Random Thoughts

A place for random thoughts about City Park… 

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: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?

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

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

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.”


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.

Let’s Take A Pause, and Innovate
by Greg Davis

On Wednesday, November 11, the Parks & Recreation Advisory Committee will be voting on a new event policy. The Event Rest Periods Policy calls for “a pause” on events in Denver’s parks, and will set aside from 2 to 3 days per month when events will not be allowed in certain parks.  While many support this pause, or rest period, for events, the policy (available here), is being opposed by some as being too restrictive and limiting the potential of Denver’s vibrant urban culture.  The City Park Alliance is in support of this policy as it promotes setting aside days where City Park can simply exist as a quiet natural area, but perhaps there is different way of looking at this policy.  Perhaps Denver Parks and Recreation has made it too easy to host events in our parks.  Perhaps the ease and low cost of getting a permit for an event in our parks is limiting the vibrancy of our urban experience by forcing events out of our neighborhoods, out of innovative events spaces, and into our public parks.

Parks Need Rest

As the areas surrounding City Park become more densely populated, the need for preservation of a natural experience for rest and rejuvenation will proportionally increase.

As the areas surrounding City Park become more densely populated, the need to preserve natural areas for rest and rejuvenation will proportionally increase.

The City Park Alliance is in support of this policy simply because we believe that City Park needs a rest every once in a while. While City Park is a very large space, we believe that 2-3 days per month in the summer with no events is by no means restrictive for a natural area such as a park.  While City Park is a very large area which can handle multiple uses, the need to protect and preserve a natural experience within our urban core will only increase over time. With increasing density comes the need to increasingly protect our natural areas.  Where City Park once seemed desolate and disconnected to some, rapid development adjacent to City Park has caused for significant infill, population growth, and increased use.  As density increases surrounding City Park, the importance of maintaining natural areas where the mind and body can rest will proportionally increase.

Vibrancy Exists in Alternatives

City Park is a beautiful backdrop for events, but hosting an event in City Park doesn’t necessarily scream innovation. Some events in City Park such as City Park Jazz have become a cultural institution, but many events in City Park integrate poorly with the size and scale of City Park.  This begs the questions: Why bury so many events in the middle of Denver’s largest park?  Denver’s vibrant urban culture is often showcased best through events that bring events directly to the neighborhoods by using neighborhood business areas, roadways, and unused pocket parks.

Events like The Big Wonderful, which utilizes vacant land adjacent to the Denver Sustainability Park, can be used to reinvigorate neighborhoods.

Events like The Big Wonderful, which utilizes vacant land adjacent to the Denver Sustainability Park, can be used to reinvigorate neighborhoods.

Events like Viva Streets which exist directly within a long linear street not only bring events directly to the Denver neighborhoods but better link events to multimodal transportation options.    Events like the Martin Luther King Marade on Colfax Avenue send a powerful message directly to the people by travelling directly on Denver’s Main Street to the Colorado State Capitol.  Events like these help to make Denver great.  Using innovation and creativity to find new event spaces is what will take Denver’s vibrant urban experience to new heights.

Park Policies Enable a Lack of Creativity

Events like Viva Streets which integrate into existing neighborhoods are cherished in Denver, but permitting processes and costs make it much easier to host an event in a public park

Events like Viva Streets which integrate directly into neighborhoods are cherished in Denver, but permitting processes and low costs make it much easier to host an event in a public park

City Park is not the best place for many events.  Parking can sometimes be an issue.  City Park is not well connected to Denver’s growing light and medium rail network.  City Park isn’t terribly efficient for moving people as it’s designed to be a park and natural area.  Many of the events in City Park are utilized for non-profits to both raise money and promote a specific cause, yet these events aren’t particularly good for reaching new audiences when they are buried in the park.  Aside from a stunning backdrop, events at City Park don’t meet the needs of many of these non-profits as well as other event spaces could.  So…. Why is there such heavy pressure to get an event permit in City Park?  Simply put, it’s cheap and it’s easy to host an event in City Park.  The low cost of an event permit and the ease of obtaining a permit for an event in City Park (should the date be available) make it such that non-profits and other organizations don’t need to think outside the box.  They don’t need to consider alternatives… alternatives which may better suit their needs… simply because hosting an event in a city park is the path of least resistance.

A Challenge to the Special Events Office

Events for non-profit causes could be better situated within the public-right-of-way where they could spread their message to new audiences.

Events for non-profit causes could be better situated within the public-right-of-way where they could spread their message to new audiences and invoke a powerful community connection.

One bonus of a pause on events in selected parks is that it will force a level of innovation, and the timing for that innovation is right. In 2015, the Office of Special Events was created to support the ever-growing demand for public events in Denver.  The creation of the Office of Special Events can be used to help facilitate using new and innovative event spaces.  New event spaces which enhance Denver’s vibrant experience could include:

    • Unused/abandoned areas such as the area used for The Big Wonderful;
    • Long-linear stretches in the right-of-way evidence by events like Viva Streets or the Martin Luther King Marade; and
    • Neighborhood districts or features such as the Highlands District, the Santa Fe Arts District, and the Whittier Alley Loop.

Let’s Take A Pause and Innovate

Maybe it’s time to re-think the way Denver does events. 2-3 days per month with no events in City Park is not an unruly request.  In time, these rest days will be more appreciated as the areas around the park become more densely populated and the need for the rest and recovery offered by our natural areas becomes more important.  Maybe it’s time to take a pause.  If not for our parks, let’s take a pause so we can consider how to bring events to new and innovative spaces to create a more vibrant Denver experience.

City Loop, Opportunity Lost
by Greg Davis

On March 22, 2014, 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.

What If?

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.

CityLoop Clusters

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.

Competing Visions

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:

16th Street Mall

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.



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