Sun Valley: Equity, Health and Wellbeing as the Framework for Neighborhood Revitalization


The evolution of the Sun Valley Neighborhood in Denver provides a view into new planning approaches and analysis methods that center the health, wellbeing, and resilience of communities to overcome decades of disinvestment common to many underserved historic American immigrant neighborhoods. The Sun Valley Revitalization Plan envisions a holistic community that will support existing residents and welcome new neighbors with over 3,000 new homes, 300 jobs, services, parks, gardens, and community spaces in place of today’s concentration of poverty, crime, parking lots, and distressed public housing The neighborhood’s strong social cohesion is a foundation of the Plan that celebrates Sun Valley’s diverse cultures and aims to increase resilience for children, families, and the broader neighborhood. Using equity, health, and wellbeing as a foundation, the Plan centers on access to jobs, training, education, and sustainable infrastructure that benefits the culturally diverse resident population, thus creating an opportunity for the lowest income community in Colorado to grow into a next-generation neighborhood and model of leadership.


Overcoming Decades of Barriers

The Sun Valley Neighborhood in West Denver, the lowest income community in Colorado, is undergoing a transformation into a next-generation community. Today, the physical isolation and fragmentation of the neighborhood reflects racially inequitable policies, including redlining, highway infrastructure, stadium construction and proximity to industrial uses. With significantly more impervious surface than other Denver neighborhoods, the neighborhood is susceptible to heat island, air quality, and flooding due to its location directly adjacent to the South Platte River.

Building A Foundation of Trust Through Collaboration and Community Engagement

The Plan reflects a community-driven model focused on building trust with the community through lasting relationships, collaboration, and ongoing engagement.  The extensive engagement process centers the residents’ role in community decision-making that will continue long after the planning is complete, and buildings are constructed.  The diverse community makeup includes residents representing 33 cultural backgrounds, prompting a multilingual engagement ranging from Somali to Spanish. The multi-year process included regular community workshops, individual, and small group meetings. To further strengthen community relationships, the team worked with the client to establish the Sun Valley Community Advisory Committee (CAC) — composed of community leaders, business owners, residents, and members of the planning and development team — at the onset to represent the neighborhood and act as a conduit of information to fellow neighbors and the under-represented community. The CAC served as a critical community forum where the team was able to establish long-term relationships with the community, residents, local non-profits, and stakeholders The engagement continues today with the Sun Valley Community Connectors, paid project ambassadors serving as community liaisons that engage on citywide anti-displacement issues.

Health as a Driver for Coordinated Investment in Direct Community Benefits

To embed health as a driver, the Sun Valley Healthy Living Initiative (HLI) was launched with resident leaders to build on the Plan and create a district-wide strategy for advancing community wellbeing through project design, development, programs, and operations. The HLI Action Plan is based on an initial health needs assessment that prioritized lived experience and combined mixed methods of qualitative and quantitative analysis – including resident surveys, interviews, observational public space and streetscape surveys, integrated health factors mapping, health indicator analysis, and disaggregated equity analysis – to better understand opportunities and priority needs. Based on the health issues prioritized by the community of social cohesion, safety, health care access, mental health, active lifestyle, education and jobs, four Campaigns for Action were created. These Campaigns include “bundles” of evidence-based strategies organized around a theme for organizations, residents, and agencies to take action, and were chosen because they are proven to improve multiple health determinants, or upstream factors that influence length and quality of life. Tools to implement the Action Plan were also created, including project RFP criteria, Healthy Urban Design Guidelines, development team training, and an evaluation guide to assist with the ongoing monitoring and reporting plan. The initiative focuses action on health determinants in the built environment and areas that have been proven to increase healthy choices. It puts the public health research and data to work, side by side with resident experience, to drive decisions and improve opportunities for healthy living.

Implementing Health in the Public Realm

The urban design of the neighborhood promotes connectivity and healthy living by reconnecting the street grid with a fine-grained public realm and a network of parks and open space amenities that connect various neighborhood destinations. This included working closely with Fairview Elementary, the local neighborhood school, to strengthen its role as a community destination serving a population that is currently 50% youth. The goal was to shape the neighborhood to promote overall community health and outdoor activity and reflect residents’ desires for a public realm to exercise, socialize and interact with their neighbors. The parks and amenities are integrated with the adjacent open space network that includes Weir Gulch to the south, Lakewood Gulch to the north and the South Platte River, which runs along the east side of the neighborhood. Embracing the river was a major theme since it connected residents to nature and the larger regional open space network. A new riverfront park featuring a large cultural plaza celebrating Latinx, Chicano, and the Cocopah Indian Tribe, connects residents to the river and provides a destination for celebrated cultural events. The park also features a series of gardens highlighting health and culture, including a community food garden, an ethnobotanical garden, and tranquility and pollinator gardens.


Opportunities for Upward Economic Mobility

Opportunities for job placement and training, individual entrepreneurial growth, and economic mobility for residents are integrated in district-wide projects and programs. The Plan includes locations for a Grow Market, Micro-Food Incubator, and a Micro-Business Incubator, which have been planned for ground floor space within the affordable housing development phases, with consideration of each phases’ location, orientation, visibility, and timeline for delivery. These provide residents and the broader community with access to essential services, resources, and economic opportunities. In addition, partnerships were formed with several small and medium sized for-profits and non-profits that have been in Sun Valley for years, such as EarthLinks, who provides garden programming for those experiencing homelessness, and the Sun Valley Youth Center, a pillar of the community providing essential afterschool and summer youth programming.  Local community organizations, businesses, and aligned service providers are key partners that provide programs, continuity, and community stewardship.

Locally Produced Food

Food is a shared passion and language in Sun Valley. Food and cooking were identified across the culturally diverse community as the commonality that brings people together. The project is intentional about using “growing” as a key community wealth building strategy where residents can grow and flourish within the food industry. Food production was a key program element in the Plan, where distribution and production facilities will offer shared space where people can develop food products and host cultural practices for food preparation they would otherwise have to travel for. The new Micro-Food Incubator, located along the riverfront park, will create a more viable and sustainable option to support small food services based on the culture and diversity of Sun Valley’s residents. This is a direct answer to many residents seeking assistance and support to start their own food business. The Incubator will provide micro restaurant space and supportive programming for residents, community members, and other start-up chefs locating to Sun Valley to grow and share this passion for food.

Supporting Existing Residents

Being intentional about project phasing and supporting the existing residents was a priority of the Plan. The development phasing builds on existing infrastructure to minimize the impact on existing residents. Using a critical “build first” strategy, early phases of new housing are located where they can be constructed and occupied long before the existing housing gets demolished. Existing residents have a guaranteed residence if they choose to stay in the neighborhood and have the option to move into one of the early phases of development. Over time, the mixed-income neighborhood will triple in density and comprise a variety of housing options including 1/3 public housing, 1/3 affordable housing and 1/3 market rate housing.

An Equitable City is a Thriving City

As cities continue to experience unprecedented growth and pressure, building healthy cities and neighborhoods will depend more and more on development that fosters greater social equity through commitments to affordability, wellbeing, and improving upward economic mobility. Landscape architects from multiple firms provided key leadership roles, bringing together the physical design, social relationships, and community driven approach to policies and programs. The Sun Valley Neighborhood in Denver demonstrates the importance of building long-term relationships with communities, centering community leadership in the design process and the health campaigns, and intentionally designing places to support cultural interests where disinvested communities can finally thrive in place.

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