Denver Wants to Fix a Legacy of Environmental Racism
DENVER — In most American cities, white residents live near parks, trees and baseball fields, while communities of color are left with concrete and the heat that comes with it. Now, in a push that could provide a road map for other cities, officials in Denver are working to rectify that historical inequity.
The effort, one of a handful around the country, has been bolstered by an environmental tax that added tens of millions of dollars to the city budget. It involves purchasing land for new parks, repairing derelict playgrounds, adding recreation centers and planting trees in areas where shade is sparse.
Correcting decades of discriminatory municipal planning is especially important as climate change heats up American cities. Adding green space, researchers have found, can help residents cope with rising heat and brings all sorts of side benefits, like filtering air pollution or boosting residents’ mental health.
“Trees are a lifesaving device in cities, especially in a warming climate,” said Jad Daley, president of American Forests, a nonprofit conservation group. “It’s a moral imperative that every neighborhood has them.”
So far, though, Denver’s efforts have shown that undoing decades of historical injustice, even when city officials and residents agree in principle on the value of parks, isn’t as simple as buying up empty lots and planting trees.
That’s because, in part, many residents of historically disadvantaged areas in north Denver worry that better parks and more trees will lead to a kind of “green gentrification,” attracting wealthier families and pricing current residents out of their homes.
Already, in the last decade, property prices have doubled in the city as newcomers have flocked in, drawn by a real estate market that is, for now, still more affordable than in big coastal cities.
“It’s always just felt more like it’s a whole front,” said Alfonso Espino, a community activist and lifelong Denver resident, speaking of the city’s parks initiative. “Not for us, you know. It’s for the people that are coming.”
Growing up, Mr. Espino said, his part of Denver, north of the downtown area, felt like “another city altogether.”
In many ways, it was a different world. Lenders redlined portions of the area in the 1930s, marking them as risky investments because residents were Black or immigrants. Then, in the 1960s, the construction of Interstates 25 and 70 cut off his area and two other neighborhoods from the rest of the city. The neighborhood is roughly five degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the average citywide temperature, because heavily developed areas radiate more of the sun’s energy than natural landscapes.
In north Denver, parks are often postage-stamp parcels bordered by train tracks and busy roads, where visitors can hear the rumble of dump trucks and semi rigs passing by and smell their exhaust. Some streets don’t have sidewalks, making it more difficult for people to access the parks that do exist.
Now, new developments are creeping north toward the area, complete with high-end natural food stores and luxury condominiums. Mr. Espino, who works for the Globeville Elyria-Swansea Coalition, a neighborhood group that, among other causes, campaigns against gentrification, said he believed higher real estate values would serve the city’s interests, allowing it to reap more money in property taxes.
Candi CdeBaca, a councilwoman who represents downtown Denver and the northern Latino area where she lives, was more blunt. “Every opportunity that Denver has to earn or build trust with the community, they then squander it,” she said. “I don’t think that we’re on the right path to greening the area.”
City officials, for their part, acknowledged the tough questions around the issue and that the city’s efforts were sometimes seen as catering to the city’s new, wealthy and white residents.
“They’ve been neglected for so long,” said Scott Gilmore, the city’s deputy manager of parks, said of the northern neighborhoods. “They’ve been the dumping grounds for the city, and in the past 10 to 25 years, everyone comes in and wants to fix it.”
“I want to build beautiful parks for all our residents,” Mr. Gilmore said. “So am I supposed to say, ‘We shouldn’t improve that park in that low income area because it could gentrify’? Is that right? Do lower socioeconomic neighborhoods or communities of color not deserve parks as nice as Wash Park?”
Washington Park, in south central Denver, covers 165 acres and has lakes, tennis courts and large flower gardens, ringed by a two-mile gravel trail.
A big source of misunderstanding, Mr. Gilmore said, is that park projects can take up to 10 years from the early planning stages to completion. In a fast-growing city like Denver, a lot of things can shift in that decade.
“By the time we get something in motion, a neighborhood could be changing right in front of our eyes,” he said.
The city’s priorities in 2019 — the first year of budgeting funds from the environmental tax, a 0.25 percent sales tax increase that goes toward the city’s park budget — might, however, have reinforced the perception that officials favor rich areas.
That year, the city allocated $1 million of the new tax money for saplings along the 16th Street Mall, the city’s downtown business district, with no funds for poorer neighborhoods with sparse canopies. By the end of 2020, the city will have allocated six times more for trees in downtown areas than in residential zones.
“They mentioned the word equity, but it’s not saying, ‘At least 50 percent of the money, it needs to go to neighborhoods that meet parameters, A, B and C,’” said Alessandro Rigolon, an assistant professor of city planning at the University of Utah, speaking of Denver’s budget.
Without those benchmarks, Dr. Rigolon said, funding often goes to wealthy white homeowners, who tend to have the largest presence at community meetings.
“The first two grants they made from that fund, you’d think they’d go to the area with the most deficient tree canopy,” Councilwoman CdeBaca said.
Officials defend the decision on the grounds that the central business district is the city’s economic engine and that investing there would infuse the city with more cash.
In the past, efforts to expand green space in other cities have sometimes faced resistance in low-income neighborhoods. Sometimes residents worry that they’ll be stuck with the costs of maintaining the trees, or they want city officials to focus on other problems that they see as more urgent.
In Detroit, one major tree-planting initiative in 2014 was rejected by about one-quarter of the 7,500 residents who were approached because they weren’t consulted on the project beforehand.
Yet people following Denver’s efforts see some signs for optimism.
The environmental tax has raised millions, and experts say the city’s equity focus is a shift in the right direction.
In a neighborhood meeting this year, Michael Swanson, the city forester, offered to plant trees in the public right-of-way areas in north Denver, generally around sidewalks, and water them until they establish root systems.
Mr. Espino’s employer, the GES Coalition, is helping to organize tree planting projects in his neighborhood and has formed partnerships with nonprofit groups, which sometimes act as intermediaries to secure city resources and funding.
Those partnerships, community groups say, are crucial. In north Denver, residents who want more parks and trees are mistrustful of the city and often more comfortable leading the projects themselves.
That comes back to the legacy of redlining and neglect.
“There’s these tough histories that make it really hard for residents to trust government, to possibly trust nonprofits,” said Kim Yuan-Farrell, executive director of The Park People, a local nonprofit group that advocates for parks and helps organize tree plantings in low-income neighborhoods.
However, Ms. Yuan-Farrell said, things seem to be changing.
“I do feel really hopeful,” about the tree-planting initiative, she said. “I think there’s a lot of energy, and we’re seeing a lot of different parts of our community come together.”
Brad Plumer contributed reporting from Washington.