Denver – Supporting Denver’s Parks and Trees

“We were founded [in 1969] by a bunch of park enthusiasts who saw that the Denver Parks and Recreation Department didn’t have enough funding to really support the park system,” says Kim Yuan-Farrell, program manager for The Park People. “These citizens started raising private funds for park-enhancement projects. A big part of our work is through capital projects, where we raise private funds and infuse them into the park system.”

These projects range from restoration of historic sites, like the Washington Park Boathouse, to park pavilions, field houses and other recreation facilities, such as the group’s $4.7 million renovation — a collaboration with the Gates Family Foundation and the city and county of Denver — of the city’s Gates Tennis Center.[1] The Park People’s work extends beyond capital-improvement projects, though, as the organization has a series of programs designed to enhance the city’s urban forest.

The most well-known Park People program in the city is Denver Digs Trees. This program began more than 20 years ago out of the garages of some environmentally conscious citizens. “The founders of Denver Digs Trees were tree lovers, but they were also community organizers who really saw trees as a tool or resource for improving neighborhoods in the endless ways that trees provide benefits to a community,” says Yuan-Farrell.

After a few years of independent, grassroots operation, Denver Digs Trees was adopted by The Park People, which took over coordination and fundraising efforts for the program. At its core, Denver Digs Trees is a citywide, free and affordable tree distribution. Every spring, residents can sign up to plant a tree in the rights of way in front of their houses, and then in the fall, residents can sign up for a shade tree to be planted in their yards. Depending on the neighborhood where the trees are being planted, the trees are either free or $25 for residents, with The Park People providing planting assistance and the residents committing to long-term care and maintenance for the trees.

Yuan-Farrell explains that when the program started, funding allowed all tree distributions to be free, but over the years, as funding sources shifted, the organization developed a list of lower-income target neighborhoods for tree plantings. “These lower-income areas have more barriers to obtaining trees, so we try to lower those barriers to bridge the canopy equity gap,” she says. The program employs volunteers to do door-to-door canvassing in target neighborhoods, while also engaging with neighborhood associations, to encourage participation. In 2011, for the first time, a neighborhood was removed from the list because the potential planting sites had been largely saturated through the efforts of residents and Denver Digs Trees. Currently, residents of 23 neighborhoods in Denver are eligible for free trees through the program.

Civic Center Park. Credit: Jeffrey Beall

Civic Center Park. Credit: Jeffrey Beall

Beyond targeting low-income neighborhoods, The Park People also partners with the business community to support the urban tree canopy. A few years ago, the nonprofit instituted its Mile High Tree Champions program. This program encourages Denver businesses and employers to host planting days, where The Park People provides the trees, tools and other resources, while the business sponsors and provides the labor for the planting projects. Many of these planting projects take place on parklands and natural areas and at affordable housing sites.

The partnership that The Park People has developed with Denver Parks and Recreation is a key to the success of its many programs. “For all of our urban forestry programs, Denver Parks and Recreation’s Forestry Division is essential for us to do what we do,” Yuan-Farrell says. Besides collaborating on planting programs like Denver Digs Trees, Denver Parks and Recreation and The Park People partner on the nonprofit’s Community Forester program.

Denver City Forester Rob Davis teaches Community Forester volunteers about pruning cuts. Credit: The Park People, Denver, Colorado

Denver City Forester Rob Davis teaches Community Forester volunteers about pruning cuts. Credit: The Park People, Denver, Colorado

“The Community Forester program was founded in 2003 to engage residents as high-level volunteers to support our work and the work of the Denver Forestry Division in planting and maintaining the urban forest,” says Yuan-Farrell. The program is comprised of four-workshop training courses, designed to educate participants on everything from “Trees 101” to tree pruning, identification and planting. All the courses but Trees 101 and Volunteer Leadership & Management include a field component to the session. The Park People handles the logistics of the program, while the city of Denver’s Forestry Division helps with the training itself. Once someone completes the Community Forester program, he or she is qualified to lead tree planting efforts, as well as other neighborhood-greening projects.[2] About 40–80 people per year participate in the Community Forester program. These well-trained volunteers are a nice supplement to the Forestry Division’s full-time crews.


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[1] The Park People. Capital Projects. (accessed Sept. 18, 2012).

[2] The Park People. Community Forester Program. (accessed Sept. 18, 2012).