Denver Greenways

“In the long run the mass estrangement from things natural bodes ill for the care of the earth. If we are to forge new links to the land, we must resist the extinction of experience. We must save not only the wildernesses but the vacant lots, the ditches as well as the canyon lands and the woodlots…”

--Robert M. Pyle, Author, The Thunder Tree


Editor’s Note : The concept of greenways evolved as an adaptive landscape form and is becoming a key component of urban infrastructure. The presentation reprinted here traces the emergence and growth of this concept highlighting the evolution of Denver’s metro area greenway system from the Olmsted era legacy of parks and parkways through the 21st Century. It examines the landscape value of urban greenways and considers the broader multi-objective values of greenways including storm water management, water quality, habitat preservation and economic development. The presentation discusses successful implementation strategies and examines how greenway advocates in Denver and surrounding communities led the way in creating a 200-mile plus metro-wide system. Finally, we look forward and discuss where the greenway movement is headed in the future, how future generations will perceive greenways and how the Denver model can help shape the greenways of the 21st Century.

Greenways are an adaptive urban landscape concept growing out of classic human needs. Over the past three decades, urban greenways have expanded significantly -- more than 500 communities in North America now have greenway projects in place or underway.

This greenway movement is an evolving centuries-old landscape form, which provides a counterpoint to the loss of natural landscape in the face of growing urbanization. The movement’s roots are in the European palace gardens, boulevards, parkways and ancestral greenways that offered inspiration to legendary figures like Frederick Law Olmsted, Reinhard Schuetze, George Kessler, Daniel Burnham and others. Through the years, the movement evolved to include: trail-oriented recreational greenways along rivers, streams and abandoned rail lines as an escape from an automobile-dominated environment (1970’s), multi-objective greenways that become infrastructure for wildlife, flood hazard reduction, water quality protection and utility ways (1980’s) and now, an emerging fourth generation of greenways will express itself as regional, inter-city and inter-open space networks as well as links between remaining “islands” of deep habitat.

Part 1

From Olmsted to Shoemaker: Key Events in The Evolution of Denver’s Greenway System

* Parkway System and Speer Boulevard— Schuetze/Kessler/Speer 1880’s—1940’s

* The Denver Mountain Parks—14,000 acres set aside, 1900 through 1930’s

* The High Line Canal Trail—45-mile canal trail opened to public in 1960’s

* South Platte Park—Money spent to buy the floodplain rather than channelize, 1968

* The Denver Platte River Greenway— reclaiming the blighted river, 1974-2002

* Jefferson County Open Space Sales Tax preserved 30,000 acres of open space—1972

* Mary Carter Greenway and Emerald Strands Projects—Since 1979

* Second Wave of Denver Platte Greenway and adjacent development—Since1990

* Denver ‘s “City in a Park” 50-year vision and other area plans---2000 and beyond

The Early Years (1880 – 1930)

The genesis and evolution of Denver’s park and parkway system occurred over a five-decade period beginning in the 1800’s and culminating in the 1930’s. Key elements in the foundation of this vision were the Parkway and Mountain Parks systems. While there had been improvements including the 1859 city plan that included parks and the Park Avenue Parkway (1874), perhaps the first impetus was a scathing 1873 critique by commentator Horace W. S. Cleveland decrying the banality of mid-western and western cities including Denver and how those cities “failed to take advantage of the natural shape of the land—an outrage of common sense and beauty in dividing the land for profit.”

In 1893, Mayor Robert Speer visited the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition which featured fairgrounds designed by Burnham and Olmsted and their vision of the ideal city – complete with grand buildings and impressively landscaped urban waterways.

This led to a push for creating a rudimentary parkway system in Denver and, in 1894, Edward Rollandet, an obscure draftsman, created a very forward-looking parkway system master plan (possibly under the direction of Schuetze).

A few years later, around the turn of the century, Speer and other leaders and consultants including notable Kansas City planner George Kessler refined the parkway plan and initiated its implementation. Schuetze was a key player in this process along with other distinguished participants including, the Olmsted brothers, Charles Mulford Robinson and S. R. De Boer.

The key element of the parkway plan was to offer a landscaped “circulatory” network along a hub and spoke system -- linking parks, gardens and neighborhoods together. The network followed Cherry Creek traversing the heart of town and effectively heading off a plan to re-route the “sandy and miserable waste” of a creek into a trunk sewer. To meet this vision, Speer began acquiring land and, starting in 1907, stabilized the creek banks with retaining walls and landscaping. Thus, Denver’s first greenway was created.

At the same time, the community also embraced a vision set forth by the Denver Chamber of Commerce and promoter John Brisben Walker to acquire and preserve a chain of mountain parks forming a semi-circle in the foothills along the western fringe of the metropolitan area. The parks were to be made accessible by a well-built road connected at each end to Denver by a “splendid drive”.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was hired to plan the network and today the legacy is a 14,000-acre system.

High Line Canal Trail & South Platte Park (1960’s)

In the 1960’s two major decisions significantly contributed to Denver’s and, indeed America’s trail and open space legacy—the creation of the High Line Canal Trail and preservation of South Platte Park.

The High Line Canal was an engineering marvel of the 19th century. With a dream of irrigating “The Great American Desert”, work began on the High Line in 1879 creating a 70-plus mile waterway winding through the eastern flanks of the metro area. Originally built for irrigation purposes, the canal ditch rider road was opened for public recreational use in the 1960’s forming one of Denver’s longest and most popular greenways.

South Platte Park was the result of activists saying no to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to put the South Platte River in a structural channel along its reach through much of Littleton. Lead by trout fishing activists and elected officials in Littleton, the Corps of Engineers was “convinced” to use a nonstructural alternative (i.e. use the construction money to buy and preserve the floodplain) and set aside over 600-acres of riparian land as an open space and nature center. It took an Act of Congress to change policy but the legacy of the non-structural alternative lives on nation-wide.

The Denver Platte River Greenway (1974-2002)

It was an act of nature over 35 years ago that kick-started Denver’s urban greenway system. In 1965, the South Platte, neglected and abused for so many years, flooded causing millions of dollars of damage. Under the leadership of then Mayor Bill McNichols and Colorado Senator Joe Shoemaker, a nine-member taskforce set out to reclaim the river as a major community asset. At that time, there were few examples of similar successful projects except perhaps the San Antonio Riverwalk. Nonetheless, the City Council approved a modest seed grant and the city secured matching funds from a number of federal, state and philanthropic sources.

The effort started in 1974 by building several demonstration sections of trail along the river complemented by small parks and feature areas. Unsightly rubble and trash on the riverbanks was cleaned up and numerous (and dangerous) small dams were notched to create chutes for kayaks, rafts and canoes. These beginnings were modest but monumental in their impact because they demonstrated what could be done.

In the years that followed the project continued to grow until a continuous trail and string of parks lined the 10-mile reach of the South Platte River through the heart of Denver. People began to use the trail, paddle in the water and support the project. The concept soon caught on in the suburbs and virtually all of the communities in the metro area began building connecting trails and greenways. Developers joined in and connected new planned communities to the system.

Denver’s “City in a Park” – 50 Year Vision

Today, the metro Denver area has well over 400 miles of interconnected trails and greenways and many thousands of acres of protected open space. And, the system continues to grow and spread to other cities up and down the Colorado Front Range.

With the greenway as a focal point, new development has flourished along the once blighted Platte River bringing new residences, an REI flagship store, a Six Flags theme park, an aquarium and ultimately, over a billion dollars of private investment to the area.

In addition, the greenway effort has engaged the community providing volunteers for major tree plantings, wetland restoration and re-vegetation projects and creating events like Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado -- a tradition of annual urban stream stewardship projects begun in the 1990’s that include single-day events and engage thousands of area youth, families and employers. Ultimately, these events have lead to strong local corporate and philanthropic financial support.

Part 2 -- Vision to Reality: Making Greenways Happen

“Start building the greenway now and don’t stop until it is done!”

--Joe Shoemaker, Chair Mayor’s Platte River Development Committee

Key Components:

1. Agree upon a vision and action plan (Master Plan)

2. Build community support

3. Commit agency staff and community

4. Leadership to champion the plan

5. Project administration and professional services

6. Begin securing land, rights of way and permits

7. Identify and secure funding sources and partners

8. Initiate pilot projects and phasing scheme (roster of projects)

9. Plan for follow-through and long term continuity

Master Plan

The master plan provides the steps for realizing the greenway vision. The plan may be succinct and simple or it may be extensive and detailed. In all cases it must be visionary and inspiring. It must reflect the goals and aspirations of the community. It may take a generation or more to realize all of the improvements envisioned. A good plan should be a “roadmap” for taking the plan from vision to reality in a systematic series of steps with emphasis on accomplishing clear and publicly visible objectives each year. A key will be to understand the scope of the project, the costs, the likely available resources and how to build and maintain strong community support for and commitment to completing the project.

Build Community Support

Solid community support for the project is critical. Residents, user groups, business people and agency partners must not only be inspired by the plan, but also embrace it over the long-term.

The community needs to be kept informed, involved and realize a direct benefit from the project. This can be accomplished by:

*Engaging stakeholders and leaders in the planning and implementation process through presentations, surveys, planning workshops, volunteer projects and special events.

*Having effective public information programs including clear, easy-to-read reports, brochures, web site updates, posters, and progress presentations. Several “status boards” should be posted at prominent locations including existing access points along the river corridor. The status boards should show the plan map and key objectives and a contact number for more information or to volunteer. The boards should be regularly updated to show progress and need for suggestions, additional support and funds.

*Prioritizing, completing and building public awareness of projects that will demonstrate the benefits of the project.

*Immediately moving forward with pilot projects that demonstrate the plan’s vision as well as completing and dedicating additional projects or project elements year by year.

*Having a quality management and maintenance program that includes an effective citizen/user feedback mechanism to provide a responsive ear for each user concern.

Leadership and Governance Models

(Thank you to Chuck Flink for his input and collaboration on this topic)

Organization and leadership is the single most important consideration in taking a plan from concept to reality. Almost without exception, success hinges on the leadership of a committed individual or a small group of individuals who embrace and champion the plan. Often, these are public-spirited citizens, business leaders, or political leaders who have a passion for the plan, who embrace the effort and commit to its fulfillment over the long term.

For example:

*Joe Shoemaker championed the $ 20 Million Platte River Greenway in Denver

*Mary Carter, a local mayor in the Littleton area spearheaded the creation of the $ 4 Million Arapahoe Greenway in the south metro Denver area (later named the Mary Carter Greenway after her passing)

*Colorado Springs identified a cadre of “trail champions” who lead effort in each of their respective districts to fulfill a citywide trail and greenway plan

In each case it was this leadership, backed by local agency staff and recruited professional services that resulted in success. In each case the champions stayed with the efforts for many years posting accomplishments year by year. Their key skills were diplomacy, patience, resourcefulness and persistence

Organizational Structures

Governance, or the organizational structure for project ownership and administration may take a number of different forms including:

*Single Agency—where a designed governmental agency leads and manages the project. Pitkin County, CO and Boulder, CO are good examples of this model

*Multiple Agencies—where several governmental agencies form a coalition or an intergovernmental agreement to lead and manage the project. Charlotte/Mecklenburg County, NC is a good example where the parks, storm water and utility agencies have partnered to pursue a trail and greenway system

*Public-Private Leadership (strong side public)—where a public agency takes the lead in partnership with a citizen’s action group or non-profit that helps promote the project and raise funds

*Public-Private Leadership (strong side private)—where a private organization leads the effort with strong support and backing by a public agency. The South Suburban Park Foundation, Inc. in Littleton is a very successful example of this approach

*Private Sector Leadership—where a private organization takes on all or almost all of the project leadership, financial responsibility and ownership. The Yakima Greenway in Washington State is an excellent example of this model

Project Administration and Professional Services

Project administration and development service functions such as fund raising; grant administration; right of way negotiation; budget management; hiring and supervising design and other technical consultants; agency coordination; project promotion and other services are vital to the successful implementation of the plan.

Professional and Technical Services

These include landscape architects, engineers, ecologists, and attorneys to prepare construction documents and conduct environmental studies, prepare property conveyance documents and other necessary technical functions.

Project Owner

In addition to securing administrative and technical services, it’s be important to designate a contracting agency (or agencies) that will act as the project “owner”. This function is usually performed by a city, county or special district responsible for overseeing both the development and long-term maintenance of the project.

Policies and Funding Resources

There are a number of resources that can be brought to bear in implementing the plan. These include:

* Polices and regulatory measures (including incentives)

* Local public funding and public in-kind resources

* Outside pubic funding

* Private sector funding

* In-kind, youth and volunteer resources

The process should begin with an inventory of currently available resources. This includes a tabulation of grant programs and existing and potential taxation and regulatory measures. The tabulation should assess the potential annual amount that can be raised in order to project the scope and pace of improvements that can be financed.

Though not traditionally thought of as a “resource”, local, state and federal regulations and policies should be considered. This should begin with a review of existing policies and ordinances particularly subdivision regulations. The examination should consider dedication of trail rights of way, dedication of open space, incentives for cluster development that sets aside common open space, funding for trails construction and other improvements that can be ethically and legally required.

There are a number of examples of long standing policies and ordinances communities nationwide that have already passed the required political and constitutional tests. A strong emphasis, however, should be placed on incentives. Identify local seed money and matching funds. There are a number of potential outside funding sources at the state and federal level as well as private sector grants that could bring substantial resources to a project. Most of these however, require a substantial local commitment of matching dollars as well as evidence of community support, a sound master plan, secured right of way and the administrative capability to complete and maintain projects. Identify and securing these local resources and capabilities, therefore is a first priority.

Roster of Projects

Pilot projects, phasing and replication, and creating and sticking to a realistic implementation schedule is vital to, and will insure the success, credibility and continuity of a greenway project. The process begins with identifying a project or projects for immediate implementation (begin construction or acquisition within 12-18 months) and creating a strategic roster of projects for implementation over the next three to five years. Several criteria for selecting and prioritizing projects include:

*Identified by local communities and stakeholders as high priority

*Broadest range of community and user benefits

*High visibility and demonstrates the concept and mission of the plan

*Provides a vital regional linkage or network opportunity

*Provides a vital resource preservation opportunity

*Helps form the spine of a larger system or network

*Ties in with multiple objectives (i.e. drainage and transportation)

*Land or financial resources available or potentially available soon

*Can be completed within a 1 to 5 year timeframe

*Opportunity may be lost if not pursued now

Follow-Through and Continuity

Follow through is key to maintaining the credibility and thereby the success of the project. Solid leadership, committed staff, and securing the financial resources necessary to administer the project best achieve follow through. Adopting and sticking to a roster of projects with demonstrated progress—building logical and meaningful segments each year—would do much to promote long-term continuity.

Dealing With Nay Sayers, NIMBYS and Curmudgeons

Almost without exception, greenway projects will encounter resistance. Even Robert Speer, the great visionary of Denver’s Parkway system encountered staunch and bitter criticism. The keys to overcoming this sometimes-daunting challenge are a willingness to listen, to compromise where appropriate and, most importantly, maintain the virtues of perseverance and patience.

The Future of Greenways

The greenway movement is firmly entrenched nationally and spreading worldwide. The concept has evolved from parkways and trails to multi-functional infrastructure. Where will the greenway movement go next? What role will it play in the mission of urban resource conservation? Are there patterns and trends we can detect? Is there a direction indicated that we should follow?

The answer is unclear. We do know the fourth generation of greenways has evolved into a regional wide inter-connected trail and greenway network and there are urban resource conservation plans emerging in a number of the surrounding quadrants. This model is being looked at in other major metro areas including St. Louis, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Detroit and Toronto and is evolving to include networks and bioregions and, possibly, the creation of mega trails and mega greenways that cross entire states or regions such as the Missouri Katy Trail and Florida’s Lake Wales Ridge Corridor.

Of course, challenges abound -- fragmented habitat, growing population and development, accommodating catastrophic natural events and resources and funding. But then, so do opportunities -- economic and technological incentives, expanded awareness and constituency, baby boomers user market, new conservation technologies, economic incentives and justice, innate human needs for nature and new recreational technologies (PDA, Ecobike, Segway).

The truly big questions, resources and impetus, include:

* Distraction by the coming era of crisis. In the post 9/11 era, will trails and greenways be a priority?

* Will things change without either a crisis or a technological leap?

* Are we able to fix nature?

* Is it Eden or the Ark?

* Are we in the environmental business, the infrastructure business or the entertainment business?

How we answer these questions will directly impact our quality of life and should make for some interesting times in our industry.

Robert M. Searns plans and develops trails, greenways, and bicycle/ pedestrian facilities. He also plans open space, interpretive and youth/volunteer stewardship projects. He was Project Director of Denver's Platte River Greenway and developed the national award-winning Mary Carter Greenway in Littleton, CO. He has a 30-year track record working with communities to implement and manage their projects. He has been an instructor and advisor for the National Park Service, the National Recreation and Park Association and the National Rails to Trails Conservancy. He has written articles and editorials for Planning Magazine, The Kansas City Star and other publications and has conducted workshops in the U.S. and abroad. He co-authored with Chuck Flink, Greenways: A Guide to Planning, Design and Development and Trails for the Twenty First Century (Island Press) and contributed to Greenways (Elsevier Press). He is a member of the Board of Trustees of American Trails and serves on the Editorial Board of the International Urban Water Journal. He can be reached via email at


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“Ugly things do not please. It is much easier to love a thing of beauty—and this applies to cities as well as to persons and things…. Every time a private citizen, by gift or otherwise, adds to a city’s beauty, he rekindles the sprit of pride in other citizens”

--Robert Speer, Former Denver Mayor

“No one would care to sit down behind rows of automobiles to enjoy life and scenery and to eat luncheon”

--Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., 1914