Park Place

An ambitious plan to expand Denver's parks may take root if the political climate is fertile.

In her design for the playground, Kuykendall proposed a theme based on the Mother Goose stories. "When I presented it to the neighborhood association, they were outraged I would use Eurocentric cultural figures," she remembers. "It never occurred to me anybody would object to Mother Goose. It was a real eye-opener."

Eventually, she replaced that theme with several animal figures from African folk tales. She says the white families in Whittier have made a point of trying to honor the area's black history, and they supported giving the playground an African theme.

Similar conflicts rooted in ethnic and class differences have emerged in other parks, including Sloan's Lake and City Park.

Anthony Camera
Susan Baird (left) and Tina Scardina are planning ahead for better Denver parks.
Anthony Camera
Susan Baird (left) and Tina Scardina are planning ahead for better Denver parks.

"In City Park, there's a strong contingent that would like to see every road closed and cars banned from the park," says Baird. "There are a lot of African-American teenagers who hang out there. Should a teenager be able to blare music in his car to impress his girlfriend?"

One of the reasons Denver's parks see so many conflicts is their popularity. Compared with similar cities, Denver ranks about average for the number of acres of parks per resident (excluding the mountain parks). But Denver residents use their parks more often, with 80 percent reporting they'd visited a park or recreation facility in the last year; the national average is 67 percent. Forty-two percent of Denverites said they had visited a city park at least ten times in the past year, while another 36 percent reported one to nine visits per year.

With a growing population and denser neighborhoods, Denver must move now to expand its parks system, Baird says. Many of the conflicts that have cropped up in neighborhood parks are the result of a shortage of places for people to play soccer or softball, and she fears those pressures will grow worse as Denver's population expands. She's especially alarmed that some of the fastest-growing areas -- downtown, the west side and southeast Denver -- also have the fewest parks.

"We're saying, 'Here are these neighborhoods that are park-deficient; let's target those neighborhoods,'" says Baird.

The "City in a Park" plan begins at the front door of every Denver home and expands outward. It calls for planting 50,000 trees, to ensure that each street in the city is leafy and green. The goal is to increase the "tree canopy," which now spreads over about 6 percent of Denver's land area. Baird thinks 18 percent of the city should be covered by trees.

The plan's most ambitious goal may be to create some sort of park space within six blocks of every resident. Surveys conducted by the department indicate that what Denverites most want are small parks, just down the street. This highlights one of the greatest injustices in Denver's parks system: while east Denver, in particular, has a wealth of parks and parkways, other areas of the city have been shortchanged.

The National Parks and Recreation Association recommends that cities have ten acres of parkland for every 1,000 people. Although Denver as a whole meets that standard, several neighborhoods fall well short of that goal. According to the city, the most park-deprived neighborhoods include West Colfax, Villa Park, Westwood, Harvey Park and Harvey Park South in west Denver; Highland, West Highland and Sunnyside in northwest Denver; Park Hill and East Colfax, and parts of southeast Denver including University Hills, Virginia Village, Cory Merrill and Southmoor Park. (Several of these neighborhoods also rank among the fastest-growing in the city, with large numbers of young families; many neighborhoods on the city's east side are now populated largely by "empty nesters," whose children are grown.)

There are several explanations for this inequity. During the Speer era, the city was divided into different parks districts, and residents on the wealthier east side were more willing to vote for bond issues to build parks. Developers of swanky subdivisions were also more likely to set aside land for a park, and most of those developments were in east Denver. Building a parkway on Seventh Avenue was an ideal way to sell expensive homesites. (That tradition continues at Lowry, where the Sixth Avenue parkway is already home to some of the most expensive new houses.) At one time, the west side had its own lavish parkway along Federal Boulevard, one of the most beautiful in the city. But the automobile age doomed the huge elm trees along Federal, which were destroyed in 1955 to make room for additional lanes.

Creating new parks and parkways will be a challenge in already developed urban areas, but Baird believes the department can achieve this goal by being creative.

"I think when you're a built-up, older city, you have to be very inventive," she says. "Northside Park is a good example. That's an old sewage-treatment plant, but now it tells a story." The park, which has garnered national attention, left many of the walls from the old plant standing, creating a strangely beautiful landscape of trees and lawns folded into the half-buried remains of treatment tanks.

Landscaping schoolyards throughout the city would be an ideal way to increase neighborhood park space, says Baird, who estimates that 750 acres of park-land could be added if the city works with public and private schools and colleges to help fund landscaping. The department has already targeted fifty elementary and three middle schools in the Denver Public Schools system that could become neighborhood parks.

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