On its surface, Paco Sanchez Park in Denver’s West Colfax neighborhood is a love letter to music and broadcast – an homage to the city’s first Spanish-speaking broadcaster. But closer inspection reveals the many ways the dynamic and inspiring design is carefully orchestrated to meaningfully impact the wellbeing of a long-underserved community. Play elements are interspersed along a short loop, naturally drawing users to move between activities and elevations as part of the adventure. Each element has been custom-made to reflect and celebrate Paco’s broadcast legacy, including a microphone tower, a gramophone slide, music pod and frequency climber. Even the colors and patterns chosen for the park build the narrative and concept for a full-sensory experience. The park has quickly become a regional draw, but the true measure of its success is the overnight transformation of this disadvantaged community’s relationship to a previously underutilized green space. As a result of the massive increase in local usage, the park is on track to exceed public health goals and become a model for Denver Parks & Recreation.
Purpose and Approach
Paco Sanchez Park’s design was initiated in 2012 when Denver Parks and Recreation (DPR) sponsored an international competition to ‘Re-imagine Play’ to improve social emotional and physical health for residents of all ages and backgrounds. The winning team’s ‘City Loop’ envisioned a loop of linked play elements. However, due to lack of initial public the community rejected the design due to concerns about noise and traffic, and DPR set about identifying an alternative site.
Analysis of all of the existing parks pointed Paco Sanchez Park’s high need for updated facilities to positively impact health and social conditions for this underserved community. Local residents simply weren’t using the existing park, and one look at the park’s amenities showed why – a nearly 20-year-old playground, a cracking asphalt basketball court, an underused baseball diamond and a small picnic area.
Prior to construction, a Colorado Health Foundation (CHF) grant initiated research into the health impact a revitalized park could have on the surrounding neighborhoods. DPR partnered with the Department of Environmental Health to conduct health assessments locally, including 74 direct observations at the park over a period of 16 months.
The results confirmed that just 3.5% of park visitors were actually playing. That data, combined with the high rates of both child and adult obesity in the area underscored the need to address not just children, but community members of all ages.
The goal, therefore, was to create a compelling, multigenerational design that would draw residents in and engage them in movement and play in a way that would measurably improve physical and emotional health.
The landscape architect served as the prime consultant contributing to public outreach and leading design, documentation, and construction, while managing a team of architects, and engineers. They selected and directed the design of custom play elements with play manufacturers and worked in collaboration with a CM/GC contractor over two phases of construction.
Paco Sanchez Park’s neighbors were underserved in access to parkland, and had some of the lowest household incomes and highest obesity rates in the city. Children visiting the park were not active long enough to reach the recommended daily physical activity and adults were relegated to idle spectators minimally involved in play.
The first step towards changing that narrative was meeting with the public in a variety of ways to draw out what mattered most to them in the redesign of the park. The landscape architecture and design team, together with DPR, initiated a series of innovative public outreach sessions, engaging local schools, neighborhood groups, churches, community centers and members of Denver City Council.
Through this process, a number of ideas surfaced that otherwise might not have been considered. People wanted a place to gather and have celebrations reflective of the neighborhood’s culture, they wanted a way to honor the park’s namesake and activities for the whole family. Specific feature requests included a place for concerts and movies, basketball, skateboarding and an opportunity to ice skate.
Armed with that information, the team got to work designing a multi-faceted experience that thoughtfully engages users of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.
There were significant socioeconomic, cultural and environmental challenges associated with taking this neglected park – a former urban dump site – and turning it into a beloved neighborhood asset.
Since the park was vastly underutilized, meeting any goals for increasing physical activity and improving public health depended on convincing people to come spend time here. The community engagement process was instrumental in this regard, expanding the mission from one of play to one of placemaking. Residents wanted more than a park – they wanted a community hub, a place they could be proud to gather and celebrate.
That goal manifested in an imaginative design that honors Paco Sanchez, the park’s namesake. Sanchez was Denver’s first Spanish-language radio personality and an important community leader. His Latin heritage is celebrated in the colors, textures and patterns throughout the park. His ability to reach and connect to the community is reflected in the design theme of broadcasting that appears in multiple ways throughout the park.
Challenged with a 10% slope, but with more than 11 acres to work with, the park became the ideal opportunity to implement the Play Loop concept, which encourages families to actively move throughout the park. The redesign organizes a series of themed play pods along a continuous one-fifth mile long zig-zag loop path, providing ADA access from the top plateau down the slope to a flat expanse 35 feet below.
Visitors can slide into the park through a wide Gramophone Slide or experience the bridge’s Musical Railing on the way to the Mic Tower – its form reminiscent of a vintage microphone while the Frequency Climber below the bridge provides alternate climbing routes. An interactive sign spelling out Sanchez’s name is large enough for climbing and jumping.
These play features address health and movement goals by challenging users’ abilities and engaging their senses in new and unexpected ways without sacrificing safety and accessibility standards. The play elements also serve to encourage social interaction and collaboration – older kids and adults help younger ones navigate endless routes for climbing, sliding and swinging.
Social connection is further encouraged with a looped pathway linking multiple play pods framing a grassy ‘Music Bowl’. The Record Stage at the base of the bowl now hosts outdoor movies and concerts during summer months. Families can enjoy performances while kids play at nearby pods. A skate park and basketball court with removable posts accommodates ice skating during winter months.
The park also includes a new community plaza, recreation pavilion and shade structure for neighborhood events from food trucks to festivals. The pavilion houses an innovative program allowing Denver residents to check out play equipment free of charge, like a library, while playing at the park. This program is now a model to increase activation in underserved areas citywide.
Environmental sensitivity and sustainability
Part of the site was previously an urban dump that earlier received a soil cap to contain the contaminants safely. The design thoroughly accommodates these environmental limits, however, by strategically locating different programs throughout the park and grading to minimize contact with contamination. When considering how to accommodate water quality treatment, infiltration into these layers also had to be minimized to prevent additional methane gas release. Ultimately the design of a lined water quality pond and overflow drainage provided the solution. The pond is seeded with wetland plantings, introducing another layer of nature to the park.
To integrate the zig-zag path into the hillside, the design employs interlocking sculptural berms. The forms are accentuated by the juxtaposition of native seeded hills interlocking with turf play features. Converting existing blue grass areas to native grass helps reduce the irrigation water applied to the site. Denver Parks and Recreation also chose to use artificial turf on the play pod mounds to lower maintenance requirements. Additionally, the design carefully features to protect the root zones on mature exiting trees.
The redesign of Paco Sanchez Park has completely transformed this community’s relationship to this space. A follow up study by the Colorado Health Foundation is currently measuring how well the goal of getting people in the park to move and play actively has been met. While formal results will not be released until later in the year, the preliminary post-construction evaluation of usage has far surpassed goals, with sedentary users decreasing by 25% and vigorous activity increasing by 28%. It has become a model for community engagement and a case study for the power of reinvestment in the parks system.
Today, Paco Sanchez Park has evolved from a creative play environment that promotes a healthy and active lifestyle for residents of all ages to a true community hub and place-making project that will further advance the revitalization of this neighborhood.
- Fall Fiesta Sugar Maple
- Hot Wings Tatarian Maple
- Common Maple
- Caddo Maple
- Northern Catalpa
- Sunburst Common Honey Locust
- Skyline Honey Locust
- Exclamation London Plane Tree
- Shumard Red Oak
- Texas Red Oak
- Northern Red Oak
- American Elm
- Accolade Elm
- Emerald Sunshine Elm
- Briothii Horse Chestnut
- Common Hackberry
- Princeton Sentry Ginkgo
- Decaf Kentucky Coffee Tree
- American Sweet Gum
- Tulip Tree
- Montmorency Cherry
- Chanticleer Pear
- Japanese Pagoda Tree
- Japanese Tree Lilac
- Greenspire Littleleaf Linden
- Vanderwolf’s Pyramid Pine
- Ponderosa Pine
- Douglas Fir
- Colorado Spruce
- Rocky Mountain Juniper
- Pinon Pine
- Gro-low Fragrant Sumac
Perennials & Ornamental Grasses:
- Blonde Ambition Blue Grama
- Blue Fescue
- Undaunted Muhly Grass
- Prairie Sky Switch Grass
- Ornamental Onion
- Mount Hood Daffodil
- Native Prairie Mix
- Water Quality Base Seed Mix
Documents and Media
Planning Docs (if applicable):