A Glimpse Into Denver’s Sustainable Future

Sustainability is a cornerstone issue for Denver and its citizens. As we look ahead at a future where climate change will impact every one of us, we want to give a platform to the people and groups spearheading sustainability efforts in the Mile High City. In this sustainability series, we will discuss the problems, explore the solutions, track the efforts and explain how to develop better sustainable practices in daily life. Go here for our first article, and here for our second.

Over the past decade, Denver hasn’t progressed on its sustainability goals like it was hoping to. Some of that is due to the rapidly evolving understanding of climate change and its consequences, but most of it can be blamed on inaction and disjointed efforts. Recent developments, however, have invigorated the city’s sustainability efforts. 

A few years ago, City Council member (and president at the time) Jolon Clark decided to start piecing together how sustainability was addressed within the city’s departments. He found different people in various departments working haphazardly on some goals. It wasn’t good. When a few outside advocates set up a meeting with him to explain how climate change should be proclaimed an emergency, he explained that something clicked. “I said ok I get that it’s an emergency, so the last thing we should do is declare it one. We need to start putting out the fire and doing the work.” 

READ: How Denver Has and Hasn’t Progressed on Sustainability Goals in the Past Decade

This led to the writing of a bill that Clark wanted to pass to create a new sustainability office and fund it with a tax on electric and natural gas utilities. Before that bill could gather any further support, Mayor Hancock and his office offered a compromise — they wanted a more comprehensive stakeholder process to figure out the best way forward.

What came out of that compromise is the new office of Climate Action, Sustainability, Resilience (CASR) and the Climate Action Task Force. The task force was designed as a temporary committee to create recommendations for the city in regards to sustainability over the next 10 or more years. It was composed of 26 volunteers who represented everything from energy professionals to activists to conservationists to real estate developers. 

Over the course of six months, the task force unanimously agreed on a set of recommendations that urged the city to start acting quickly. When they had to decide what the overarching goal was — to either catch up to other environmentally-progressive cities or to become a beacon of sustainability for others to catch up to — they chose the latter. The first step was to set up a funding source, which led to their recommendation to propose a sales tax increase on the November 2020 ballot. When that was approved by voters, many gears started turning at the CASR office, where Denver’s new sustainability efforts are now validated by the city’s residents. 

READ: There is New Hope for Denver’s Sustainability Efforts

Of course, things don’t happen all at once. In fact, it’s worse if they do because it doesn’t allow industries and people to adapt. But, what the task force insisted is that change has to start happening now, or else the costs of inaction will only get worse.

For that reason, this article is dedicated to looking into the future of a more sustainable Denver and providing a vision of what is possible. A vision, created by this diverse and committed local task force, that leads to a better quality of living for every person in Denver, no matter their demographics. Read the full recommendations report here

“Regenerative” Buildings

Photos Solar Decathlon Denver, Solar Decathlon 2017, Cori Anderson, 303 Magazine, Solar city denver

A living wall in the Solar Decathlon 2017 competition in Denver. Photo by Corinne Anderson

The task force organized their report in four main categories: buildings and homes; transportation; electricity supply and consumption emissions and waste. Although we’ll first look at buildings and homes, it’s important to remember that all of these issues are interconnected and nearly impossible to separate. Buildings currently contribute 49% of emissions in Denver, create vast inequalities between income levels and race, contribute to waste through construction and demolition and exacerbate the urban heat island effect.  

So it’s not enough for a building to be energy efficient or even carbon-neutral, especially if Denver wants to set an example. Considered the most sustainable building in the world is the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which collects rainwater, uses solar panels and has a six-story composting toilet. But the goal for Denver is to surpass places like Seattle, which means that Denver’s buildings should add to the city’s overall health as much as they conserve energy or water for the benefit of the tenets. 

These kinds of buildings are considered regenerative rather than sustainable because they can improve the surrounding environment and even restore damage from other polluters. The task force’s vision includes a lot of recommendations regarding the improvement of buildings and homes in order to improve the community at large — from reducing air pollution and carbon emissions to adding energy to the grid to growing green space to affordability. As a response, Denver will set incremental guidelines every three years when the codes are updated to improve the overall sustainability of all buildings rather than having a handful of elite (and optional) green buildings. 

The task force volunteer Jon Buerge, a real estate developer and chief development officer of Urban Villages in Denver, explained that “my eyes have been opened to how real estate affects the planet. It’s an incredibly impactful industry, not only in the fact that half of the materials we extract from our planet are used in the creation of buildings but 40% of energy consumption is used by buildings as well… When we think about all the various ways we are going to tackle climate change, buildings are a huge part of the problem and how we’re going to find the solution.”

At Urban Villages, they work on buildings that have regenerative and biophilic designs. He says that one of the problems with sustainable design is that it hasn’t been very profitable, but he also insists that his work is proving how valuable it is to change that. “If you can show people how to make money doing the right things,” he said, “you’ll change the world.”

If Denver follows the task force’s advice, the next decade will look a lot different than the previous one. The onslaught of construction projects will learn to innovate as the building codes are updated, leading to buildings that contribute to their surroundings as much as they contribute to the developer’s pockets. Existing buildings will be weatherized and made more resilient in the face of aggravating climate change, which will in turn help stabilize low-income communities and communities of color, who have been historically disadvantaged in a variety of ways associated with real estate development. 

Here’s a look into the future of buildings in Denver, according to the report: 

In five years: All new homes and 50% of all buildings are 100% net-zero emissions (they take in emissions at the same level or greater than they create them). Homes use 10% less energy and there are incentives to provide better indoor air quality and energy-efficient products to residents, especially those in disproportionately affected communities. There are more green space, tree canopy and other green infrastructure. 

In 10 years: All new buildings are net-zero, and 50% of existing buildings provide energy to the grid. Affordable housing units are even more affordable due to lowered energy costs, plus they are protected from air pollutants and extremes in weather. Everyone benefits from the addition of green roofs and other green infrastructure, which attracts wildlife, decreases the temperature, sequesters carbon and is generally aesthetically pleasing. We also benefit from decreased emissions (which, if left unchecked, will continue to cause asthma, respiratory problems, heart attacks and cancer). Buildings are constructed using innovative materials like reclaimed shipping containers, hempcrete and carbon-neutral concrete. 

Connecting The City Without Cars 

Photo by Brittany Werges

Cars are a problem, whether or not they’re electric. There’s no other way to put it. Gregg Thomas, the director of the Environmental Quality division of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) and a board of the Regional Air Quality Council, said that “congestion, with or without the pollution, won’t be solved by electric vehicles. We need to figure out how to grow and not have our roads be under so much stress.” 

In recent years, Denver has only grown in population, which has led to more miles driven in the city each day, more cars on the road, more traffic fatalities and more emissions (even though new cars are lower-emitters than their old counterparts). Despite the negatives, the lion’s share of transportation funding goes to highways and roads that support cars. “For the cost of a mile of highway, you can fund an entire city’s bicycle network,” Naomi Amaha, a task force member and representative of the Denver Streets Partnership (DSP) explained. 

It’s not just about replacing cars with bikes either. Denver’s walkability rating last year was given a C+ overall based on a progress report by DSP on the Denver Vision Zero Action Plan. Amaha said that “progress on building out sidewalks is particularly slow, for which we gave them an F. At the current pace, it will take hundreds of years to fix the 40% of Denver’s streets that have missing or substandard (not ADA accessible) sidewalks.”

So the goal is to design infrastructure that supports multimodal and micro-mobility for everyone and to do it at an expedited pace. In order to make that happen, the city will need to develop connective networks and improve the walkability rating in all neighborhoods — an effort it’s starting with the Denver Green Infrastructure Implementation Plan

The task force’s recommendations for the foreseeable future urge transformational changes in the way Denver invests in and constructs transport systems in order to provide safe, reliable and affordable access while decreasing air pollution and congestion. They insist that Denver must make green transportation the most practical choice. The overall goal is to create solutions that are designed to “move people and not just vehicles.” We are looking at you I-70 and I-25. 

If Denver follows the task force’s advice, the next decade will end with a city that is easier to navigate without a car, a population that doesn’t account for transportation costs as their second-highest bill and markedly improved air quality and ozone levels. Remember in April 2020, when without cars on the road the skies around Denver were free from that brownish-yellow haze? That can be an everyday reality. Much of this is dependent on “smart growth” — high-density development that incorporates amenities, residences and commercial space to be in close proximity — so that transportation between destinations does not require long drives.

Here’s a look into the future of transportation in Denver, according to the report: 

In five years: Three-quarters of Denver’s bike network and half of its pedestrian network are complete, which means that most of the city’s residents can travel easily from neighborhood to neighborhood without the use of a car. Incentives and other programs have encouraged 15% of all vehicle owners to have electric vehicles, and there are charging stations throughout the city. Zoning laws have changed to allow for higher density and infill developments.

In 10 years: 50% of commuters are not in cars alone and the percent of electric vehicle owners has doubled. It is now cheaper, safer and easier to use public transport, especially since high-density areas will further discourage car use by eliminating parking spaces and adding congestion fees. Emissions from transportation are down 60% and we no longer see “ozone alerts” issued. 

A New Relationship With Waste

Denver Composts! Photo courtesy of Denver Recycles on Facebook

Over and over again, Denver has been criticized for its dependence on trash and landfills. It lags behind other nearby cities in Colorado and is completely outpaced by cities like Seattle. Currently, only single-family home residents that are serviced by the Denver solid waste management system are given recycle carts along with their trash bins. Everything else — commercial buildings, multi-family or apartment units, mixed-use buildings — must pay a third-party contractor for trash pick-up. It’s merely optional for recycling to be provided to residents or businesses who reside, rent or lease those kinds of buildings. And compost? You’ll have to pay for that regardless. 

The task force’s recommendations focus heavily on this gap in Denver’s enforcement of and infrastructure to handle waste diversion. Ideally, they advise enacting policies and regulations to require a lion’s share of Denver’s waste to be diverted from the landfill via recycling, repurposing or composting. 

There are a few ways to close the gap, but the one that would have the most impact on our daily lives is a Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) trash system. In this system, collected trash is weighed and billed based on that weight, whereas recycling and compost are provided free of charge. Whatever the short-term consequences may be, the idea is to change behavior in the long-term. 

In order to have something like that work for the entire city, improvements will need to be made to Denver’s infrastructure for recycling and especially compost. Some efforts are in place already to encourage the creation of local end-markets for recycled materials, thus creating a demand for recycled products and a system capable of repurposing them. (We’ve all heard the reports of China not buying America’s recycled plastic anymore). 

Charlotte Pitt, with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure and a manager of resource management with the new CASR office, explained that Denver solid waste is “a supplier of raw materials. What we collect out of your homes are being sorted and then going to manufacturers who are using them. And sometimes manufacturers change.” Having locally-based manufacturers using recycled materials is not only more reliable than someone overseas, it’s also a way to build up the local economy. 

Residents can help speed the spread of compost collection by buying into the city’s fee-based curbside pick-up service. Pitt mentioned that “we really are pushing subscription in the compost program. The more people we can get signed up to participate, the better because that infrastructure is in place and people know how to use it.” 

That line of thinking goes along with everything in this category — the more people become familiar with choosing to recycle or repurpose something, the easier it is to divert waste for the whole city. It’s not only about household waste either. It’s about food waste from restaurants and grocery stores; it’s about byproducts of packaging for manufacturing and shipping and it’s about the impact of construction.

Here’s a look into the future of waste diversion in Denver, according to the report: 

In five years: All residents have convenient access to recycling and compost, whereas trash to a landfill is disincentivized, leading to at least a 50% diversion rate. Regulations against disposable items (in restaurants, for instance) prevent unnecessary use of those materials. Students are learning about good recycling and compost practices in school and are starting to accept it as the new norm. 

In 10 years: Single-use plastics and styrofoam are banned. Regulations that provide guidance for recycling and compost have led to innovations in the field that make both of those endeavors easier. Local businesses depend on recycled material to manufacture products. Excess food is not thrown out by grocery stores or restaurants (as the current liability and legal barriers require), allowing those establishments to donate the food as they please. Construction and demolition sites divert more than 40% of their waste from landfills and use recycled or carbon-neutral materials whenever possible. This requires developers and other construction services to think critically about their process and to seek out materials with the least impact. 

Tune in for the next article in a few weeks which will give you advice on how you can make Denver a more sustainable city.