning Campus on the northwest corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard. In 1984, Clayton Early Learning replaced the City as Trustee of the Trust.

In 1989, the Trust and the City talked about the possibility of having the City purchase the PHGC land. These discussions resulted in the City including $2 million in a 1989 bond issue earmarked for the City to purchase the land. Nothing then happened until 1997 when, during the Wellington Webb administration and after a few years of further discussions between the Trust and the City about the Trust’s financial needs, the Trust and the City reached an agreement with the City whereby the Trust forever relinquished its development rights for the PHGC land. In this agreement, the City paid the Trust $2 million in exchange for the Trust granting a perpetual open space conservation easement to the City protecting the PHGC land foever from development. This easement was granted pursuant to the Colorado conservation easement statute.

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Analysis of the Park Hill Golf Course Land Conservation Easement

Revised Dec 15 2020

The starting point for analyzing the Park Hill Golf Course (“PHGC”) land conservation easement is the Colorado Conservation Easement Statute, C.R.S. §38-30.5-101 et seq. The conservation easement states explicitly that it was created pursuant to this Colorado statute. Although Clayton Early Learning and its attorney Bruce James, during Clayton’s ownership of the land, and now Westside Investment Partners, Inc. have always wanted to try to diminish the legal effect of the conservation easement by calling it a “use agreement,” it is in fact a conservation easement created under and governed by this Colorado statute.

In relevant part, the statute defines a conservation easement as follows:

a right in the owner of the easement to prohibit or require a limitation upon…a land area…appropriate to the retaining or maintaining of such land…predominantly in a natural, scenic or open condition, or for wildlife habitat…or recreational…or other use or condition consistent with the protection of open land, environmental quality or life-sustaining ecological diversity…. C.R.S. §38-30.5-101.

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