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Urban tree canopy is a placemaking all-star

August 11, 2021

By Michael Griffith

Large trees helped Denver hit a home run during the MLB All-Star Game as the city remakes its public right-of-way

It started with a tree. Or 33 trees, to be exact.

Just three weeks ahead of this year’s MLB All-Star Game in Denver, Colorado, our urban design and landscape architecture team went to bat to help green downtown Denver. It was a highly collaborative effort with the Ballpark Collective neighborhood organization, the Downtown Denver Partnership, and the City of Denver. We wanted to highlight the future 5280 Trail in Denver and create an All-Star pop-up neighborhood festival on 21st Street.

In the end, we created the infrastructure for the hugely successful 12-day Stars and Stripes Streetfest. And we jump-started the process of greening the 5280 Trail with dozens of large, leafy trees ready and waiting to go into their permanent new homes in the city. 

Conceptual rendering of Festival Landing character area on 21st Street between Blake and Market streets in Denver, Colorado. A growing urban canopy is a key part of the 5280 Trail.

Background: The 5280 Trail and a greener future for Denver

The City and County of Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure is leading efforts to create the 5280 Trail. This is a major undertaking to transform how the public right-of-way is used in downtown Denver. It will link neighborhoods and connect people by reimagining underutilized streets. The trial will create an essential downtown experience and unite urban life with Colorado’s outdoor culture.

As part of the 5280 Trail, the entire length of 21st Street (3/4 mile) in the heart of downtown Denver will become a tree-lined, parklike place to promote healthy lifestyles where people of all ages and abilities can walk, roll, or bike. Our integrated design team is leading preliminary design on this project, and we just completed 20% design—a significant milestone in the process.

Trees are an essential element of good placemaking.

Recognizing the crowds downtown would draw because of the Fourth of July holiday and the All-Star Game, we started talking with our partners about how we could help get the word out about the trail and simultaneously create opportunities to support the businesses who had been hit hard by pandemic closures last year. The Ballpark Collective, a neighborhood organization responsible for many downtown festivals, was working to close a portion of 21st Street to traffic, so our first thought was a pop-up opportunity to demonstrate the value of the 5280 Trail.

The problem? Shade. Or lack of it.

Denver gets about 300 days of sunshine a year and  it also has one of the lowest percentages of urban tree canopy cover of any major metropolitan area in the nation. This city in the summer can be unrelentingly hot. We’re working to change that with projects like the 16th Street Mall, but the city has a long way to go. So, any outdoor event in the summer in the city needs to consider shade. 

Our solution? Trees.

As is the case in many large cities, 21st Street in Denver lacks a mature tree canopy.

The role of trees in placemaking

As designers, we’ve long championed the role of trees, not just for their aesthetic or health and environmental value, but for their impact on how people feel about a place—how much they love it. Trees are an essential element of good placemaking.

The experience of being outdoors under a plastic tent or shade cloth is far different than walking along a sun-dappled street with a tree canopy overhead. So, we thought: What if we could give people a real sense of the 5280 Trail experience and bring in some of the trees that will eventually be installed?

At first, funding, sourcing, and hauling in dozens of mature trees in the middle of summer with just a few weeks seemed impossible. But you should never underestimate a great team.

Between the Ballpark Collective and major support from the Downtown Denver Partnership and the City of Denver, we raised $120,000 in just five days to fund the trees. Environmental Design Inc., the same company delivering the 300 mature 16th Street Mall trees, located, delivered, and set up 33 30-foot containerized trees. The trees had been grown for a different development in Texas but were made available for our urgent timeline. 

Some of more than 30 large trees that were brought into Denver for the Stars and Stripes Streetfest, which took place in connection with the MLB All-Star Game. The trees will ultimately help green the city as part of the 5280 Trail.

If you build it, they will come

While we created the backdrop, the Ballpark Collective got to work on programming their festival.

Within the festival grounds, surrounded by our new trees, our team installed an information station to help people learn more about the future of the 5280 Trail on 21st Street and the design that has been completed thus far. Our primary goal was to build excitement in the community about the upcoming project and invite them to our large public outreach meeting in August.

In all, the festival was attended by more than 100,000 people. That we were able to accomplish this with so many moving pieces—especially in such a short period of time—is a true testament to the power of public/private collaboration and the importance of strong relationships.  

Pedestrians walk past some of the trees along 21st Street in Denver.

Caring for the future tree canopy

For now, these trees are consolidated to one block on the sidewalk while they wait for their forever homes on 21st Street. Ensuring they will continue to thrive in their special 4-by-4-foot wooden boxes has taken another major collaborative effort.

The day after the Stars and Stripes Streetfest ended, Stantec brought together the Forestry Department, Ballpark Collective, Downtown Denver Partnership, and project leadership from the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure to reach a temporary maintenance agreement.

Each tree has a 20-gallon water bag that is filled each morning, Forestry will fill the bags on weekdays and the Ballpark Collective will fill the bags on the weekends. Our team is working to find a more robust solution with overhead irrigation pipes like you would typically see in nursery setting. The result is a temporary urban tree nursery.

In the meantime, businesses, residents, and visitors to 21st Street are reaping the benefits of meaningful shade and greenery, and the City and County of Denver is 33 steps closer to their goal of reimagining and repurposing our shared public spaces to create a powerful sense of place here in Denver.

  • Michael Griffith

    A landscape architect with a dozen years of experience, Michael delivers urban design that improves community member experiences.

    Contact Michael
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