Downtown Denver is booming. But while the center city has seen billions of dollars in private investment over the past two decades, public investment in parks has not kept pace. With thousands of new residents and an expanding local economy bringing a diversity of needs, the formal civic spaces that are typical to Downtown are not meeting the daily expectations of the residents, visitors, students, and employees that use them. The Outdoor Downtown provides a 20-year blueprint for the future of Downtown’s parks and public spaces through the strategic partnership of the public and private sectors. The plan aims to re-establish a collective stewardship of the entire public realm of Downtown Denver and invest in people and places that will transform the way we value public space.
Downtown Denver, long a bustling neighborhood, commerce, and entertainment center for the Rocky Mountain West, fell on hard times in the decades leading up to the 21st century. The flight of city dwellers to the suburbs, followed by urban renewal and the Silver Crash of the 1980s, resulted in a Downtown that effectively shut down at 5:00pm. Downtown Denver had parks – Civic Center Park, Skyline Park – but it did not have anybody to use them.
Fast-forward to the 2000s. The lessons from the Silver Crash have resulted in a diversified economy in Downtown Denver. Fortune 500 corporations are leaving the comfort of Midwest and coastal communities for the convenience of Downtown Denver and the access it provides to the outdoor activities that Colorado has to offer. Cultural attractions, sporting events and national conventions are drawing millions of visitors each year. These opportunities have translated into tremendous residential, employment and tourism growth in Downtown Denver’s eight neighborhoods. Downtown Denver is booming.
A booming Downtown is great for economic attraction. It legitimizes our cultural aplomb and creates a draw for national conventions. And it is home to people – more than 19,000 residents, 120,000 employees, and 50,000 students. But while Downtown Denver has seen billions of dollars in private investment over the past two decades, public investment in parks has not kept pace. Development pressures have driven up land values, making the creation and acquisition of new parks extremely challenging. Maintenance budgets have been largely stagnant, leaving the Denver Parks & Recreation department to struggle to keep up with even the most basic routine maintenance. Where once Downtown Denver had parks but not people, it now has people but little quality park space.
Recognizing the importance of quality parks and open space to a vibrant community, Denver Parks & Recreation and the Downtown Denver Partnership joined forces in 2015 to develop The Outdoor Downtown – a plan for Downtown Denver’s parks and public spaces. This public-private partnership sought to describe an ambitious vision for the future of Downtown’s outdoor spaces and identify actionable steps to achieve that vision. Critical to the partnership was the recognition that parks alone cannot fill the void of useable outdoor space for downtown users, and that the entire public realm – parks, streets, privately-owned plazas – must be considered holistically.
Developed on the backbone of a public engagement process that was both broad and granular, the Outdoor Downtown plan sought to understand the public perception of the city’s parks and public spaces; to learn how residents, employees and visitors would like to use the outdoors; and to prioritize implementation actions to show real progress. Through a statistically valid survey sent to thousands of households, intercept surveys completed by people using parks and public spaces, and public forums that drew hundreds, the engagement process received input from over 4,000 interested citizens. To home in on recommendations, planners held focused forums with a broad cast of stakeholders, including the local business community, property owners, land developers, arts and cultural organizations, Downtown residents, health providers and parks maintenance personnel.
The public engagement process shone a light on an interesting dilemma – people did not have high expectations for the quality or quantity of parks and open space in Downtown. When asked to shape priorities for improving the downtown environment, the community first asked for more of the basics – more trees, better maintenance, additional seating, an improved sense of safety and security. These modest requests indicated that citizens did not hold the same regard or expectations for the outdoor spaces that they occupy or move through every day in the center city as they did for the mountain playground that they use during the weekends.
To spark an emotional connection to the outdoor spaces in Downtown Denver, a narrative was developed to emphasize the importance of parks and the public realm on the lives of daily users, the impression of visitors, and the Downtown business economy. Following on the long-held notion that the Rocky Mountains are Denver’s collective back yard, the Outdoor Downtown plan equated Downtown Denver’s parks and public spaces to the community’s front yard – signaling a paradigm shift away from Downtown Denver as merely a gateway to the Rocky Mountains and toward the city as the must-see destination.
The front yard narrative resonated with stakeholders. People now saw the potential that all of downtown’s outdoor spaces must contribute to a vibrant, 24-hour city. People understood how recommendations big and small – from the planting of hundreds of trees to establishing a new downtown parks maintenance district, from changes in policies allowing food and beverage sales in parks to the creation of new iconic outdoor spaces – could lift an entire community and give it a collective sense of ownership of its front yard.
Support for the Outdoor Downtown plan has been nearly universal. At a September 2017 kick-off press conference to announce the plan, leaders from the Downtown Denver business community stood shoulder-to-shoulder with elected officials and city employees to announce their support for the plan and dedication to implementing its recommendations. And those outcomes are very real.
- Starting in the summer of 2017 and continuing through today, Denver Parks & Recreation and the Downtown Denver Partnership have teamed up to test many of the recommendations – including a wildly-successful pop-up dog park in an underused portion of Skyline Park, the temporary closure of 21st Street for Denver’s first festival street, and weekend Meet in the Street festivities on the 16th Street Mall.
- In the summer of 2019, the Downtown Denver Partnership announced the Urban Forest Initiative – with the goal of planting 500 trees in Downtown Denver over the course of 36 months. The $5 million Initiative – with one-third of the funding coming from the City, one-third from philanthropic donations, and one-third from property owners – aims to increase the Downtown canopy coverage from 4% to 10%.
- In November 2018, Denver voters approved by a near 2-to-1 margin ballot measure 2a – a 0.25% sales tax dedicated specifically to funding parks acquisition, maintenance, and operations. The Parks Legacy Fund provides nearly $40 million in additional funding for parks projects per year and will be used for activation, programming, acquisition, design, and construction.
- In 2020, the Denver Park Trust was formed. The purpose of the Park Trust, a non-profit organization, is to serve as the fundraising arm of Denver Parks and Recreation to purchase additional park lands in areas of the City underserved by parks and open space.
- Since the completion of the plan, each of the 4 iconic projects recommended by the plan – a central plaza, an arts and culture park, a signature children’s playground, and a dedicated mixed-mode pedestrian loop connecting all Downtown neighborhoods – have moved forward into various stages of planning and design.
The Outdoor Downtown plan has proven to be a key catalyst in the improvement of the outdoor environment in Downtown. This can be attributed to the important public-private partnership that saw the importance of such a plan, the Downtown Denver residents, business community, landowners and cultural organizations that were willing to broaden the definition of parks to include the entire public realm, and the expectations of elected and appointed city officials to listen to the diverse community needs and take action. The future is bright for Denver’s front yard because all are in it together.
Documents and Media
Planning Docs (if applicable):