The car-free City Park fight is about giving our kids an equitable future of parks, public transit and safe streets.
At 8 a.m. in central Denver, there’s plenty of traffic. There’s noise, exhaust pollution and hurried commuters. But throughout City Park, groups of children gather with backpacks and water bottles. They hug their parents goodbye and set out to climb trees. They admire red-tailed hawks nesting nearby but know not to chase geese. They observe the cycle of the moon. They cherish the nature found in City Park, the crown jewel of Denver’s parks.
Worldmind Nature School has permits to utilize City Park as an outdoor classroom for students in preschool through fifth grade. They’ve used the park for several years now, but this year offered a more robust outdoor classroom; nature flourished thanks to the absence of cars. The school always operates primarily outdoors, but this year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most classes have been outdoors 100 percent of the time. Every weekday, no matter the weather, the students learn and play in the park.
On Friday, March 19, Denver Parks and Recreation suddenly reopened City Park to car traffic without informing the school. Teachers and parents frantically texted the night before after hearing the news from a passing park worker. They worried about the safety of the young students, who were accustomed to the quiet park roads. Students worried about the red-tailed hawks in the trees near the park road. In one day, the students’ relationship with the park was significantly altered.
Parks are for people. Parks should provide a respite from the chaos of urban life. Denver’s streets are not relaxing. They are dangerous — living in Denver, you’re more likely to get killed in a traffic crash than a homicide. Pedestrian deaths continue to trend upward, even as we claim to be committed to Vision Zero.
Simultaneously, our region’s air quality continues to deteriorate, plagued by pollution and ground-level ozone. The city tells us it’s adopting measures to combat the climate crisis, but continues to implement plans that prioritize single-occupancy vehicles over transit, biking and walking. The day the park gates reopened was an “Ozone Action Alert” day, when local officials discouraged driving.
City Park, like many of our city’s parks and neighborhoods, has a rich history. Many Denver residents have memories of driving through the park when they were children. But when we look at today’s children, we need to give them not what we had, but what we know they need. Our leaders know we need a city with more green spaces for recreation and play. We need an equitable transportation network that meets the needs of all residents and provides safe streets for everyone. We need fewer cars and more buses and bikes. Policies must be forward-looking and data-driven, not based on nostalgia or old habits.
As a regional park, City Park must be accessible to everyone. For this reason, there are parking lots in every quadrant of the park, as well as an ADA lot in the center of the park. Neighborhoods near the park have ample street parking, although residents will attempt to claim this public space as their own.
A “car-free” park does not mean people cannot drive to the park. It means they cannot drive through the center of the park. A “car-free” park means a people-full park. People who are enjoying nature, just like the Worldmind students.
Megan Patterson is the founder and executive director of Worldmind, an outdoor-based, nonprofit independent school in Denver.
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