Sys­tem can’t af­ford to rest

City re­port says adap­ta­tions must be ac­cel­er­ated.

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Jon Murray

The think­ing be­hind Den­ver’s ex­pan­sive parks sys­tem al­ready is evolv­ing — the new­est parks are more likely to in­clude ar­eas with nat­u­ral veg­e­ta­tion, more places are be­ing con­verted to cater to niche sports such as disc golf, and lately dog parks have be­come among the most cov­eted of­fer­ings.

A new city re­port that’s part of a drive to set the course for Den­ver Parks and Recre­ation for the next 15 to 20 years says such adap­ta­tions must ac­cel­er­ate as the parks sys­tem con­tends with sev­eral emerg­ing chal­lenges. Chief among them are a rapidly grow­ing pop­u­la­tion with chang­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and health needs, cli­mate changes that will im­pose new en­vi­ron­men­tal stresses on the land­scape, and limited bud­gets and re­sources that could strain all of those ef­forts.

Those find­ings are con­tained in an “Ex­ist­ing Con­di­tions Re­port” un­veiled by city parks of­fi­cials Fri­day.

Over the course of 144 pages, the re­port takes stock of the Den­ver Parks and Recre­ation sys­tem, in­clud­ing 20,000 acres of city and moun­tain parks and 27 recre­ation cen­ters. It sets the ta­ble for a wide-rang­ing dis­cus­sion of fu­ture chal­lenges by a com­mu­nity task force that in com­ing months will draft the first up­date to the city’s parks plan since 2003.

“Parks have of­ten been seen as one of the ‘nice-to-haves,’ ” said Den­ver parks di­rec­tor Al­le­gra “Happy” Haynes, or some­thing to in­vest in only after the city takes care of the ba­sics.

“Part of what we’re try­ing to demon­strate and what we’ve seen in the find­ings in our study is that Parks and Recre­ation … is an im­por­tant piece of city in­fra­struc­ture, just like hav­ing streets to get places,” she said. “And that what we do has to be an in­te­gral part of the health and so­cial well-be­ing of our com­mu­nity.”

The fi­nal fu­ture-en­vi­sion­ing re­sult will be the lat­est ver­sion of “The Game Plan,” the moniker that Parks and Rec long has used to de­scribe its course-set­ting plans. It’s one of four strate­gic plans be­ing drafted dur­ing the city’s two-month “Den­veright” plan­ning process. Oth­ers will fo­cus on land use and trans­porta­tion, tran­sit and pedes­trian ac­cess.

Three 90-minute “open house” meet­ings are set for this week to in­vite pub­lic in­put on the Game Plan. They are set to be­gin at 6 p.m. Tues­day at South High School, Wednes­day at North High School and Thurs­day at the Mont­bello Recre­ation Cen­ter.

De­spite some per­sis­tent gaps in park ac­cess — an es­ti­mated 15 per­cent of city res­i­dents live more than a 10-minute walk from their

near­est park — the park sys­tem that was born dur­ing the “City Beau­ti­ful” move­ment of the late 1800s has held up well.

That mind-set, which set out plans for grand boule­vards and mon­u­men­tal parks, re­sulted in Civic Cen­ter, Speer Boule­vard, a neigh­bor­hood tree canopy and oases of lush, if wa­ter-suck­ing, green lawns in­stalled as parks on the city’s semi­arid prairie soil.

The Trust for Pub­lic Land’s lat­est ParkS­core rank­ing placed Den­ver’s parks sys­tem in a tie for 20th among the 100 largest U.S. cities.

Fast-grow­ing Den­ver is us­ing its parks dif­fer­ently

But one of the main chal­lenges high­lighted by the new re­port — how a grow­ing and chang­ing pop­u­la­tion is af­fect­ing use of parks — un­der­lines that Den­ver’s sys­tem can’t re­main stag­nant, Haynes said.

The city’s pop­u­la­tion has grown by nearly 22 per­cent since the 2003 Game Plan was adopted, to an es­ti­mated 682,545 in 2015. And the re­port notes that de­mog­ra­phers pro­ject Den­ver will grow by an­other 175,000 or so peo­ple by 2040.

To­day’s larger pop­u­la­tion uses parks in some fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent ways, the re­port says.

Mil­len­ni­als, ever glued to smart­phone screens, tend to pre­fer so­cial and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties in parks rather than pas­sive vis­its to take in na­ture.

Mean­while, the city’s grow­ing ranks of re­tirees still pre­fer to seek quiet re­spite in their near­est park. In between are fam­i­lies that are less likely to move to the sub­urbs than in pre­vi­ous decades, the re­port says.

A re­cent sur­vey con­ducted of 817 res­i­dents for the city found that “among the high­est pri­or­i­ties are dog parks, out­door cafes/con­ces­sions for food and bev­er­ages and in­door swim­ming pools . ... In gen­eral the com­mu­nity de­sires more so­cially-recre­ation based ameni­ties than recre­ation-spe­cific ameni­ties,” such as ath­letic fields and new golf cour­ses.

As Parks and Recre­ation has at­tempted to adapt to those chang­ing de­mands — al­low­ing more big events in parks and ac­com­mo­dat­ing disc golf, skate parks and even cricket games — that has set up some con­flicts.

The most re­cent ex­am­ple: a back­lash by neigh­bors of the res­i­den­tial Cheesman Park to an or­ga­nizer’s plans for the two-day Den­ver 420 Fes­ti­val next month. Ul­ti­mately, after the city set sev­eral con­di­tions on the per­mit, the or­ga­nizer can­celed the event last week.

“That’s an­other ex­am­ple of very new cir­cum­stances and trends in our com­mu­nity clash­ing with some of the tra­di­tional ones,” Haynes said last week, one day be­fore the can­cel­la­tion.

She said she would like to see Den­ver in­te­grate its recre­ation pro­grams, which tend to oc­cur in­doors at rec cen­ters, with parks more, po­ten­tially by open­ing up moun­tain parks to more field trips and mov­ing some pro­grams out­side to parks and trails.

Cli­mate change adds en­vi­ron­men­tal pres­sure

Cli­mate sci­en­tists say the Den­ver area and the Front Range al­ready are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing warmer sum­mers, with more po­ten­tial for 100-de­gree days, and will see more in­tense storms, espe­cially in the win­ter.

Such changes will put new pres­sure on the tree canopy and parks that help blunt the city’s heat is­land ef­fect, the parks re­port says. Al­ready there has been a shift away from us­ing non-na­tive Ken­tucky bluegrass and to­ward more nat­u­ral veg­e­ta­tion, and the re­port says city of­fi­cials will need to reeval­u­ate how it uses re­sources for parks in other ways.

But Haynes and Gordon Robert­son, Den­ver Parks and Rec’s di­rec­tor of park plan­ning, de­sign and con­struc­tion, say lawns for ath­letic fields and other uses will al­ways have a role to play.

“It means we’ll have a broader and more di­verse port­fo­lio of fa­cil­i­ties,” Haynes said, with op­por­tu­ni­ties in­clud­ing more trails through the city.

Tight fund­ing could bring call for more money

The third big chal­lenge iden­ti­fied by the re­port — limited bud­gets and a need to adapt how Parks and Rec op­er­ates — also could strain the parks sys­tem’s abil­ity to meet new chal­lenges.

The de­part­ment’s $69 mil­lion gen­eral fund this year will cover op­er­a­tions for a sys­tem that Robert­son said has $1.5 bil­lion in as­sets on parks prop­erty — in­clud­ing many with de­ferred main­te­nance.

“Yet our cit­i­zens have ev­ery ex­pec­ta­tion that we’re go­ing to be able to con­tinue to grow and adapt and meet these ex­pec­ta­tions,” Haynes said. “We have some pretty daunt­ing chal­lenges for us, par­tic­u­larly on the eco­nomics side.”

Though Haynes calls it “an early con­ver­sa­tion,” the long-term plan could rec­om­mend that the city seek new im­pact fees or taxes to pay for parks pro­ject. An­other op­tion could be to seek more spon­sor­ships and pri­vate part­ner­ships.

As the Game Plan process shifts to the draft­ing stage in April and May, Robert­son said the Ex­ist­ing Con­di­tion Re­port’s find­ings will set the stage for im­por­tant com­mu­nity con­ver­sa­tions.

“That dis­cus­sion is re­ally start­ing in earnest,” he said.

Den­ver Post file photo

One as­pect of the city’s study of parks is the pub­lic’s use of lands for recre­ation, rest or so­cial­iz­ing.

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