by Greg Davis (Board Chair, City Park Alliance)
On March 22, Lauri Dannemiller, Director of Denver Parks and Recreation, addressed a crowded room of stakeholders at the Denver Zoo to note that the City Loop project will not be constructed in City Park. Upon making the announcement, the majority of the room roared with excitement. However, a few of the participants at that meeting, myself included, were disappointed. That marked not just the end of the loop project, but the end of a potential 3-5 million dollar investment in City Park.
City Park Alliance was aggressive in providing outreach throughout the playground design competition. For over a year, we provided updates on meetings through our web site, we urged citizens to take the online survey using a QR code which we handed out on 2,000 notecards at various events, and we showcased the potential designs at local businesses and at the City Park Ice Cream Social. City Park Alliance served on the design selection committee, and I was really excited about the potential of the City Loop. I was drawn to the sculptural beauty of the design and while it was very large in scale, much of the design did not contribute to the impervious footprint in the park.
While large in scope, the City Loop design included a number of interrelated “play clusters”, the connectivity of which could have been redesigned to reduce the visual impact of the project and to improve park habitat.
In my excitement over the City Loop design, I aggressively promoted it, and in hindsight, I was a little overzealous. The City Loop design, especially with the inclusion of seating areas and lighting associated with the “City Park Promenade”, was too significant for City Park. However, what if there could have been a balance? Did the City Loop need to be so literal, or could it have been segmented such that the linkage between the five play “clusters” was more of just a presumption? The proposed designs did include a significant amount of tree plantings and habitat improvement, but what if the design of the clusters was specifically oriented to improve the biological diversity of the park. Native grasses, trees, and perennials could have been planted in a pattern with the specific goals of enhancing wildlife movement corridors and improving vegetative heterogeneity. The City Park Promenade design could have been altered to provide some additional infrastructure while maintaining a natural look and feel. Finally, lighting systems could have been designed as being as minimal as possible with the overall goal of improving security for those accessing City Park from the west. All of these were options at the table from the beginning. However, they were more specifically on the table when Denver Parks and Recreation hosted meetings in March of 2014 with the specific purpose of re-designing the City Loop to fit better into the park. These meetings represented a tremendous opportunity to meet in the middle and to create a design which met everyone’s needs. All that remains today of the City Loop at City Park is an opportunity lost.
One of the most difficult situations for compromise is when there are competing visions for the same asset. From the onset of the City Loop project, it was apparent that Denver Parks & Recreation and the surrounding neighborhood organizations have competing visions. Denver Parks & Recreation’s vision for City Park is that of a regional attraction- a place that people should visit from around the world and a place that should exemplify Denver’s growing reputation as a world class center for innovation. For local neighborhood associations and the outspoken advocates against the City Loop project, the vision for City Park is that of a natural landscape- an oasis in the city that should remain as undeveloped as possible.
Therein was the problem moving forward with the City Loop. Neither advocates for City Loop or opponents thereof were able to express how a compromise could still meet each other’s visions, thus resulting in a stalemate. Proponents of City Loop could have looked for opportunities to reduce the overall footprint of the project while exploring opportunities to improve biological diversity. Opponents of City Loop could have looked for opportunities to ensure that this would still be viewed as an innovative world class project invigorating all-ages play. Without framing the process in a way which recognized each other’s visions, thoughtful compromise was never possible.
We Can Do Better
In my day job as a federal regulator, I am constantly reminded of the power of thoughtful public input. Numerous people make a living privately or publicly criticizing the decisions made in my office, and for many of those people, effecting change is viewed as being thoroughly out of reach. However, the power of one person to make a difference in how new regulations are written can be immense when that input is provided at the right time, in the right place, and in the right context. So, how can we make this process better moving forward?
Denver Parks & Recreation:
Many advocates of City Park have memories of past proposals which tainted their overall view of the project, and rightly so. It was not too long ago that a fire station was proposed to be built in the park, City Park was being viewed as a potential location for the Denver Aquarium, and ticketed movies in the park were being considered. With that said, from my experience working with the City Loop, there was no hidden agenda moving forward. Every employee in Denver Parks & Recreation that I worked with on the City Loop project was excited to be part of it. This excitement was not related to potential revenues. This excitement was because City Loop had the potential to create a world class all-ages play area. With that said, here are some steps which Denver Parks & Recreation can take moving forward on similar projects:
- Transparency: With the sting of past proposals still fresh (e.g., fire station), transparency is critical. While there were significant public meetings related to City Loop, meeting summaries were not posted or made available. This was compounded by the fact that the City Loop web site was not operational for several months. When there is a past history of concern and where a project can be considered controversial, transparency is critical through well documented communications.
- Early involvement: The first time many people heard of the “reimagine play” project from which City Loop was chosen was during a design competition. The project parameters for the project such as costs and objectives were already defined. If these could have been brought to the neighborhood associations prior to the design competition being initiated, it would have provided a more productive dialog moving forward.
- Recognition of competing visions: From day 1, the “reimagine play” design competition was created with the vision for City Park being that of a “regional park.” Many daily park users and neighborhood advocates do not share that vision. Early vetting of the project goals with neighborhood associations could have driven the project in a manner more consistent with the shared boundaries of the two visions.
Neighborhood Associations/ Park Advocates:
It’s important to stick to your vision, but sometimes you have to trust innovators to innovate. It’s hard to imagine Denver without the 16th Street Mall, but at one point, it was considered a controversial municipal project. Photo by Matt Wright – Wikimedia Commons
The first thing to understand about working with the City of Denver and Denver Parks and Recreation, is that they are always trying to innovate. In my federal employment, I’m constantly trying to create new approaches to do things better. I am inundated with information from around the world on the very specific topic of regulating stormwater discharges and integrating sustainable infrastructure into municipal designs. While on the job, I try to push the envelope by creating new concepts based on successes gleaned from around the world. Similarly, the City of Denver staff is inundated with information on topics such as land use and transportation planning, and they strive to use the best examples to make our city better through continual innovation. The point being is that, while it may seem like the bubble is being pushed too far, there is often a logical endpoint conceived through extensive research. A case in point is the 16th Street Mall. In 1982, Phil Milstein, director of Downtown Denver, Inc., proposed the idea of a pedestrian mall. Numerous retailers, residents, and even Mayor Bill McNichols, callously rejected the proposal. However, today, it’s hard to envision Denver without the iconic I.M. Pei designed pedestrian mall serving as a transportation hub and state landmark. With that in mind, here are some steps which neighborhood associations and park advocates can take moving forward on similar projects:
- Be open to new concepts: Similar to the example of the 16th Street Mall, the “reimagine play” concept was innovative to the core. While opponents of the City Loop repeated the concepts of “kid size” playgrounds “for kids”, these concepts are inconsistent with the emerging science of creating multi-aged play spaces. Numerous examples from around the world demonstrate the multiple benefits of all-ages play spaces in an urban area, and the designers of City Loop were very aware of what has worked, what can work, and how innovation can create amazing play spaces.
- Comment proactively and with precision: In order to provide proactive feedback and effect positive change, it is critical to provide feedback at the right time, at the right place, and in the right context.
- Be specific about your vision and how it can integrate with other’s visions: Early on in the process, it is necessary to not only state what your vision is, but how it can integrate with other’s visions. If City Loop were to have moved forward, the pathway to success would have started with the collective vision that the project would be designed not only with world class innovation but with a specific attention placed on maintaining and enhancing the natural beauty and biological diversity of City Park.
In the end, maybe the City Loop wasn’t what was best for City Park. This is a polarizing issue for which there was even disagreement between the various board members of the City Park Alliance. But I can’t help but think: If there had been engagement of neighborhoods early on…. If we could have been more organized in our communications… If we could have been better at recognizing our competing visions throughout the process… what could have been.