Montbello Open Space Park

Summary

Montbello Open Space Park fulfills a local community’s vision to transform a degraded vacant site into an ecological much needed open space for northeast Denver. Realized through the local non-profit organizations and its partners, the site is now a 5.5-acre natural open space and outdoor learning laboratory serving a predominantly Hispanic, Multiracial, and African American community that traditionally lacked equitable access to public parks and outdoor experiences. As the city’s first nature education park, this project brings much needed open space with important experiences for healthy active recreation and learning. This dynamic landscape is a restored short grass prairie ecosystem of native plant communities, green infrastructure that filters stormwater and a robust system of park features for play, outdoor skills development and immersion in science, art, and nature. Designed in collaboration with the community and the non-profit’s students, Montbello Open Space Park is the living laboratory for environmental programs. Youth play a key role as emerging leaders, serving as Urban Rangers sharing programs with the community, and serving as mentors and park stewards.

Narrative

Purpose and Approach

Montbello Open Space Park fulfills a local community’s vision to work together to transform a degraded vacant site into a true community asset—a public natural open space and outdoor learning laboratory. Realized through a local non-profit organization and its partners, the site is now a 5.5-acre dynamic shortgrass prairie serving a predominantly Hispanic, Multiracial, and African American community which traditionally lacked equitable access to public parks and outdoor experiences.  The open space park is intended to provide widespread environmental, educational, and community health benefits for many generations to come.

Designed as a collaboration with the community and the non-profit organization’s students, ideas generated in hands-on workshops and site adventures are part of the park and truly reflect their needs and desires. As the city’s first nature education park and its location within the Montbello neighborhood, this project brings much needed open space and important experiences for healthy active recreation and learning. As the non-profit’s living laboratory, the park provides a close to home natural space for environmental education, skills training, and youth engagement and leadership development. Most importantly, it provides opportunities to youth to become emerging leaders and park stewards. The park demonstrates how the inclusivity of underserved populations within metropolitan areas through engagement in park design and environmental and outdoor education programs creates amazing public space.

Role

The landscape architect served as prime consultant and lead designer, leading a specialized team of ecologists and engineers. The design was a collaboration between the landscape architect and the local non-profit organization who manages and programs the open space park in concert with their partners—the city (who owns the land) and national non-profit organizations that fund and promote public open space. The landscape architect facilitated the design process, working closely with the local non-profit organization’s staff and students and local residents over a multiple year timeframe in hands-on work sessions, and site visits that included adventures during construction.

Context

Montbello Open Space Park is set on 5.5 acres in northwest Denver, located one-mile south of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and within a ¼-mile radius of the community’s public elementary, middle and high schools. The racial and ethnic mix of the community is approximately 49% Hispanic, 22% Multiracial, 25% African American, and 3% Caucasian/Asian/American Indian with 87% of students on free/reduced-price lunch programs. The community has traditionally lacked equitable access to public parks, open space, and outdoor experiences.

The park site is surrounded by commercial development, industrial areas and arterial streets in a neighborhood lacking adequate park and open space facilities. Denver Health Services is immediately adjacent and connected by shared parking and access.

In 1996, a local non-profit organization was founded to provide opportunities to Denver’s underserved youth on the premise that “all young people deserve strong educational support, good role models and opportunities . . . to become engaged, productive and successful members of society.” Their vision for Montbello Open Space as an educational center and public park, designed as a restored short grass prairie plant community and microcosm of the prairie at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, now serves their students and local residents.

Special Factors

Montbello Open Space Park’s features and outdoor experiences are set within a restored shortgrass native prairie that brings the natural world to this traditionally underserved community. For many residents, the open space park is the only natural landscape close to home. For the families and youth served by the local non-profit organization, Montbello Open Space Park is an essential outdoor laboratory where they are engaged and mentored in science education and leadership development.

The open space park’s features engage all ages in trails, boardwalks and stepping stones in the arroyo, an awesome climbing boulder and a stepped stone amphitheater that doubles as a skills course. A ropes course is for play and skills development as is a wood stump course with a variety of scales to engage all participants. Art is essential with stone carvings providing wayfinding and interpretive nodes. The Celestial Outdoor Classroom tells the story of the path of the sun in English and Spanish and includes a starry canopy with constellations. A central trail ensures equitable and universal access to all areas of the park.

This dynamic landscape is a restored short grass prairie ecosystem of native plant communities, green infrastructure that filters stormwater and a robust system of park features for play, outdoor skills development and immersion in science, art and nature. Designed in collaboration with the community and the non-profit’s students, Montbello Open Space Park is the living laboratory for environmental programs. Youth play a key role as Urban Rangers, sharing programs with the community and mentoring younger staff, and becoming emerging leaders and park stewards. The non-profit programs are integrated with setting with their Urban Rangers leading programs for students and the community. These include stories in the Celestial Outdoor Classroom, I-Spy adventures, science, bouldering and outdoor skills development.

Environmental Sensitivity and Sustainability

Montbello Open Space Park restored a degraded weedy site into a native shortgrass prairie landscape. The park’s topographic landforms with a central ‘arroyo’ and native plant communities are indicative of the region’s native shortgrass prairie. Creating landforms and restoring these native plant communities and landscape typologies creates a dynamic landscape that promotes the conservation and restoration of this site and similar places.

Montbello Open Space Park provides a living laboratory for the non-profit organization’s environmental education programs and an important natural environment for the community. Actions to provide on-going and long-term restoration efforts are embedded in the non-profit’s role as site manager providing educational opportunities for students and the public in general. These range from research and monitoring to planting, seed collection, invasive plant removal, and other volunteer restoration activities.

As park of the city’s regional drainage system, the park provides a key role in improving storm flow for it and the future building site. The open space park is an integrated green infrastructure system in which the central arroyo collects storm water from surface drainage (and is designed to accommodate the future adjacent building site) and provides water quality before the water leaves the open space park. The system includes controlled outflow for 5, 10 and 100-year events and is connected to the regional detention basin adjacent to the site. Water quality measures include the planting of the central arroyo as a riparian area, bioswales that connect to the arroyo and native and hardy plantings.

Significance

Montbello Open Space Park demonstrates the incredible value of public natural areas and open space to underserved communities, especially youth and families. The open space park has become essential for this community’s, and the region’s, youth and families to experience Colorado’s natural world in their own backyard. For the summer of 2021, like much of the 2020 pandemic, Montbello Open Space Park has been the local non-profit organization’s primary educational and adventure facility reaching more than 5,000 students and training dozens of urban rangers.

The park’s role in providing environmental education, skills training, and youth engagement and leadership development is critically important. The park is key as a place for students to improve academic science skills, become involved in their neighborhoods and be exposed to fields of natural resources and landscape architecture. Just as important is the open space park’s role in engaging community members as environmental stewards and engaged citizens. This valuable role will continue through the efforts of the non-profit organization and its partners who will continue to train and hire youth as emerging leaders and park stewards.

Plant List

Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Other associated plant species included coppermallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea), prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha), snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae), rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) and leadplant (Amorpha fruticosa). These species serve as the foundation for the revegetation of the open space park site. Native and hardy tree and shrub species include Plains and Narrowleaf cottonwood trees, American Plum, Chokecherry, Wood’s Rose, and Golden Elder.

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):

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