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Frontline Park: Western Gateway Park

WGPthmbEach month, City Parks Alliance names one “Frontline Park” as a standout example of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship from across the country. The program identifies city parks that find innovative ways to meet the unique challenges faced as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay. This month, City Parks Alliance has named Western Gateway Park a Frontline Park. 


Des Moines, IA sits squarely in the middle of the ‘sweet spot’ of national rankings for economic strength, overall quality of life, and affordability (one of only 3 cities in the country to do so.) In addition to being the state capital and a university town, Des Moines is a hub for insurance, finance, and publishing, and the health sector is rapidly growing. Given the ample jobs and low cost of living, it’s no wonder that young professionals are moving out of large coastal metro areas to find new opportunities in the Midwest.

Located in the western part of Des Moines’ downtown, Western Gateway Park has become the cultural and greenspace nexus for the city, and is one of the many amenities that is attracting people to Des Moines’ downtown core. The 13-acre space incorporates a mix of private and public spaces, including a sculpture park, a public library, a continuing education center, and a performing arts center.

Like many Midwestern cities, Des Moines’ downtown was mainly geared towards industry and commercial lots, the kind of place where people work but don’t stay. In the early 2000s, the western part of downtown was all but abandoned, full of vacant lots and run-down buildings. While the downtown core hosts a large employment base, workers would head back to their homes in suburbs and outlying areas after 5 pm. There simply wasn’t much incentive to hang around, let alone live and play, in downtown Des Moines.

Seeing a need to turn downtown around, a partnership between business and civic leaders was formed to address issues around vibrancy, livability, and to bring people—and retail—back to the neighborhood. Their first order of business was to launch a campaign to create a public space spanning four blocks, with redevelopment of public facilities and private businesses to follow. Over the span of 8 years, the existence of the park attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in investment from foundations and corporations alike for projects like the Des Moines Central Library and the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, residential buildings, and the headquarters of Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Since opening in 2006, Western Gateway Park has spurred cultural development as well as economic development. Iowa holds a prominent place in national politics, and is a favorite stopover for presidential candidates on the campaign trail. Political events (and protests) are not uncommon in Western Gateway Park, and in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama famously held a massive rally in the park just days before his eventual election as President.

WGPpokemonThe park is also home to the Des Moines Arts Festival, considered to be one of the best in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to downtown. The 80/35 indie music festival is a highlight for the city’s hip urban crowd, featuring 50 bands over the course of two days on multiple stages. Even when there isn’t a big event, people can be found crowding around the park’s many food trucks and walking the foot paths, or using their phones to capture rare Pokemon known to be in the area.

The Work is Never Done, It Only Changes – Transforming a downtown district with greenspace at its core requires tons of cooperation from public and private partners. Developing a shared, realistic vision is essential to keeping the partnership together as capital projects are completed and the focus shifts to maintenance and programming.

Downtown Community Alliance
Des Moines Park and Recreation

The Frontline Parks program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. (www.dumor.com)

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