Denver’s RiNo, Five Points coalition addressing redlining, greening
Jevon Taylor’s goal as a clothes designer and retailer goes beyond selling shirts and sweatshorts, just as his reasons for promoting the “greening” of the Five Points neighborhood go beyond wanting to see more trees and flowers.
The 26-year-old CEO and founder of False Ego in the River North Art District uses organic cotton, eco-friendly packaging and works with a company that recycles textiles. He talks to people about the waste in the fashion industry, including the huge use of water.
“I think people are starting to see False Ego as more than a clothing brand, which has been the goal from the beginning,” Taylor, a native of Denver, said. “I’m trying to connect consumers to the bigger picture.”
In similar fashion, Taylor has joined with other business people in RiNo and the larger Five Points area, a major developer, nonprofits and other organizations to show that trees and plants do more than just make a place look nice. They say greenery and natural areas draw customers, create oases in the former industrial area’s concrete corridors and provide the physical and mental health benefits associated with nature.
Coalition members are literally getting their hands dirty to green a part of Denver that was historically overlooked because of “redlining,” a discriminatory lending practice that discouraged investment in areas where residents were poor or people of color lived. Acts of what Taylor calls “guerilla gardening” have blossomed into a growing network aiming to help businesses attract customers and to restore parts of the natural world.
The greening initiative headed by Taylor was one of 15 finalists this year in the Thriving Cities Challenge, sponsored by Colorado State University’s Salazar Center for North American Conservation. The group received a $10,000 grant to help officially launch its work.
In a video submitted with the application to the Salazar Center, Taylor said the project can serve as “proof of concept” for other communities.
“And we can take it to other inner-city communities that suffer from the same environmental racism, the same economic disparities, the same redlining issues that Denver’s Five Points neighborhood has seen over the years,” Taylor said.
The National Wildlife Federation, one of False Ego’s partners in the application, is working with Taylor on other grant requests and talking to Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency about funding.
The Denver-based office of the real estate firm EDENS, The Heart of Five Points Neighborhood Association and the nonprofit Lincoln Hills Cares are part of the coalition.
“We now have a pretty well-developed concept, and we’ve got partners who are interested,” said Brian Kurzel, executive director of the regional National Wildlife Federation office. “Now, we’re at the stage of really needing capacity to engage with the community more, to hear their vision as well as leveraging investment and policy advocacy to try to make sure that the policies and practices of the city make this easier, not harder.”
The benefits of restoring natural areas are many, including businesses’ bottom line, Taylor and Kurzel said. A 2013 report by an environmental group, the National Resources Defense Council, said customers are willing to pay 8% to 12% more for purchases in areas with a mature tree canopy.
Research has increasingly shown that nature also benefits people’s physical and psychological well being. Kurzel said while the city’s goal is to see that every resident lives within a 10-minute walk to a park, the cumulative impacts of seeing greenery in everyday activities are valuable, too.
“It’s not as much about creating a park everywhere, it’s about creating the greenery where people are every day,” Kurzel said. “You have to do both, create the park acres and incorporate nature in between.”
To green up some of those in-between spaces, Tom Kiler and Taylor organized what they called guerilla gardening in the spring and summer in a two-block radius that includes False Ego. Volunteers hauled bags of potting soil, installed planters, removed gravel and added plants with help from the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Kiler is managing director of the West region for EDENS, a real estate firm that owns and operates 13 buildings in RiNo, including Denver Central Market. He declined to say if EDENS is contributing money to the project. But the company supported the application to the Salazar Center and Kiler said creating a more sustainable future for Denver is “absolutely something we invest in at EDENS.”
During a recent walk in RINO, Kiler said the area is transitioning from an industrial and warehouse district and the buildings aren’t easy to see into. Many buildings are raised and have walkways above street level. Making the area more inviting with green spaces and plants should draw people to the stores, Kiler said.
It works for Ali Duncan, who owns a yoga studio, Urban Sanctuary, on Welton Street. She said her building is so full of plants that people stop by to see what kind of place it is.
“People will stop when there’s more greenery, when it’s more welcoming,” Duncan said.
As president of The Heart of Five Points Neighborhood Association, Duncan is working with Taylor and others to hear what the community wants. She would like to see more trees and plants.
“There’s no shade. It is so hot and just miserable in the summertime,” Duncan said.
Nationwide, neighborhoods where the residents are poor or people of color, there are fewer trees and parks and more concrete. An analysis by American Forests found that areas where a majority of the residents are people of color have 33% less tree canopy on average than those with a majority white population. Areas with 90% or more residents in poverty have 41% less tree canopy than areas with 10% or less of the residents in poverty.
Nearly half of Denver is paved over, up from less than 20% in the mid-1970s, according on a 2019 Denver Post analysis. American Forests said more trees can cool neighborhoods and reduce the “urban heat island effect” that is expected to worsen with climate change. Daytime temperatures in the paved-over, treeless parts of a city can be 5 to 7 degrees warmer during the day and even hotter at night.
In RiNo, only about 9% of the area has tree canopy compared to an average of 24% for the city overall, said Mallory Luebke, a research assistant at the University of Colorado-Denver’s school of architecture and planning.
The university worked with Taylor and other coalition members on the grant application to the Salazar Center. Luebke said the school became aware of the work in RiNo during a project that considered what could grow out of shutting down some of the city streets during the coronavirus outbreak.
Luebke acknowledged that adding more trees, plants and green spaces can lead to more gentrification, already an issue as RiNo has evolved. However, she said such pressures could be eased if changes are spread across the neighborhood and by listening to what residents really want.
Sudhir Kudva, who owns bars in the Five Points neighborhood, decided he wanted to add greenery to a property on Larimer Street before the pandemic started. About three years ago, with help from the National Wildlife Federation, and after a few sessions with the city, he turned a gravel lot where a house once stood next to his bar into an outdoor extension.
The spot is more than a pretty place for people to mingle. It features potted plants, tall grasses, trees, bushes and water that provide sustenance and shelter for birds, butterflies and other urban wildlife.
“The patio was just dead space, just rocks, with two different landlords. We were like, ‘Hey, it would be nice if we could do a patio here,’ ” Kudva said. “We wanted something with a limited amount of people but a lot of greenery.”
As it turned out, the timing was good. “If we didn’t have this patio during COVID, we wouldn’t have been open at all in 2020 because we needed the outdoor space,” Kudva said.
He and Genevieve Shifrin, a partner in another bar, are greening up other spaces, adding what they describe as a living wall of indoor plants in one business.
Taylor and Kurzel want to leverage the infusion of energy and investment in RiNo for other parts of the Five Points neighborhood where people are interested in restoring and expanding natural areas. One of the area organizations involved is Lincoln Hills Cares, a nonprofit founded and led by Black community leaders to give youths experiences in the outdoors, cultural history and opportunities to work and learn about different career paths.
J.R. Lapierre, the organization’s managing director, said the youths are high school and college students from around Denver who work during the summer on gardening projects, trails and restoration work.
“Everything is centered around nature, as an opportunity to gain experience, not only knowledge about and working in nature, but also becoming good stewards,” Lapierre said. “One of the ways we’re looking at (the greening project) is to provide some great work for the youth and at the same time get them some skills that they can use in the future.”
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