Placemaking for City Park

by Greg Davis

  • What do you like at City Park?  
  • What would you like to see, do, and experience at City Park?

“Placemaking” involving numerous home-grown experiences may be the pathway to the best City Park.

City Park is undergoing a series of major planning efforts in 2016 and 2017 which will shape the future of the park for the next generation. The success of these efforts will be directly proportional to the involvement of the local community. However, how can the community be involved in these efforts, and how can they make a difference? The answer to that questions is very simple. The answer is the same as the answer to the question: What would make City Park a better place?

So, how do we make City Park a better place? The answer may lie in a process call placemaking. One non-profit organization, the Project for Public Spaces(PPS), dedicates their entire existence to creating great public spaces through placemaking. The PPS web site defines placemaking as such:

Placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value… Placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.

What??? … that may not make much sense unless you are a professional planner.  Here is a much simpler definition: Placemaking is a community driven approach that makes for adaptable public spaces where people want to hang out at which are never dominated by a single use. Is that better?

The Placemaking Power of Ten

Breakdance Central Park

Placemaking includes numerous organic experiences, none of which dominate the entire place.

To further elaborate on this concept, PPS came up with a new concept called The Power of Ten. This is a simple concept. If there are ten separate focal points in a specific place, then it will be a better place. Here’s the example directly from PPS: “A park is good. A park with a fountain, playground, and popcorn vendor is better. A library across the street is even better, more so if they feature storytelling hours for kids and exhibits on local history. If there’s a sidewalk café nearby, a bus stop, a bike trail, and an ice cream parlor, then you have what most people would consider a great place.” Simply put, what would make City Park a great place is a variety of activities to stimulate the senses, none of which dominates the overall use of the park.

The first time I visited New York City with my family, we planned a day at Central Park. We had no itinerary but had a wonderful time. We watched a breakdancing group, rowed a boat through the canal, stopped by the John Lennon “Imagine” plaque, played at the playground, experienced nature, and grabbed (an expensive) bite to eat at Tavern on the Green. It was a great day, and it was totally spontaneous. While City Park is not as large as Central Park in New York, a similar experience could be had if there was a larger variety of smaller activities.

City Park Doesn’t Function as a Great “Place”

Denver Parks and Recreation, the Denver Zoo, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science have all put a tremendous amount of effort into City Park, however, it still doesn’t function as a great place. The majority of visitors to the park arrive by car, experience one event, one zoo, or one museum, and then leave in the same car they arrived in.

Denver Parks and Recreation, in an effort to activate City Park has permitted many more events in the park. While some of these events have been successful, many of the events serve to cut off areas of the park and make the park a car-dominated space. Ironically, it’s many of the small events which are the worst offenders of good placemaking. Many of the non-profit runs in the park, while serving worthwhile causes, tend to isolate activities in the park. Most of the participants arrive by car, participate in the event, and then leave shortly thereafter. It’s hard to argue that the very large “Get Outdoors Day” event didn’t offer a variety of activities, so from a placemaking perspective, the type of event to attract is far more important than the size of the event. Regardless, events aren’t the pathway to a great City Park. A great City Park is one where people can spend an entire day and experience a variety of home-grown activities which are unique, flexible, and ever-changing. In tabbing City Park as a “regional park”, we’ve been going about it all wrong. City Park can be a regional park without car-dominated transportation systems and single-focus events. In fact, a neighborhood-driven unique public space may just be the best possible “regional park” that City Park can be.

A Tale of Two Institutions

irridescent cloud

The recent museum expansion brings visual interest and activities into the park to make for a better park experience.

City Park already has two fantastic institutions upon which a framework can grow. What is ironic, is just how divergent these two institutions are in placemaking. The Museum of Nature and Science has been a fantastic partner in growing the City Park sense of place. Recent additions to the Museum have brought elements of the Museum into the park to enhance the park experience. A rainbow on the sidewalk brings children from the park onto the new Boettcher Plaza to see a pot of gold. The Boettcher Plaza was designed to seamlessly integrate into the existing pathways in City Park and even brings sculptural elements such as the Iridescent Cloud Sculpture and a totem pole directly into the park as features. Even in the underground parking structure, museum designers went the extra mile to create visual interest by including a dinosaur who peeks from below to visit passers-by in the park. Even though the museum has recently expanded, the expansions have been thoughtful in consideration of integrating the museum into the park. People want to walk to the museum, and people want to experience the museum grounds. Even if you are not visiting the museum, the grounds are walkable and add to City Park’s “Power of 10.”


Closure of the East and West Portal entrances to the general public and a lack of safe pedestrian access to the Denver Zoo from City Park does nothing to create a sense of “place.”

On the other side of the spectrum, The Denver Zoo has not been a very good placemaking partner in City Park. Three separate entrances used to allow for greater pedestrian access to the Zoo for local residents. Since the closure of the East Portal and West Portal entrances of the Denver Zoo, getting to the Denver Zoo has become a uniquely car-dominated experience. On any given weekend day in Park Hill, I used to see caravans of parents pulling wagons with kids walking to the Denver Zoo. With the closure of the East Portal entrance to the general public, this is a distant memory. Now these parents drive to the Zoo, spend no additional time in the park, and then drive home. This is a far cry from the home-grown placemaking concepts created by the Project for Public Spaces. The Denver Zoo does not integrate well into the park. Eroded trails along 23rd Avenue and parking lots make for poor pedestrian access, and awkward new buildings such as the waste to energy building front the park. The City Park Circulation Plan defines a new “Zoo Loop” trail as an engaging pedestrian experience. The 2015 Zoo Master Plan re-defines this same area as a “perimeter service drive that would allow easy access by service vehicles, animal care staff and other operational functions.” Some of the new exhibits proposed by the Denver Zoo are awe-inspiring and innovative, but for the Zoo to become a better placemaking partner, that innovation needs to extend beyond the zoo walls. If City Park is to become a great “place”, the people surrounding the park need to ensure that the City Park Master Plan utilizes the examples from the Museum of Nature and Science to put pressure on the Denver Zoo to become a better placemaking partner in City Park.

What’s Next?

The roadmap for the City Park Master Plan will be laid out in the upcoming months, and this includes a lot of public input. We need your take on what should happen next. In bringing up this concept to a couple of people in casual conversation, I was presented with some really cool ideas. Graduate students Cayla Cothron and Kelsey Blaho talked about activating the Graham Bible House property by including a place to buy an ice cream cone or snack. They also talked about creating a butterfly garden along the DeBoer Waterway and creating a biomimetic trail along the proposed Zoo Loop. City Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee Chair Andrew Sense talked about creating a literary tribute to East High School graduate Neal Cassady from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to coincide with the already existing literary themes around Shakespeare’s Elm and the Robert Burns monument in the park. These are just a couple of ideas based on a few conversations. With a whole community participating, it’s hard to even conceive of the possibilities for placemaking in City Park, so it’s time to put on your thinking cap and ask yourself:

  • What do you like at City Park?
  • What would you like to see, do, and experience at City Park?

One concept the Project for Public Spaces continually focuses on is that great public spaces are not created top-down – they are created from the bottom up through community participation. City Park can become a world class placemaking success, but it will only happen with the community being involved.

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