inDESIGN / URBAN PARKS: Beyond Four Walls

By Laurel Raines and Gretchen Wilson


Picture visiting your local nature and science museum. What comes to mind? Perhaps walking through a darkened exhibit hall with beautifully constructed dioramas, marveling at an ancient mastodon or examining colorful butterflies behind glass.

Chances are, you didn’t picture an immersive outdoor experience in a public park. And you probably didn’t picture climbing a massive Big Horn sheep or watching snow melt and make its way through carefully reconstructed habitat zones.

On the heels of a wildly tumultuous few years for cultural institutions, facilities like the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) are reimagining the museum experience for a new generation. As part of that effort, the museum recently broke ground on an ambitious new project aimed at expanding its impact beyond its walls.

The award-winning Explore Colorado dioramas at DMNS are being brought to life as an immersive nature experience designed for accessible, multi-generational and multi-sensory exploration, respite and play.

The vision for this interactive experience is coming together through a unique partnership between a cultural institution and a parks department. Together with the DMNS team and Denver Parks & Recreation (DPR), our team at Dig Studio will restore a historic waterway in the heart of Denver while showcasing the diversity of Colorado’s ecosystems through museum-quality natural features and play experiences.

Years in the making, this project offers an exciting example of public agency collaboration. The partnership offers broadly applicable lessons ranging from creative approaches for community engagement to translating Colorado’s natural habitats into accessible, durable park environments that utilize play and discovery as a teaching tool.

A Legacy of Collaboration

DMNS and Denver’s City Park have a long history together, brought to life more than 100 years ago.

Established in 1882, City Park is Denver’s largest urban park. The original design was influenced by English pastoral gardens, the tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s design for Central Park in New York City and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, as well as the City Beautiful movement. Known as “the people’s park,” City Park remains a vibrant element of public life in Denver, recognized for its historic legacy, natural beauty and diversity of user experiences.

Founded in 1900, DMNS opened to the public in 1908 at the northeast corner of City Park. Over time, the museum has grown its collection to more than 4.3 million artifacts, expanded its footprint to more than 750,000 square feet, and secured its scientific and cultural institutional legacy, drawing millions of visitors each year.

As part of the recent update to the City Park Master Plan, the community, DMNS and DPR identified an opportunity to create natural play experiences in City Park, which aligns with the park’s and museum’s ongoing themes of evolution and collaboration. In 2019, they announced a plan to transform an area adjacent to the museum. Before this partnership was established, this priority recognized in the master plan had lacked a funding source. DPR asked the museum to use their expertise in informal learning, nature, science, fundraising and community engagement to lead the fundraising, design and construction of natural play spaces to replace the small playground near the museum.

The museum and DPR then engaged local landscape architecture, design and planning firm Dig Studio in 2020 to begin work on a design that would ultimately prove far greater than the sum of its parts.

Creatively Engaging the Community

Community engagement is a vital part of any public parks design project. In this instance, the engagement process was especially complex, given the multiple stakeholders. Despite the complications of the global pandemic, the museum was deeply committed to upholding its strong history of community collaboration, challenging the entire team to envision new opportunities for connection.

In spring 2021, the design team secured input from more than 800 community members throughout a monthlong design and outreach phase that included hands-on take-home kits (supporting social distancing) that allowed children and families to design their ideal nature play area using art supplies for cutting, pasting or coloring.

One of the key takeaways was the importance of bringing a diversity of natural experiences into the urban core. Many local respondents noted that they rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to visit some of Colorado’s famed mountainous regions. They wanted to be able to provide their children with those transportive experiences of hearing rushing water, feeling like they were in the mountains or foothills, and seeing and hearing wildlife. While they were excited for naturalistic play experiences, the feedback also indicated that children still wanted some of the more traditional play elements (e.g., slides and swings).

This input led to the prioritization of inclusive, multigenerational opportunities for learning, respite and engagement through authentic, natural play elements including climbing, jumping and sliding features, as well as the incorporation of water.

Translating the Museum Experience Outdoors

With these guiding priorities in mind, the design team embarked on the challenge of collaborating with curatorial staff to create a curiosity-sparking, science-based experience replicating Colorado’s diverse habitat zones within a durable, ADA-accessible, outdoor play area.

In addition to supporting regular park-goers, the nature play space will serve as an extension of the museum, hosting summer and school break camps, school group tours, classes and activities throughout the year. As such, it was essential that the design for the play space reflect the same level of scientific rigor and authenticity as the museum itself.

That process began with thorough research, cataloguing hundreds of pages of research on nine distinct Colorado habitat zones and synthesizing that information into a design that would recall the experience of each zone through materials, plants and play events.

The design process also involved DPR’s Maintenance and Forestry teams, who will be responsible for ensuring the health and maintenance of the play area, its plants and urban canopy.

Creating experiences that recalled distinct habitat zones within the park’s ecology was not without its challenges. For example, aspen trees, while emblematic of the montane landscape, are difficult to maintain at Denver’s elevation. The design team had to come up with a landscape design solution that felt like being in a grove of aspens, utilizing Tulip Poplar trees. In other areas of the space, accuracy was critically important to the curatorial team. Great care went into choosing specific rock and plant materials. Even the whitest marble on earth from Marble, Colo., will be showcased in the experience.

The sloping site was leveraged to the advantage of the alpine-to-grasslands concept, with the top of the site serving as the more heavily programmed alpine habitat (complete with a massive, climbable Big Horn sheep continuing the museum’s tradition of iconic animal sculptures). Recycled water emerges from the restored historic box canyon waterfall. Gravity then draws it through the montane environment into the montane shrubland and pinyon-juniper woodland before finally gently transitioning into the grassland habitat, which most closely mirrors the high plains that Denver once was.

Improving Accessibility & Inclusivity

With a concept in place, the team set about ensuring the play area would be accessible and inclusive across generations and backgrounds. As with any park, ADA access throughout the space was prioritized, weaving a concrete path throughout the project. Dig Studio’s sub-consultant Bienenstock designed nature play equipment with options for accessible play that reinforced the habitat themes, and different areas of the play space were programmed for varying levels of activity to support different sensory needs. The fairy lodge table, for example, lends itself to independent and small group play while the little pika is designed to engage the youngest visitors.

In keeping with the museum’s goal of inspiring a sense of discovery and creating interactive moments of delight, Dig worked with local artist Chainsaw Mama to highlight the iconic animal species one would find in each of the habitat zones. Benches along the path are carved into a beaver family or a butterfly emerging, creating joyful route-markers that will ideally serve as memory points for visitors. Eagle-eyed visitors will additionally spot two of the museum’s familiar hidden gnomes within the park.

Leveraging Green Infrastructure as a Teaching Tool

Perhaps the most important change to the site was the restoration of the historic waterway. Feedback from the public indicated that incorporating water into the park experience was a major priority. Because of stringent Colorado water laws, this process required close collaboration with the Denver Department of Public Health, Denver Water and DPR Maintenance and Irrigation. The decision was made to ensure water was always visible and audible, sustaining plant life along the corridor, but not directly interactive.

Water is drawn up from the city ditch and joined by flow from the storm drain at the head of the historic waterway. The path of water was retained to support existing tree canopy, with the addition of a constant flow from the city ditch and restoration of a waterfall that previously existed on site. The continuous water flow will further support new riparian plantings and a richer habitat, with playful boulder, log and bridge crossings.

The intentional and naturalistic incorporation of water into the park area will additionally offer an ideal opportunity for education around the topic of water—a growing area of concern here in the West. Visitors can see how a snow melt or storm impacts the waterway and all the plant and animal life that depends on it for survival.

As construction progresses and the museum and City Park undergo an important and unprecedented evolution, the words of John Campion, the very first board president of DMNS during its dedication back in 1908, feel especially fitting: “A museum of natural history is never finished.”    RM