System can’t afford to rest
City report says adaptations must be accelerated.
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.
One aspect of the city’s study of parks is the public’s use of lands for recreation, rest or socializing.