Raksha Vasudevan: Rocky Mountain Ways

Denver, Colorado’s majestic mountains, green space, and reputation as an ecologically advanced city draw people into this growing metropolis. But there are some unwanted byproducts that result from the influx of humanity, for example air pollution and gentrification. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Raksha Vasudevan, a freelance journalist and contributing editor to High Country News about the transition of Denver from a remote Rocky Mountain town to a booming metropolis. We learn about the city’s industrial history, discuss how its transportation system has evolved, and look at the paradoxes and unintended consequences of major green infrastructure projects.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Raksha Vasudevan (RV) | 00:26 – It really is like an unfortunate paradox of, of more people moving you here and of the city growing, is that there’s more traffic jams, of course, to get to the mountains. And there are two highways that run through GES. So the people living in that area and people living adjacent to many highways absorb sort of the costs of people trying to access green space, but they don’t really get to enjoy any of the benefits.

Narrator | 00:54 – Denver, Colorado’s majestic mountains green space and reputation as an ecologically advanced city draw people into this growing metropolis. But there are some unwanted byproducts that result from the influx of humanity, for example, air pollution and gentrification. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Raksha Vasudevan, a freelance journalist and contributing editor to High Country News about the transition of Denver from a remote Rocky Mountain town to a booming metropolis. We learn about the city’s industrial history, discuss how its transportation system has evolved, and look at the paradoxes and unintended consequences of major green infrastructure projects.

Alex Wise (AW) | 02:00 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Raksha Vasudevan. She is a freelance journalist and contributing editor at High Country News Raksha. Welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Raksha Vasudevan (RV) | 02:08 – Thank you so much for having me.

Alex Wise (AW) | 02:11 – So you have a piece in the December High Country News, or it’s, it’s, it was published December 1st, 2023 entitled North Denver’s Green Space Paradox. And I thought it was a good launching point for a larger discussion about Denver and the environmental issues facing the entire mountain West. You focus on this Globeville Elyria-Swansea or GES community in North Denver. But why don’t you first give us a little bit of a history of this region, because you provide that quite well in the piece.

RV | 02:47 – Yeah. So this particular community in Denver, but Denver as a whole, one of the reasons for its founding and its growth was because it served as an important link in the Transcontinental Railroad. So it was kind of this frontier town in the west, and of course, when that railroad was built, it displaced the original inhabitants of the area, which was the indigenous people who lived here. But the railroad and the stop in Denver specifically opened a lot of opportunities for Denver. It became more than just a place to pick up your mail on the way out to California. It really became a city in its own right. And soon after the Transcontinental Railroad was built through Denver, um, there were also many iron and ore smelters that were built in the area because of the proximity to the railroad and to, to mines across the country.

AW | 03:47 – This is like in the Reconstruction Era, like 1870 to 1890 era, I’m guessing. 

RV | 03:53 – Yeah, around then, exactly. And so that attracted a lot of new people to this area, especially eastern European immigrants, to come work at these smelters. And eventually it also led to a livestock center and a livestock marketplace, um, which is still around, there’s still an annual livestock show in Denver, but it basically became like this hub for agriculture for, um, smelters and iron processing. And you can still see that in the city. You can still go down to the real yards. The arena where the livestock show takes place is not very far away, but of course that also has implications for the type of people, the demographics of people who live in the area, and of course for the environment as well, because these smelters produced a lot of waste that is still contaminating much of the soil. 

AW | 04:51 – Now let’s fast forward to the 20th and 21st century development. Denver is an exploding metropolitan area, but it wasn’t always like that. It it had many decades of slow and steady growth, correct? 

RV | 05:04 – Yeah, that’s right. I think, the recent boom that we see now is, well, certainly there’s a burgeoning tech industry. There’s an oil and gas industry that’s been around for a while. And all of that has meant that some of the earlier inhabitants of Denver have been pushed out. Gentrification is certainly an issue here. So following the, the smelters that I mentioned and the livestock show, there were also a bunch of meat processing plants that, that popped up here in like the early 19 hundreds. And so a lot of immigrants, especially from Mexico and Latin America, settled here and specifically in GES, but across Denver to work at these plants. And their families have stayed here for generations, but because there’s all these new waves of people moving to the area, they are slowly but surely being pushed further and further to the edges of the city. 

AW | 06:10 – So let’s focus a little bit now on this Globeville Elyria-Swansea, the GES area that you write about in High Country News. Let me share with our listeners how you define the green space paradox – “in what’s known as the Green Space paradox, residents who historically lacked access to parks are the most likely to be displaced by rising housing costs once the greenery finally arrives.” So the greenery is finally arriving to this area, but it’s not necessarily such a good thing for everyone, is it? 

RV | 06:44 – Yeah, exactly. So Globeville Elyria-Swansea, because the neighborhood grew up around all this industry, the smelters, the meat processing plants, and the people who worked there were the ones who also lived in the area. It’s never had a lot of greenery but now because of a few different developments, um, you know, politically and in terms of infrastructure, physical infrastructure, it is getting more green space. There’s there’s some new parks there. There have been a lot of efforts to plant more trees in the area and to keep those trees alive. But the potential downside is that, you know, one of the things that people look for when they’re thinking about moving to a new neighborhood or to a new city is usually people want to live in an area where there’s more green space where they can go to a park with their family or where they can enjoy some shade, especially as Denver summers get hotter in an era of climate change. And so one consequence of this new green space, or this added green space, is rising rents in Globeville Elyria-Swansea and also rising property taxes. It has, it has had one of the highest increases of property taxes, of any neighborhood in Denver. So that means even if you’re a longtime resident and you’ve lived there, or your family has lived there for generations and you own your home, increases in property values can still drive you out if you can’t afford to pay those huge increases, which is the case for a lot of retired people on fixed incomes. And then of course, yes, rents are, are also skyrocketing in that area because at least in part because of this green space.

AW | 08:32 – Yes. And you cite this woman, Yadira Sanchez, she’s kind of the protagonist of your, of your story. And she first moved to this area Globeville in 2005. So in 20 years during that period, Denver’s median home price rose from 246,000 to 649,000. That’s quite a leap. And then from 2018 to 2020 alone, just in that period, Globeville’s property taxes increased by 44% the highest of any Denver neighborhood. So the money has been flowing into the region in terms of big infrastructure efforts. It sounds like somebody who’s been living in fairly polluted areas in the shadow of smokestacks or the smelters and, and you have the Purina pet food factory there not the best air in the, in the area at all. Some of these efforts sound terrific. They’re covering up these freeways, putting playgrounds on top and, and biking paths and, and, and the like. But the cost is gentrification essentially. And that’s a complicated issue for the most vulnerable populations, right?

RV | 09:49 – Yeah, it is a very complicated issue, because of course, the people who live in this area also want these amenities, right? Like of course they want more green space. And Yadira Sanchez, who you just mentioned in particular, I mean, she’s a very passionate about trees and she actually works part-time as a tree planter in the neighborhood. And one of the things that she really desires is to see, um, you know, more greenery in, um, you know, on her streets and in the parks where her three kids have played growing up. So of course, people who live there, they want these amenities, but they also want to be able to stay to enjoy them aand we’ve seen this in other cities too, like Dallas for example, built a highway cover park similar to what’s, what, what has just been built in global Elyria-Swansea, and it led to like skyrocketing rents. So the new amenities can have a hidden cost if they’re built in areas that have not had access to these amenities for, for a long time. And if also, if there aren’t really like supportive measures to make sure that the residents of that area get to stay in that area, like, you know, if there’s no measure to make sure that people can afford these sort of explosive property taxes, even, even though they haven’t had a change in income, if there’s no measures to support that, then people are going to be displaced.

(Music Break) | 11:29

AW | 12:20 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Raksha Vasudevan. She is a freelance journalist and contributing editor at High Country News. So Raksha, we’re talking about this one region of North Denver, but maybe you can give listeners who aren’t really familiar with environmental policy and consumer habits and how, and the intersection of those habits in, in a metropolitan area such as Denver, you’re a Denver resident. There a paradox within the people who live there. I, I think it’s fair to say in that a lot of people move to this area because they love nature, but more and more people moving there means that there’s less nature and there’s less clean air and clean water, and then all the complications that come with, with an influx of humanity. 

RV | 13:11 – Yeah, you put your finger on it. Exactly. And it, and it really is. The other paradox I think of, of green space here, kind of a second green space paradox is, you know, one of the reasons why Denver has such seen such incredible growth is because people are moving here for access to the mountains access to green space. But the consequence of that is not just displacing people who are here and living here earlier and sometimes for generations, but it also means, um, just a lot more construction and what they call impermeable surface area. So I don’t think we were able to include this in the article, but there was this, there have been studies that show that  Denver’s proportion of impermeable surface area is one of the highest in the country. An impermeable surface area is basically like concrete asphalt, anything where the water can’t be absorbed. So, usually as there’s new construction, and you have more buildings, it usually means impermeable surface area goes up. So even New York City has more impermeable surface area as a percentage of the total city space than Denver. So I think it really shows that both politically and in terms of a residual effect of more people moving here, it means that even the little green space that was here in the city has really shrunk. So for people who don’t have the resources, like the money or the leisure time to drive one or two hours to the mountains to enjoy a hike, it means they’re even less able than before to enjoy green space within the city, which we all know is really important for mental and physical health. So yeah, it, it really is like an unfortunate paradox of more people moving here and of the city growing is that there’s more traffic jams, of course, to like get to, um, to get to the mountains. And there are two highways that run through GES. So the people living in that area and, you know, people living adjacent to many highways absorb sort of the, the costs  of people trying to access green space, but they don’t really get to enjoy any of the benefits. 

AW | 15:48 – And in terms of transportation, public transportation is relatively good in Denver, and yet it’s a car culture very much so. You kind of need a four-wheel drive to get into the mountains, so you see a ton of trucks and SUVs. Denver has come a long way though from its nadir in terms of its air pollution. I think that was in the mid-90s, perhaps, maybe even earlier. But I was surprised when I learned 30, 40 years ago that it had some of the worst air in the country that’s improved. What were some of the efforts from policymakers that cleaned up the air? 

RV | 16:29 – From what I know, I do think, yeah, Denver has made some significant in investments in public transport. There is now a light rail that you can take from the airport all the way to the tech center, which is like way down south of the city. So I think that certainly was one measure… 

AW | 16:51 – But I should interject that this airport is so far away from the rest of the city, so it’s kind of crazy. Like if you live on the west side of Denver, getting to DIA is a major event.

RV | 17:02 – But at least you can take the train there instead of having, you know, to drive 40 minutes. Although many people still do that. I think they’ve also, there have been more efforts to like expand bike lanes, throughout the city.  I know also like part of it, um, was, you know, they have really tried to regulate some of the biggest polluters here. So another major polluter in Globeville Elyria-Swansea, is, uh, Suncor Refinery, which for decades was releasing emissions that were way over the limits and never really facing any consequences for it. But I think over the past few years, the city and state have really come down, come down hard on them. Of course, there’s also been a transition away from coal. There was also a coal plant in the area, which is thankfully no longer operational. 

AW | 17:57 – So the electric grid has cleaned up quite a bit in, in its transition away from coal. Is it mostly natural gas or are renewables now a significant part of the energy portfolio in the region as well? 

RV | 18:10 – I think it’s still mostly natural gas, but of course renewable is, is growing. There has been a lot of growth in, in solar especially, and of course electric vehicles. They’ve also, just recently, there have been a lot of efforts by the state of Colorado to offer incentives for people to buy electric vehicles. They’ve also capped the emissions that trucks can produce and have incentivized also electric trucks, which are a major polluter as you can imagine.

AW | 18:48 – You mean fossil fuel trucks are a major polluter, so they’re trying to eliminate the gas powered large vehicles?

RV | 18:54 – You’re exactly right, yeah. I mean, we’re still not, you know, anywhere close to California in that realm, but I think it has been, it has been growing. There’s also been a lot of cleanups like by the EPA to remediate Superfund sites. I mean, this was cont contributing more to soil pollution than air pollution perhaps. Um, but yeah, I, I think Denver, um, has made Denver and Colorado have made a lot of strides in trying to reduce air pollution, but they’re still over act, there’s still over recommended EPA limits. Like we’re still not, I still wouldn’t consider us like a leader in the country, um, for that reason, but it’s certainly better than 30 or 40 years ago, like you said.

(Music Break) | 19:48

AW | 20:31 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Raksha Vasudevan. She is a freelance journalist and contributing editor at High Country News. So Raksha, let’s turn back to the North Denver’s green space paradox piece that you wrote. What kind of lessons did you take away from researching it in terms of the resources that the lower income populations have at their disposal? When these green space infrastructure projects come to their neighborhood, should they welcome it or should they be protesting? Can they be incorporated more into be collaborators with these efforts instead of just bystanders?

RV | 21:15 – Yeah. One of the entities that I talk about in this piece, um, that I think could be a model for other communities to build on is the GES Coalition, the Global Elyria-Swansea Coalition. It started off as a group of residents who were either being displaced by a highway that was being reconstructed, um, in their area or just, you know, people who were concerned about rising rent. And they’ve really come together over the past few years to sort of present a united voice to the city and the state and demand what they believe is due to them. And so one of the results of that effort was they received $2 million from the city as part of, as part of this highway reconstruction, to build new housing in the area for people who are displaced. And they’ve since formed a land trust, um, that specifically tries to build homes for low, low-income residents from that area that allows them to stay in that area despite whatever’s going on in the housing market at large. So I hope there’s a way for communities to not just provide input or feedback on these sort of infrastructure projects, which of course they should do, but also take some power into their own hands and work with, in this case, the Colorado Department of Transportation to help some of the affected residents cope with the impacts of this reconstruction. Like they knew people were going to be displaced. And so they kind of were proactive about helping these displaced residents find new housing. And they’re also engaged in efforts with the city to, to get some of the land from the National Livestock Show expansion sort of back into community hands. So I think there’s a way that’s not necessarily super confrontational because that doesn’t always work to work with these infrastructure projects that allows for some compromise, I suppose. 

AW | 23:31 – I thought it was interesting in the piece how you, you talk about the history of Denver being kind of a, a way to connect people from the east coast to the west coast and then from their meat processing. It’s always been kind of a, a hub. It, it started off as a way station, but then you ask Yadira Sanchez why she’s not going to this, uh, event to inaugurate some piece of the park. And she’s like, I’m not a fan of the park. It doesn’t connect to anything. What did she mean and what should be the goal for policy makers in connecting points A to B when they imagine a green space renewal project like this one in GES? 

RV | 24:12 – Yeah, you’re, you’re right that Denver sort of always has been this connector city, like both in terms of, of the railway, but also highways. So both I-25 and I-70 and probably other highways run through the city, but I-25 and I 70, both run through Globeville, Elyria-Swansea. And in sort of the early 2000s there was a part of I-70 that runs through Globeville Elyria-Swansea that has a viaduct. And the viaduct was literally crumbling, like giant pieces of concrete were falling off and like hitting or almost hitting people. So the Colorado Department of Transportation had to knock down the viaduct and rebuild. And so they launched this long consultation process about how they should do that. And so what the residents of Globeville Elyria-Swansea who have lived with this highway for generations, what they wanted was they wanted the highway rerouted, like out of their neighborhood. They wanted it rerouted north of the city, but of course, Adams County, which is where it would’ve been rerouted, opposed that idea. And so that was shut down. So what they, what CDOT officials decided to do instead with public input, was to knock down the viaduct sink that portion of the highway underground for about 800 feet and build a cover on top that in that included a park. And so the park opened last winter, sorry, winter of 2022. And, there was like an inauguration for the park. And so the text or the message that you’re referring to from Yadira, where she said, I’m not attending this inauguration because it doesn’t connect anything, was, referencing that, that inauguration. And the reason she felt that way is because, and many residents felt that way, is that no one, none of the residents that I spoke to at least asked for this park. They kind of felt like it was pushed on them, um, as sort of a political maneuver in order to keep the highway in the neighborhood. But it was certainly that the park was certainly being touted as sort of reconnecting two highways that were historically divided by I-70, because now you can just walk, you know, from one side of the highway to another and it’s actually kind of a pleasant walk. You can’t really hear the highway underneath. Whereas before you had to go under the viaduct and, you know, risk being hit by crumbling concrete. But nonetheless, you know, people didn’t feel like they really wanted this park. They wanted the highway out of the neighborhood. So in terms of policy lessons for planners, I don’t really know, to be honest, because nobody wants a highway in their neighborhood. <laugh>, you know, nobody wants a giant infrastructure project. I will say in this case, it felt like there was some resentment from the community, not just because they were stuck with the highway, but because it felt like the amenities that they were given were not really amenities that they wanted this park, for example. And so I guess one policy lesson might be to spend more time considering what amenities or compensations people really want and would be of real use to them. I’m sure if you asked CDOT they would say they did that, but that’s not what I heard from residents.

AW | 27:57 – Raksha Vasudevan, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio. 

RV | 28:02 – Thank you.

AW | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by lettuce Joe Walsh and Doc Watson. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.