A parking lot along South Academy Boulevard in Colorado Springs bakes in the sun


. The area’s 120 acres of parking lots, according to a recent University of Colorado Denver study, is a prime example of an area that gets hotter than neighborhoods with plenty of shade, a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect.

Colorado Springs residents sweltering through the heat of summer are not all doing so equally, as some neighborhoods are sheltered by far more trees and others are surrounded by unbroken blacktop.  

South Academy Boulevard, with 120 acres of parking lots according to a recent University of Colorado Denver study, is a prime example of an area that bakes in the summer sun, a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. 

As a whole, southeast Colorado Springs sees temperatures on average 6 to 8 degrees hotter than the rest of the city, a Colorado College study found in 2019. The downtown core, an area quickly becoming home to hundreds of new residents, also sees higher temperatures. 

The city of Colorado Springs is starting to work on solutions to the higher temperatures on the southeast side of town as part of a larger neighborhood plan that is aiming to address other problems as well, including poverty and crime.

However, the work is in the early stages and the city does not expect to plant trees as part of the upcoming reconstruction of south Academy Boulevard because underground utility lines are in the way, city staff said.

Long-term, greening the Southeast as a whole could also be difficult because of the area's poor soils and micro-climate, a problem that could extend into the developing Banning Lewis Ranch farther east. 

Academy Boulevard upgrades to improve safety, pedestrian accessibility, officials say

Shade trees and park space can lower neighborhood temperatures and help address some of the danger that ever rising temperatures can pose, particularly to young children and older adults, said Corina McKendry, director of the Environmental Studies Program at Colorado College. 

"It’s incredibly dangerous," she said. 

In 2020, heat was the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., outpacing floods, tornados, hurricanes and extreme cold among other dangerous events, according to the National Weather Service. Extreme heat becomes deadly when a person's body can no longer cool itself down and internal temperature rises rapidly. It can cause heat exhaustion or heat stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Colorado Springs saw five days of record-breaking high temperature days so far this summer, National Weather Service data shows, temperatures that can be particularly problematic in lower-income communities that may not have air conditioning, McKendry said. 

James Johnson, who works on economic improvement in southeast Colorado Springs, says he can see the difference in the tree canopy when he drives from his home in the northern part of the city to work in Southeast. 

"We don’t have a lot of trees …Or just natural city landscape vegetation," said Johnson, a property acquisitions manager for Solid Rock Community Development Corp., a group focused on affordable housing, small business development and healthy community environments.

The city has recently invested $8.5 million to build Panorama Park, near Fountain Boulevard and Jet Wing Drive, a park that was previously mostly vacant land. Ensuring the area has more green space and other heat-combating measures is likely to take more conversation and policy change, Johnson said. 

However, when communities add green spaces it can also drive gentrification, leading to less affordability, said Andrea Vaughn, in a city planning commission meeting. Vaughn, a University of Colorado Denver student, presented planning commissioners with some of her work around urban heat island solutions.  

She said after an old freight rail line in New York City was transformed into a public park it drove unintended hyper-gentrification. Some of those negative effects can be avoided if the improvement is driven by residents.  

"We should begin to engage the community before we engage developers," she said.

Still the city should not avoid putting in green spaces over fears of gentrification, McKendry said, because they can help improve mental and physical health in addition to mitigating rising temperatures.   

The city is still in the planning stages around addressing the urban heat island effect in southeast Colorado Springs, as part of a group effort that includes residents, said Hannah Van Nimwegen-McGuire, a city planner. 

The city could require residents to put in more trees and green space when they redevelop parcels, she said. 

The city could also encourage reflective or porous pavement to help address the heat or cover parking lots with solar panels to generate power and shade, McKendry said. Planting vegetation on rooftops, a concept known as green roofs, can also help.

Nurturing more green space and shade trees in Southeast could be more difficult because it is the driest quadrant of town and has some of the poorest soils, said Dennis Will, the city forester. Any city trees in the area would need to be irrigated to stay alive, he said. 

Locally sandy soils don't hold moisture and much of the area's rain tends to fall near the foothills or closer to the Palmer Divide, he said. In addition, native grasses are likely to out-compete trees for water in the area. 

It's likely that the new Banning Lewis Ranch area might face some of the same problems around trees particularly as the weather gets hotter and drier, Will said. 

While in the short-term the city does not plan to put in trees along south Academy Boulevard when its reconstructed from Bijou Street to Jet Wing Drive,  the project will feature a new multi-use trail, said Robin Allen, city project manager. Work is expected to start next year.

"Incorporating trees in the Academy Boulevard reconstruction project was considered, however, infrastructure within the public right-of-way limits space for enhanced landscaping along the corridor," she said, in a written response. Some of that infrastructure includes underground, fiber optic, telephone and gas lines.

While city plans for addressing the heat island are still in development, residents can help grow the urban canopy by planting their own trees. 

Residents interested in planting trees can consider varieties that can thrive in the climate including Kentucky coffee, maples, oaks, honey locust, and horse chestnut among others, Will said. 

Newly planted trees can be registered with the city at coloradosprings.gov/tree150 as part of its challenge to add 18,071 new trees over the next two years to honor the city's 150th anniversary. So far 10,263 trees have been planted as part of the challenge. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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