Guest Column - April 2004
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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.