Common struggles for hundred-year-old downtown parks include periods of disinvestment, safety concerns, failing infrastructure, social stigmas of the unhoused, and environmental stressors. These are complex societal topics that park design alone is unable to solve. The Downtown Historic Parks Master Plan wrestled with these topics for three parks and the downtown simultaneously, studying the past, evaluating current policies and influences, and sparking community conversations about the future. Like a folktale the history contains glory, tragedy, and the project provides universal moral lessons with hope of transformation.
Once upon a time, the Colorado Springs city founders granted three blocks to become parks for this growing frontier town. As decades passed the urban fabric changed around the parks, their purposes faded. Prominence greeting train passengers was no more and their games and dances no longer delighted. The parks languished into secret gardens of trees, enjoyed by few. This is the story of how four-thousand community members reimagined these parks as vital places, how they prepared for climate threats, and investments to welcome all and reflect the people.
Project Context: Languishing Downtown Parks
Three of Colorado Springs’ downtown parks – Acacia, Alamo and Antlers – have played an important role in the city’s history. Extensive historic research conducted of the past 200 years found their locations were intentionally chosen to serve as hubs and connectors of the city and passenger rail within the traditional downtown city grid. The three parks (all approximately 3.6 acres each) were once the primary places the community came together to celebrate, to play, to relax and to enjoy one another’s company. Mid-century disinvestment and civic disengagement in the downtown radically changed the parks’ context, resulting in disrepute and minimal investment in park improvements. For this reason, the parks dramatically lag behind what is offered in modern urban parks. However, a renaissance of development projects are rapidly growing around them, demanding outdoor spaces serve some of the forgotten purposes of the past but also latest trends.
Understanding this past and the park failures informed conservation, design, policy, and programming choices. This plan seeks revival and reinvention to best serve the city and anticipated needs from hundreds of new hotel rooms, apartments and the opening of cultural destinations like the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum.
In preparation for the city’s 150-year anniversary, a yearlong master plan project for all three parks was launched in 2019 to ensure the vision considered the larger urban context of a changing Colorado Springs while honoring the park’s original intention:
“[The parks] shall be so maintained that the greatest benefit and enjoyment thereof may be obtained by all the people” -General William Palmer, Founder Colorado Springs 1871
Understanding the Sleeping Beauties
The ways people have enjoyed these downtown parks includes active and passive recreation, a place to be alone and a place to be together. While interest in spending time in nature, appreciation of trees and mountain views thankfully has not changed, maintaining the quality of these conditions requires significant investment. Also, making the parks relevant for contemporary activities and interests (such as the addition of the temporary ice rink for the past three years in Acacia Park) helps to attract people and make the parks feel vibrant.
To determine desired design program and evaluate alternative concepts, the planners used creative advertisement to reach out to the community, gathered ideas from thousands of all-ages through an interactive booth at a variety of city events and online visual preference survey. Project ambassadors including a group of students from an adjacent high school and advocates for the unhoused, engaged in community outreach and project advisory committee roles. Public engagement rapidly pivoted in early 2020, pioneering effective communications during the pandemic to gain feedback on the preferred plan from thousands that represent the diverse demographics of the city, instead of just the tens of people that previously attended public meetings.
Community survey results told a compelling story about changes desired for each of the three parks. For Alamo Square Park that surrounds the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, 30% of respondents felt the park needed no change. However, 35% felt Alamo Square Park should be changed with innovative activities and events and 15% felt transformation of design is desirable. A far greater desire for transformation of design, and an introduction of activities and events, was expressed for Acacia Park and Antlers Park.
Confronting the Dragon: Community Fear of Urban Parks
Only 11% of survey respondents are extremely satisfied with the current parks. When asked what would make these three parks better, more than 70% felt that greater safety and security, cleanliness and maintenance were the most important aspects.
Anecdotal evidence from in-park interviews, review of historic photos and master plans, current program data and open comments on survey listed a top concern of seeing mostly people experiencing homelessness in the parks discouraged their use. The planning team conducted outreach to social service providers and homelessness task force, people experiencing homelessness, police/security and adjacent park tenants to identify ways the parks would provide the “greatest benefit and enjoyment to all the people.” Composing a white paper on research and best practices for this topic, the park planners shared national studies that prove that increased activities in parks, from everyday programming to special events, help make urban parks feel safer. Design principles and strategies were identified that are best practices for inclusive parks that build civic trust. Increasing the way all people feel welcome and included in the conversations about park transformation and visioning became a critical design principle for the plan.
Beloved and Threatened: Park Urban Tree Canopy
The existing parks are composed primarily of ash, elm and oak have up to 80% of trees that will soon be threatened by emerald ash borer or are in poor condition. The master plan preserves as many trees as possible in each design while selectively culling threatened trees and increasing total tree canopy in each park to create a more diverse and resilient tree canopy that provide shade. Additionally, the design addresses environmental resilience strategies for water conservation and urban heat.
Place-Making and Design Intent
Great advantage was found in planning for all three parks at once, as they had some common attributes and challenges, but their distinct opportunities were most harmonious when planned comprehensively. The landscape architects “shook hands” with the sites and studied vegetation, barriers, circulation and how the park fit into a larger network of green spaces that could be destinations along a city green network. Historic land-use decisions (including adding a four-story garage adjacent to Antlers Park) have created barriers to weaving the parks into the city’s fabric. The team identified program and recreation gaps and opportunities in a regional park network. Existing beloved attributes, such as the children’s water feature in Acacia Park, have been leveraged with insight from the gap analysis and public program image preference to determine a unique suite of improvements for each park. Place-making inspiration for Antler’s park, the most forgotten and distressed park, is listed below:
- Listen to the birds and squirrels. Let’s create an elevated tree canopy walk so people can talk to the trees, see out to the mountain views, and children could play in a protected area.
- Introduce the idea of a mid-block crossing promenade flanked by native and adaptive plants to remind the city how beautiful nature is. Cover that 4-story wall with vines too!
- Make places for the die-hard-we’ll-get-out-in-any-weather park users: dog walkers, joggers, parents and performers.
- Merriment can be found in a new plaza, by inviting surrounding tenants (library, community college, and childcare provider) to host events with food, music, performance and learning.
- It will no longer be the hidden place, the place of bad behavior. This is again the place for “all the people” coexisting.
A wide range of major policy, operations, and maintenance changes were outlined for the parks to support the design. They address topics as diverse as funding and phasing, event management, street lighting and ongoing community engagement and partnerships. Also addressed are controversial topics such as security policies, property deed restrictions on liquor, and concessions contracting. Plan visuals excited elected officials and private donors to immediately fund Acacia Park’s first phase, allowing for current development of construction documentation set to be implemented next season. Deferred maintenance and upgrades identified for Alamo Square Park were undertaken immediately to prepare it as the headquarters for the city’s 150-year anniversary celebration. The plan is shared as an interactive online interface to continue to express the full vision for the three parks as a fundraising tool while the city implements policies and programs to bring the ideas to life.