2019 in Review: Sustainability and Resilience in Denver

Last week, the US EPA downgraded Denver’s air quality rating from “moderate” violation to “serious” violation of the Clean Air Act. For many Denver residents familiar with the brown cloud that frequents our city’s skyline, this may not be a surprise: we’re all too familiar with the ground-level ozone emitted by our vehicles and polluting industries.

Meanwhile, Denver’s residential waste diversion rate--which measures how much recyclable or compostable material is recovered instead of sent to the landfill--is still far below the national average of 35% and the city’s 2020 goal of 34% diversion.  Residents of the most vulnerable Denver communities continue to experience rising costs of living and displacement, forcing longer commutes and other challenges. In neighborhoods like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, neighbors continue the fight regarding the pending I-70 expansion touted as a solution to tackle congestion by creation of more travel lanes. 

While we still have a long way to go, the City and County of Denver took great strides in 2019 to begin addressing these issues and build a more sustainable and resilient Denver. 

Mayor’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency

In August, Mayor Michael Hancock and City Council announced the creation of a new Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency under the purview of the Mayor’s Office and approved $8 million to expand efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission through 2020. The City is currently in the process of selecting a Climate Action Task Force to inform the direction of the Office, with intentions to integrate community voices and equity into every aspect of their work. As the Office’s responsibilities become more clear in the year ahead, it is essential that equity remain a core mission of this office, including authentically collecting and incorporating community input across all of Denver’s neighborhoods. 

In September, residents got enough signatures to get a local ballot initiative on the November 2020 Denver ballot. If passed, the initiative will establish a tax on electricity to further fund the Office.

American Cities Climate Challenge

Mayor Hancock is also one of 25 mayors across the country participating in the American Cities Climate Challenge, a two-year acceleration program supported by NRDC among other partners. The Challenge aims to help U.S. cities meet the Paris climate goals, especially through policies advancing sustainable transportation and buildings. 

Through the Challenge, Denver is positioning itself as a national climate leader, doubling down on emissions-reducing tactics including improved bus service, safe bike networks, shared mobility, electric vehicles and building efficiency. 

Working toward these goals, Denver created a dedicated bus lane down 15th and 17th Streets this year, with plans to expand to 18th and 19th Streets in the coming year. The City is also developing a plan to ensure all new buildings are net zero by 2030, installing 100 miles of bike infrastructure within three years, and moving dockless mobility pilots such as scooters and bikes into a permanent program.

Food Matters

Denver continued to make strides in reducing food waste this year--and all of the climate pollution and water waste that comes with it. 

The Department of Public Health and Environment’s two-year partnership with NRDC’s  Food Matters project (supported by the Rockefeller Foundation) continued to make meaningful reductions in food waste through comprehensive policies and programs. 

Two big strategies implemented in 2019 included:

Through the Food Matters project, we were able to further support the amazing work happening to reduce food waste through local organizations including We Don’t Waste, Denver Urban Gardens, MetroCaring and Eco-Cycle. 

NRDC also hosted 23 cities along with several thought leaders and external partners, in Denver for the second-ever Food Matters City Summit to workshop best practices, share knowledge across cities, and celebrate food waste reduction wins. 

Strong Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC)

As part of the Strong Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC), local Denver philanthropic, nonprofit and grassroots partners work to build wealth, stabilize neighborhoods, and integrate climate equity and resilience into some of Denver’s under-invested neighborhoods. SPARCC—an initiative of Enterprise Community Partners, the Low Income Investment Fund and NRDC—invests in and amplifies local efforts in six regions to ensure that new investments reduce racial disparities, build a culture of health, and prepare for a changing climate. This year, as Denver's SPARCC affiliate, Mile High Connects and its partners leveraged support from SPARCC to launch the West Denver Single Family Plus (WDSF+) Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Pilot Program in partnership with the West Denver Renaissance Collaborative (WDRC). This two-part pilot program will connect residents to housing services, addressing the threat of displacement, while supporting qualified Denver residents to bring in extra income or house extended family members, which helps residents of rising-cost neighborhoods stay in their homes. Denver SPARCC was also able to use flexible capital to support local, neighborhood-owned business opportunities along the Morrison Corridor and Denver’s Westwood neighborhood through projects like Mercado Lineal and the Bottling Plant, led by BuCu West.

Trash, recycling, and single-use plastics

In March, the Mayor announced that Denver can expect to see a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) residential waste collection fee within a year. City officials, city staff and local partners continue to explore this kind of pricing structure and hope to get community input throughout 2020. The new system would incentivize composting and recycling while charging for trash. These improvements are essential, given that Denver’s residential waste diversion rate is still far below the 2020 goal of 34% diversion.

This month, the Denver City Council unanimously approved a 10 cent single-use plastic and paper bag fee requirement for retail stores. If supported by the Mayor, the fee will come into effect in July 2020. Councilmembers hope to use the fee as a jumping off point to reduce single-use plastics more broadly in 2020 and beyond.

Electric vehicles

Lastly,  the Mayor announced this year that the city will start to replace fossil-fueled government vehicles with an electric fleet, per the 80x50 Climate Action Plan. The city will likely have at least 200 electric city vehicles by the end of 2020 and intends to have up to 850 electric city vehicles by 2029. The city continued to educate and engage residents on the benefits of electric vehicles through their “Pass Gas, Drive Electric” campaign.

2020 will surely be a busy and productive year in Denver to promote climate action, sustainability, equity and resilience.

About the Authors

Madeline Keating

City Strategist, Healthy People and Thriving Communities Program
Blog Post

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2019 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

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