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.
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
Denver will soon initiate a small-area planning process for the 155-acre property that includes the now-closed Park Hill Golf Club, and the developer that bought the property has agreed to participate.
“I want to reaffirm our commitment to honestly listening to the people who will bring this project to life and to a transparent and equitable dialogue,” says Kenneth Ho, the project lead at Westside Investment Partners, in a statement announcing the agreement. “We recognize that there is a higher bar for community benefits on this site, and we are committed to ensuring that the end result of this project reflects the values and needs of the community.”
The announcement comes two months after Denver City Council voted against referring a measure to the ballot that would have required voter approval for the city to lift any conservation easements, which limit development possibilities for the property. For decades, the Park Hill Golf Club has been under a conservation easement that largely prevents it from being used for anything other than a golf course, according to an analysis by city attorneys.
Save Open Space Denver is asking City Council to place the “Let Denver Vote” charter amendment on the November 3 ballot. The charter amendment would preserve open space by requiring a city-wide vote before any present or future city-owned conservation easement is cancelled or before there can be residential or commercial construction on land protected by such an easement. The charter amendment would protect the perpetual open space conservation easement on the Park Hill Golf Course land in the same way that the charter now protects designated park land.
What can you do? Urge Council to place the charter amendment on the November 3 ballot. The Council will consider the measure at its meetings on August 24. Please send an email (and ask at least five of your Denver friends, family members and neighbors to send emails) before August 24 to each Council member, either in your own words or by cutting and pasting the following suggested subject line and email text. The Council email addresses below can be copied and pasted as a group into the emails. If you have a personal connection with any City Council members, please consider both sending a personal email to them and sending the group email to the others.
Multimedia journalist, historian and community organizerBrother Jeff [Jeff Fard; brotherjeff.com]] has produced two recent videos in his online “Say It Loud” show featuring powerful interviews about the future of the Park Hill Golf Course land and its perpetual open space conservation easement.
In this most recent episode, Aug 4, Dr Calderon linked the homeless crisis to the inaction by Hancock and Herndon, using PHGC land issue and the charter amendment as a lens focusing on why this is a city-wide issue.
These Brother Jeff interview videos follow his November 2019 interview with Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca regarding the Park Hill Golf Course land.
You can find the videos of his interviews with Tony Pigford and Leslie Twarogowski using the following links:
Brother Jeff has also produced two in-depth and thought-provoking videos that chronicle his insights into gentrification while walking in and around two recent northeast Denver real estate development projects: (1) the Park Hill Commons and Fairfax Row development project on the east side of the 2800 block of Fairfax Street and (2) the Skyland Village development project on the old East Denver YMCA property at 3540 East 31st Avenue. Join Brother Jeff as he shares his experiences and observations about gentrification while touring these properties. We thank Brother Jeff Fard for allowing us to share these videos.