Guest Column - April 2004
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Retrofitting Our Aging Parks Systems

Lessons from Denver’s Game Plan

By Jane Kulik, ASLA

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\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 Founded in 1899, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is the national professional association representing landscape architects. For more information, visit

April is National Landscape Architecture Month.