AURORA — Millions of federal dollars will be spent to plant trees in Colorado in the hopes of improving air and water quality, creating more shade to cool neighborhoods, and supporting jobs and workforce development.
The funding is aimed at helping local governments increase tree cover in underserved communities and boost equitable access to nature, officials said Thursday at an event in Aurora that featured the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We are committed to connecting all of our residents to the urban forest and want to ensure that we are providing accessible services and education to all of our underserved neighborhoods who have limited access to green spaces, parks and trees,” said Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, whose city received a $5 million grant Thursday from the U.S. Forest Service.
Aurora is one of eight Colorado communities receiving grants.
The Forest Service said it will spend more than $1 billion on almost 400 projects nationwide to increase access to trees and the social, health and economic benefits green spaces provide. More than $37 million of that funding will flow to 14 city governments and one university in the Rocky Mountain region.
Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services received $9 million; the City of Aurora’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Department received $5 million; and Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency received $5 million.
The funding is intended to help local communities with the smallest amount of tree canopy.
“This announcement is especially meaningful to our city, as we are the most diverse community in Colorado and one of the most diverse communities in the United States, with one out of five of our residents born outside the country,” Coffman said Thursday at the event at Moorhead Recreation Center.
About 65 people gathered at the recreation center to hear Deputy Agriculture Secretary Xochitl Torres Small speak about the historic investment.
A canopy of trees can reduce the temperature by 11 to 19 degrees, she said at the event.
The grant provides an opportunity for a cooler place to recreate but it does more than that, she said.
“You’re focusing on places and welcoming people who might not have felt at home in the fancy neighborhoods with the big trees and making sure that people know they deserve that too,” she said.
The announcement reflects the goals of President Joe Biden’s Investing in America agenda and his Bidenomics strategy, which is geared toward advancing climate resilience and environmental justice, generating economic opportunity and building a clean energy economy nationwide, according to USDA officials.
Studies show that communities with access to trees and green spaces have better health outcomes, less crime and lower average temperatures, according to the USDA. They can also draw other kinds of investments and benefit from new economic opportunities, the agency said.
Aurora applied for a $5 million grant to cover the cost of planting about 6,000 trees across the city by the end of 2028, said John Wesolowski, the city’s parks and forestry manager.
“That’s a lot of trees, and it’s just amazing how much we’re going to be able to get done with this money,” he said Thursday.
Most of the money will be used for basic tree maintenance, tree planting and treatments to preserve the most valuable trees, according to a copy of the city’s grant application. The grant also includes money for outreach and environmental education.
Wesolowski said Aurora currently takes care of about 53,000 trees across the city.
“So we know where all the planting spaces are, we know where all the trees are, we know what their conditions are and so we have a pretty good idea of where we are going to focus on,” he said.
The plan is to plant trees mostly in front of single-family homes, he said.
He hopes neighborhoods in Aurora will look much different once the project is complete. More shade will hopefully draw in new community members looking to benefit from the new asset, Wesolowski added.
Planting trees is one of the best ways to reduce higher temperatures in cities with a lot of concrete, he said. Trees clean the air by absorbing odors and polluting gasses, and they filter particulates from the air by trapping them on their leaves and bark.
Trees also help save water by slowing down evaporation from thirsty lawns. Most newly planted trees only need 15 gallons of water per week, Wesolowski added, and studies have shown streets don’t need to be repaired as often when they’re covered by the shade from trees.
The majority of the planting will be done by a third-party contractor the city will choose through a bidding process.
Aurora’s tree project focuses on planting in neighborhoods with a high population of immigrants and refugees, said Ricardo Gambetta, manager of the office of international and immigrant affairs for the city of Aurora.
The office was established in 2015, when Aurora saw a huge shift in diversity and demographics. It joined forces with the city’s parks, recreation and open spaces department to apply for the grant and will help lead community outreach efforts to ensure the city achieves the goals of the grant, he said.
“Traditionally, in the last 50 years or more, when there has been an opportunity to have access to trees, these communities were not involved,” he said Thursday morning. “Other communities were the ones who got access to trees and we want to change that. We’re very pleased because the funding is going to make a difference in the daily lives of our local residents and the next generation and we are very excited about that.”
All grant funding will flow to underserved communities, the USDA said. The White House Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool helps community leaders identify eligible communities. The tool is a geospatial mapping platform that identifies communities facing significant burdens, such as climate change, energy, health, housing, long-term pollution and transportation gaps, for example.
In Denver, the office of climate action, sustainability and resiliency has identified neighborhoods using that tool and its own more localized one to help decide where trees are most needed, said Brad Paterson, administrator at the office.
North Denver, the Globeville Elyria-Swansea area and West Denver all include neighborhoods with few trees, he said.
“We were already contracted with community groups planting trees on private property before the grant,” Paterson said at the Aurora event. “When the grant was announced, we felt this was our opportunity to greatly expand that initiative on private property. So we’re going to use that money to expand the work that we’re already doing.”
Trees in urban and community areas reduce residential energy costs for heating and cooling by an average of $7.8 billion across the country each year, which is especially important for people who can least afford rising utility bills, said Joel Pannell, vice president of urban forest policy at American Forests, which works to protect and restore healthy forests across the country.
American Forests was awarded $50 million to give funding and technical assistance for urban and community forestry programs.
In 2021, the organization launched Tree Equity Score, which allows viewers to see their neighborhood’s tree equity score or how their neighborhoods compare with surrounding ones in terms of tree cover.
“What the data has shown across the country is communities with the highest concentration of people of color tend to have nearly 40% less tree canopy and are over 10 degrees hotter than surrounding predominantly white neighborhoods, and low income neighborhoods tend to have nearly 30% less tree canopy and are 7 degrees hotter,” Pannell, of American Forests, said Thursday.
People in areas with few trees are most vulnerable to extreme heat, especially as the Earth warms and Americans see record high temperatures each year, Pannell said.
Trees are the No. 1 defense to help cool and shade people, especially those most vulnerable including children, older adults, people with preexisting health issues and people who are homeless. Extreme heat kills more people than all other natural disasters combined each year, he added.
“The whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods have the most tree canopy and that’s for a number of reasons — it’s the way we have designed cities really since the inception of the country,” Pannell said.
“Even the way we fund the maintenance (of trees), which is often funded by local tax dollars, those resources are sent to the most affluent communities, so they’re the ones that are able to have comprehensive urban forestry management plans to dedicate resources and invest in maintaining their urban canopy and our most vulnerable neighborhoods simply don’t have those resources.”