Commentary

More Mojo: Denver Needs to Become a City Within a Nature Preserve

A Denver proposal for a High Line Canal connection.
A Denver proposal for a High Line Canal connection. Denvergov.org
Has Denver lost its mojo? That's a question we explored in our package published July 20. Since then, we've received many responses, along with some thoughtful suggestions for how the Mile High City can get its mojo back. Here's one of them:

That cities are a "concrete jungle" is a common enough complaint in the modern world, often backed by the observation that it is possible — if one so wishes — to go through life encountering nothing "natural" save the occasional mud puddle. We are here, nature is "there." We succeeded in the millennia-long quest of antecedent generations to separate human culture from adjacent wilderness, or so we often think of it.

But nature disagrees. Imagine the Great Plains as a boundless sea, with the foothills as the dunes of the western shore. In an actual seashore, it is intuitive that the waters [should be] vibrant with marine life, and the cliff tops and dunes with life of that biome — but in between, trapped in the surf, is a rough and rocky strand that at first glance may appear not only lifeless, but inhospitable. Yet tide pools are not duds, but vibrant ecosystems in their own right, possibly even more robust than either larger adjacent ecosystem. A city can, in analogy, be considered from that same perspective. Urban development is a set of constraints imposed over a pre-existing set of habitats, not unlike a landslide filling a lush valley with rough boulders. But given time and opportunity, nature will imbue the reshaped landscape with a set of creatures and plants suited to the new reality.

The city manages 6,000 acres of parks and over eighty miles of trails (many more of both, if we count the metro as a whole), but nature does not stop at the boundary of a park. Cemeteries, courtyards, backyards, street trees and even golf courses can all be found as vibrant — if we get out of the way and let them.

Of the 514 bird species documented to have occurred within the state, about 400 have been recorded in the metro area, and many seemingly as part of their normal annual routines, with perhaps 100 or so of those nesting locally. Cavity nesting birds — normally associated with mature tree canopy — can be found downtown, even if in smaller numbers than in other more "intuitively natural" parts of the city, like a park. (For context, a bird feeder in the local area is of interest to about 40 species; the other 90 percent of species are here for other reasons.)

Coyote can be found or heard in every neighborhood, beaver should be expected anywhere there is moving water, and the notoriously shy bobcat den within the developed metro area. We are no stranger to deer or bear, and even the occasional elk or mountain lion barely registers surprise in us.

A USDA survey several years ago recorded over 500 plant species (excluding flower beds and planters), a number that is likely double if we slide our boundary out to include everything inside the 470 loopway. For context, a survey of the High Line Canal commissioned by the new conservancy found not quite 500 plant species just within the footprint of the canal, not counting adjacent neighborhoods and open spaces, and there is very good reason to think every regularly occurring insect and vertebrate species could be found along its length as well.

Nature may be sneaky, but it is not absent. It has been said to the point of cliché in years past that Denver is a city within a park, and the sentiment is not wrong, though I would argue it is incomplete. Denver is — or rather, could be — a city within a nature preserve, if we let it. An urban jungle, if you will, that happens to have concrete instead of boulders. Awareness is the first step to pride and, I hope, a rejuvenated mojo. Go out and enjoy it!

Kenyon Moon is with the Urban Bird, a shop in southeast Denver that's interested in urban areas as ecosystems and challenging the sentiment that nature is "incidental" in cities; it encourages people to experience urban areas as a series of interconnected social and ecological networks rather than the "islands" we often perceive as a result of accessing these areas by a series of parking lots and thoroughfares.


Westword.com frequently publishes essays and opinion pieces on matters of interest to the metro community. Have one you'd like to share? Send it to [email protected] And watch for more mojo responses in the next print edition of Westword.
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