At the Intersection of Social Justice and Environmental Justice

On a sweltering summer day in the Globeville/Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, shade can be hard to find. For residents of the area, the lack of trees is not just a matter of aesthetics—it deeply affects quality of life. 

Tree canopy provides residents with more shade when a heatwave settles on the Front Range, but it also plays a key role in improving air quality and physical and mental health. Some blocks in Globeville/Elyria-Swansea have only 2% tree canopy. Across town, in other more affluent neighborhoods, such as Cherry Creek, residents enjoy up to 60%. It is no coincidence that some neighborhoods lack the green open spaces that mitigate heat and flooding. In fact, it is the result of a long history of government-instituted segregation. Learn more about the history of redlining in Denver’s neighborhoods in Groundwork Denver’s Climate Safe Neighborhoods report.

With project support from Groundwork Denver, residents in Globeville/Elyria-Swansea are working together to increase the tree canopy through planting initiatives. With every tree, on every block, in every neighborhood, Groundwork Denver and our neighbors are reminded that environmental justice and social justice go hand-in-hand.

“We define environmental justice through the equitable distribution of environmental benefits and environmental burdens or harms,” says Groundwork Denver’s executive director, Cindy Chang. “Communities of color, and poor communities in urban settings, have borne the brunt of environmental hazards in this country. On the flip side, they also have not received their fair share of environmental benefits, including open spaces, tree canopy, places to access food, and other things that we know are important to our health and wellbeing.”

Building climate-safe neighborhoods is just one of many projects that Groundwork Denver is leading to address both environmental and social issues in Denver. What sets Groundwork Denver apart, says Cindy, is that every Groundwork Denver project and program area is driven by community voices.

“The communities in which we work say what is in their community and what is not,” Cindy explains. “We know that who makes the decisions is just as important as the outcomes. We go into a neighborhood or community when we’re asked to be there to support with resources to help them achieve their own goals.” 

As part of the tree planting initiative, residents of Elyria-Swansea and Globeville set a goal to plant 20,000 trees in their neighborhood. While the goal is ambitious, Groundwork Denver knows it is attainable through teamwork and commitment. These factors, says Cindy, are the drivers of social and environmental change.

“I always tell people that it’s a long game for us,” says Cindy. “The environment will always need to be improved in a lot of ways. We’re not in it alone—we’re coming behind generations of people who have fought for their communities and worked their whole lives for social and environmental justice. The least we can do is work as hard as them.”

Groundwork Denver welcomes volunteers to join our work to support the health and wellbeing of our community while expanding their network and gaining new skills. Opportunities include planting trees, restoring habitats, collecting data, office work, and more. To get involved, visit our website.