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Denver Parks on Parade

Earlier this month, more than 30 park professionals from the US and Canada were hosted by Denver Parks and Recreation Department in collaboration with City Parks Alliance for a tour of their park system. Eighteen cities were represented, including teams from Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

Photo courtesy of Hope Gibson

Photo courtesy of Hope Gibson

The Denver team put on a first class demonstration of their expertise in planning, design, construction and programming – from the smallest neighborhood park to Red Rocks Amphitheater, a part of Denver’s mountain parks system – and in every case showing us how a twenty-first century city parks department operates: seamlessly.

From the neighborhood partnerships to the collaboration with their own city departments to alliances with social service providers, arts and music organizations, and other parks programmers, Denver’s parks department uses and leverages all the value that parks offer and its mission can muster. Citywide partners like the Trust for Public Land – perfectly exemplifying its urban mission – and the Colorado Health Foundation are working closely with the department on many of its projects; as are local developers, transit, and bicycling partners. On some of our park visits it was hard to tell who worked for whom; in fact, most simply said they worked for the parks.

DEN2The parks staff showed themselves to be sophisticated players who understand the role of parks in making a great city and have earned their seat at the table for project planning for much of Denver’s visionary redevelopment. We heard about the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, a compelling vision from Mayor Michael B. Hancock to re-create and connect North Denver neighborhoods with trails, parks and river access; transit development; a next generation Denver Coliseum and reconstruction of I-70 – with a project timeline of more than 10 years driven by public-private partnerships and innovative use of the South Platte River.

A bus trip through Stapleton, the redeveloped former Denver international airport property, revealed nearly 1,200 acres of new parkland – 35% of the redevelopment project – at the center of which is the 80-acre Stapleton Central Park beautifully anchoring the community to its high plains context.

DEN5Classic downtown parks like Civic Center Park and Cheesman Park act as both gathering places for civic events and a nexus for art, history, and landscape architecture. And new neighborhood parks, like Triangle Park, showed how art and gardens could go hand in hand with warehouse redevelopment.

Right through the city runs the South Platte River Greenway, one of the most ambitious urban waterfront projects in the nation – and it’s still growing partly to reach more neighborhoods and partly as it is redesigned to accommodate soaring use – such as at Confluence Park, where the South Platte meets up with Cherry Creek. Word has it that real estate prices around the confluence are some of the highest in the state, second only to Aspen.

The Denver area has had much rain this season and the landscape was in its full glory – green grass, rushing streams and rivers, an abundance of flowers, and, of course, an abundance of park visitors. Every park we visited was filled with users – even the ones that had yet to open had a bevy of young fans hanging on the fences, wondering when the park was going to open.

DEN6Not only does the parks team perform seamlessly in their partnerships, but the parks are connected to each other via the river corridors, transit and trails, making one feel like you never had to get in your car – except maybe for below zero temps in the winter. During our visit to the downtown area we were shown the newly re-opened Union Station, entering via the flower-filled promenade and seeing the underground passenger station with 22 bus stations that links local and regional travel – with a connector to the airport on schedule for early 2016.

What did the visiting guests take away from all this?

Design. Everywhere you looked there was careful attention to detail that made the user experience more comfortable, beautiful, and practical.

Leadership. Lauri Dannemiller and Gordon Robertson are doing something right to be a regular part of the Mayor’s vision team for the city.

Capability. How many city park departments include 14,000 acres of mountain parks that are maintained and programmed by the same team working in the city’s playgrounds?

Innovation. Parks are linked in creative ways to economic development, stormwater management, flood control, and transit that make the movement from parks to work to home appear…yes, seamless.

Program support for the Denver Urban Parks Study Tour was provided by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, and The Colorado Health Foundation.

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.

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