How can parks celebrate local culture and address equity? The Joseph P. Martinez Park Master Plan provides a model for blending environmentally sensitive design with culturally responsive design through a community-driven vision to honor and celebrate the history of Joseph P. Martinez and the community of Villa Park. Located in West Denver, the 12-acre park is embedded in the diverse and underserved west Denver community. With extensive tree canopy and the natural Lakewood Gulch drainage running through the site, the park serves as a respite and a place to gather with family and friends. However, the park has fallen into disrepair and is in desperate need of investment. By focusing on a traditionally underserved neighborhood and community with high-need and limited access/opportunity, the Plan embraces diversity, culture, and people by celebrating and elevating local community identity. The new vision for the park reflects the diverse and rich culture of the neighborhoods, honors its namesake, and enhances the natural ecology of nearby Lakewood Gulch with health and wellness opportunities.
Situated near the start of the Lakewood Gulch multi-use trail, the 12.16-acre Joseph P. Martinez Park serves as a vital destination and link between the west Denver community, the broader open space network, and nearby destinations. Martinez Park, located in the Villa Park neighborhood, is a diverse, low income, and family-oriented neighborhood. The Park is predominately surrounded by single family homes with Lakewood Gulch and its associated regional bike trail weaving through it. Currently, the park features a worn and neglected memorial for World War II Medal of Honor recipient Joseph P. Martinez, softball/baseball fields, a half basketball court, an open lawn, and an outdated playground.
In 2019, the master planning process for Joseph P. Martinez Park began to set a vision for the park’s future. After decades of neglect and lack of capital investment, the park elements were in disrepair and needed a new vision that reflected the local community. Through a multi-layered community engagement process, four guiding principles emerged that shaped the outcomes and design.
- Enhance connections and visibility within the park and to nearby destinations.
The community expressed desires for safer and more comfortable connections to the park, walking and biking loops, safer underpasses, and greater visibility in and around the park.
- Activate the park with health, wellness, and educational opportunities.
The diverse and multi-generational community expressed desires to increase health and wellness opportunities through new play opportunities, educational programming and signage, and basic park elements like seating and shade so that everyone is comfortable at the park.
- Celebrate the cultural heritage of the community.
Within such a culturally rich neighborhood, the community voiced a desire to have the design elements within the park be reflective of their culture and cultural gatherings. Additionally, there was a strong desire to re-envision the memorial to Joseph P. Martinez, a Medal of Honor recipient, to be a place where people can engage and learn about him serving as a role-model for kids within the community.
- Engage with Lakewood Gulch and the natural features within the park.
The natural drainageway divides the park but provides significant tree canopy and biodiversity within the park. The community expressed desires to connect to the water as a place to touch and engage the water providing places to play and as educational opportunities.
Community-Driven Planning Through Collaboration and Engagement
The Plan reflects a community-driven process and design outcomes that were focused on building trust through listening, learning and ongoing engagement with the community. The process began in 2019, before the pandemic, and finished in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. The project team had to quickly shift the approach from in-person events to robust virtual outreach and engagement methods. Additionally, the local City Council office was instrumental and actively engaged in the project working to connect with residents, communicate information, and promote all public meetings and surveys.
The process was organized around three public meetings, five Steering Committee meetings, site walks, and three online surveys to gather input. Throughout the pandemic, new ideas emerged, including organized events to engage with the community outside or in virtual formats. Bi-lingual postcards were sent to over 2,000 households, yard signs were placed around the community, and over 1,000 flyers were left on front doors – all to increase engagement during a very uncertain time. The Council Office held Facebook Live events with the project team to share the design ideas and gather feedback in an interactive format.
The design team also adapted, utilizing highly graphic and visual materials to communicate design ideas in easily understandable and accessible ways. All materials were bi-lingual, and interpretation was provided at every meeting. The extensive and culturally responsive engagement was a hallmark of the plan and was crucial in shaping the Plan’s ideas.
Honoring the Legacy of Joseph P. Martinez
Private Joseph P. Martinez was the first Hispanic American to receive the Medal of Honor during WWII. The original park design included a memorial for Private Martinez. Over time the memorial fell apart and the memorial panel was stolen. The community expressed a strong desire to make the memorial a central feature to honor his legacy and educate young children in the community about achievement and character.
The Plan elevates the prominence of the memorial and honors Private Martinez by introducing an immersive entry memorial plaza and garden, which is strategically located at the main entrance on the park’s western edge to draw park users into the space. Vibrant colors, educational panels, seasonal garden plantings, and places for seating and shade create a wholistic user experience that immerses park users in the memorial. This concept makes the memorial the gateway element and main gathering space.
Bringing Culture to the Forefront
History, art, and culture were key drivers for the park design and the cultural features included in the Plan were informed by the culture of the Villa Park community. In addition to the Joseph P. Martinez memorial plaza, the Plan includes an ethnobotanical garden, community garden, and culturally oriented playground celebrating the Hispanic, Chicano, and Latinx cultures.
The design team used the site’s natural terrain to creatively integrate the ethnobotanical garden on a south facing slope along the park’s northern edge. The garden utilizes the natural slope to create a terraced walk that features culturally relevant native plantings and locations for cultural art. The garden will be maintained supported by a partnership between Denver Urban Gardens and the local community.
Designing for People and the Environment
Unique to Martinez Park is Lakewood Gulch, a natural drainageway running through the park. Today, this unique feature has limited physical access due to the steep banks and significant stands of trees. The process identified the opportunity to engage park users with these natural features and to encourage physical access, including terraced boulder edges in several locations so that park users can enjoy the gulch and engage with the water.
The Plan addresses other goals for resiliency including protecting trees and designing for sustainable water use. The park has a number of existing, mature and high value trees, many of which are located along the gulch. While many of these are high value, some are non-native and noxious tree species, which will be removed to improve visibility through the riparian corridor. Saving as many healthy trees as possible was essential to the park concept with 74% of the healthy trees to be protected and remain in place. Additionally, most of the sloped areas which are bluegrass today will be transitioned to a low-grow native seed mix to reduce irrigation and water usage.
Role of the Landscape Architect
The landscape architect played an instrumental leadership role that helped shape the engagement process and arrive at a Plan that reflects the community’s vision and reveals the cultural influences through the park’s design features and overall experience. The landscape architect managed and led the project in close partnership with the client, guiding the plan recommendations, design ideas, and drafting the Plan document. In collaboration with ecologists, drainage engineers, and other community partners, the landscape architects distilled and synthesized all information resulting in the plan recommendations.
As cities continue to grow and communities change, our role as landscape architects must be to listen, learn, understand, and collaborate with underserved and culturally diverse communities, especially the people who live there, both now and in the past. The project illustrates the role landscape architecture can play in revealing local historical and cultural influences in park design to create more meaningful experiences and alternative cultural narratives reflecting the surrounding community. Joseph P. Martinez Park represents a new vision that is deeply rooted in place and community, building off the inherent site characteristics – drainageway, trees and sloping hills – and blending the rich culture of the predominantly Hispanic community to bring to life the history, voice, values, and future of the Villa Park community.
Documents and Media
Planning Docs (if applicable):