Retrofitting Our Aging Parks Systems

Lessons from Denver’s Game Plan

By Jane Kulik, ASLA

Many cities across the country are facing the challenges associated with adapting their parks and recreation systems to the demands of the 21st century. These can include getting more mileage out of older facilities, adapting existing parks to new sports and activities, and meeting public expectations for quality facilities in light of lean capital and operational budgets.

Denver faced these challenges head-on by developing a strategic action plan called the Game Plan—its first adopted parks and recreation master plan since 1929. Heavily grounded in community values and detailed analysis of needs and opportunities, the Game Plan offers a very different approach to parks and recreation planning that stresses outcomes and results.

About Denver and the Game Plan

Denver's parks and recreation facilities are among the most expansive in the Rocky Mountain West: nearly 3,000 acres of traditional parks and parkways and 2,500 acres of natural areas in the city alone, with another 14,000 acres of mountain parks. Its 29 recreation centers, seven municipal golf courses and nationally recognized cultural attractions, serve millions of visitors annually.

The foundation for this system was laid at the turn of the 20th century, as several visionary civic leaders introduced the City Beautiful movement to Denver and provided the funding for a comprehensive system of parks and parkways. Now, as this system enters its second century, the key challenges faced by Denver's leaders are to preserve this extensive legacy while addressing a very substantial—and unfunded—capital repair backlog, to address geographic inequities in the provision of parks and public space, and to respond opportunistically to needs for more public space within a city that is largely built out. These challenges, of course, are very similar to those faced by numerous older, medium-density cities across the United States.

The Game Plan has been developed as both a broad vision to guide Denver's system through the 21st century and as a strategic action plan for dealing with the major implementation challenges listed above. The Plan was developed on a strong foundation of what Denverites value in their parks and open space system and on extensive analysis of community needs and opportunities. And unlike many plans, its approach is highly practical and focused on making sound policy choices in a fiscally constrained environment. Some of the more significant lessons from the Game Plan are provided below.

Geography is everything

Many communities lack the data to determine where there are unmet needs for facilities or programs. As a result, capital planning may be driven more by perceptions than "hard numbers," and when a bond issue or other major revenue-raising mechanism is at stake, it may be difficult to convince voters that there are real needs.

The Game Plan tackled this problem by developing a comprehensive Geographic Information System data base that compared demand for parks and public space—areas with consistent youth and adult population growth and increased population density—with the supply of public amenities, including walkable access to parks, park acreage, recreation facilities and natural areas. This helped to isolate "neighborhoods in need" that were chronically underserved. Denver then took this one step further and formally incorporated the "neighborhoods in need" index into its Capital Improvement Projects evaluation system.

Facilities only live so long

Inherently, we all know that facilities have a "useful life span:" irrigation systems eventually need to be replaced or upgraded, pools need to be re-lined and pavement needs to be replaced. But few communities have developed a life cycle cost model that can help them project when major systems will need to be replaced, and still fewer create a "rainy day" fund to help pay for the repair/replacement. Instead, major capital repairs are undertaken when a crisis arises—and are frequently more expensive than if undertaken proactively.

For years, Denver had faced a growing capital repair backlog, but staff did not have a good understanding of the magnitude of the problem—until the Game Plan began to provide a life cycle cost analysis of major systems and infrastructure, such as irrigation. This analysis considered initial installation cost and then modeled both annual maintenance costs as well as points in the system's life where major rehab or replacement would occur, using manufacturer's product data as a guide. This approach has not made the capital repair problem go away but has provided a much more accurate projection of when costs are likely to be incurred and an increased level of confidence on the part of City officials that parks and recreation staff are exercising good fiscal and resource stewardship.

Expand our thinking about what constitutes "public space"

Denver is like many developed cities in that there is very little, if any, existing open land that could be used for new parks. On infill or redevelopment sites, despite a desire for more public open space, hard economics often favors revenue-generating uses. To meet demands for new public open space within this development context, the Game Plan has redefined the notion of public space to encompass a very broad range of facilities, from elementary school "learning landscapes" to the city's downtown pedestrian mall to privately-owned public spaces inside shopping malls. Opportunistic strategies for partnering with schools, the private sector, and redevelopment agencies, are prominently featured in the Game Plan as a way of leveraging new public space in a developed city.

Manage the parks and recreation system consistent with community values

Parks systems nationwide are facing new pressures to demonstrate accountability to taxpayers and break free from "business as usual." This was true in Denver, where residents were willing to increase their tax burden to fund parks system improvements—if the Department of Parks and Recreation could assure them that funds would be used efficiently and effectively.

The Game Plan used extensive input from Denver residents to identify what they most valued in an excellent parks and recreation system—and these included things like a park within six blocks of home, clean restrooms, working drinking fountains and incorporation of natural areas for wildlife within existing parks. These values were then translated into quantitative and qualitative performance goals that could be reviewed each year on a "parks report card" that would be available to each Denver resident.

The problems of older cities with aging parks infrastructure can be challenging—but they are not insurmountable, as the Game Plan shows.

For more information on the Game Plan, visit www.denvergov.org\gameplan.

Jane Kulik, ASLA, is a vice president and principal at Wenk Associates Inc., Denver-based planners and landscape architects. She can be reached at jkulik@wenkla.com. Founded in 1899, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is the national professional association representing landscape architects. For more information, visit www.asla.org.

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