Planning Downtown: Creating a Green City

With numerous sustainability-oriented initiatives and a push for more and better downtown parks, Denver's city center has gotten greener in the last decade. What's next for a more sustainable downtown?
All too often, we hear that the allure of Colorado can be found in its stunning sceneries, recreational offerings, and the getaway feeling brought to you by the good old outdoors. While most urban areas live in our mind's eye as concrete jungles, with traffic jams and constant noise, so long as the mountaintops frame our cityscape, we feel close enough to touch the Rockies.

But Denver developers and planners have set out to build upon the adoration of the outdoors right here in our city center.

"Coming downtown is not all about going to clubs, museums or indoor sporting events," says John Desmond, executive vice president at the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP). "It's really about being in public spaces, in the public realm, in parks and plazas, taking advantage of what the city has to offer: the views, the sunshine, the interesting streets."

Designing and implementing a greener downtown was one of the outlined initiatives of the DDP's 2007 Downtown Area Plan, a strategy to help community leaders, decision makers, residents and visitors, guide future development. Specifically calling for a "Green City," the plan set out to improve sustainable measures in the urban core and expand and enhance existing outdoor amenities.

"What we refer to when we talk about greening our city, is how do we literally make downtown more green," Desmond says. "How do we create an outdoor downtown?"

Urbanized outdoors

The first green goal outlined in the Downtown Area Plan creates a framework for just that -- an outdoor downtown that can successfully strengthen connections between infrastructure and parks, plazas and recreational areas.

Specific policies, projects and programs include increasing landscaping along city streets and hosting public events to educate and encourage outdoor activities and investments. A master plan for parks and open spaces was also strongly urged, thus Denver Parks and Recreation collaboratively with DDP created The Outdoor Downtown, a new public plan to provide inviting and innovative public spaces that enhance quality of life and create a environmentally conscious and lively downtown Denver.

"We need to ensure that downtown is livable and breathable," says Gordon Robertson, director of park planning, design and construction for Denver Parks and Recreation. "It's very important for all people living and working downtown."

Robertson says the city's tree canopy is one of his team's top priorities, serving to cool the urban environment. Additional "green streets," or networks of bike and pedestrian connected passages throughout Denver linking buildings and enclaves to parks, are on the to-do list as well.

Meet in the Street returns to the 16th Street Mall on June 25.The goal is to have people within a five-minute walk from a park or open space, noting glaring gaps in the Golden Triangle and Arapahoe Square. Desmond and Robertson both suggest plans for functioning restrooms, kids play areas, dog parks, amphitheater spaces, historic elements and public art all worthy of investments.

"Skyline Park, like all of our downtown parks, doesn't have a lot of play amenities," Robertson says. "Folks downtown are looking for dog parks, playgrounds for their kids and grandkids. So we took block three of Skyline and worked with DDP to test some concepts, put up a small dog park with fencing and a play area for kids. They were received extremely well."

He also points to sports courts and game tables from the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District (BID), which also provided funding for the testing at Skyline Park, and beer gardens and eateries set to pop up downtown this summer. His team is looking to add outdoor workspaces with electric outlets and Wi-Fi as well.

Experimenting with a wide variety of projects allows urban planners to test public responsiveness before committing excessive resources.

Security is another important aspect of outdoor development, according to Desmond. He says lighting and activity lend themselves to the perception of safety. 'What we find in neighborhood parks is there aren't a lot of visitors. Strangers aren't an issue," he says. "In a downtown park, there are a whole variety of user groups, a variety of activities for a range of people, along with adequate maintenance, lighting and security are all key components."

Robertson says this summer increased ranger and police presence will patrol downtown parks. He adds that new park space is needed in Denver's city center, as the population surges.

According to Jordan Bishop, assistant director of marketing and communication for Denver Arts & Venues, additional green space is a high priority for The Next Stage, the vision plan for the 12-acre Denver Performing Arts Complex, intended to align with the Downtown Area Plan.  The planning teams are looking to put a bike house in Sculpture Park, adjacent to the complex, as well as cafes and restaurants.

Desmond says one challenge is that real estate is both hard-to-find and expensive to acquire for new park grounds. An alternative, he presents, is to get creative with use of existing public spaces, from sidewalks and the 16th Street Mall to alleys and rooftops.

Events such as Meet in the Street, a program launched by the DDP and the BID in 2014 that shuts down bus traffic and encourages people to enjoy the 16th Street Mall, allow people to "think about their public spaces differently," Desmond says. (Meet in the Street returns in 2016 for five consecutive weekends starting on June 25.) Developed in concert with Denver Botanic Gardens in 2013, the Garden Block between Curtis and Champa streets is another means to this end.

Civic Center Park is slated for an update.Redefining Civic Center Park

Also on the to-do list for "greening" Denver is to bolster Civic Center Park as an outdoor asset.

Formed in 2004, the Civic Center Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, emerged when a group of private citizens sought to maintain and elevate the historic urban space as an iconic cultural and community hub. According to Executive Director Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, Civic Center Park has 145 days of year-round programming, including free fitness classes, a tri-weekly food truck rally, concerts and other events.

"The next step is to implement the new amenities and infrastructure priorities identified in the master plan," Eichenbaum Lent says. "It is impossible to program a park 24/7 -- infrastructure and amenities are necessary to support and encourage daily organic park usage.

Moreover, mobility and connectivity are two key components of sustainable strategies throughout downtown Denver.

"RTD's renovation of Civic Center Station itself, slated to begin this summer, will also greatly improve multi-modal connectivity to Civic Center and the pedestrian experiences around it," Eichenbaum Lent says. Further, with the success of Civic Center MOVES, "We are currently working with Denver Parks and Recreation and Denver GIS to map and measure the walking paths in and around Civic Center Park, with plans to market them to folks looking for another way to make Civic Center Park part of their healthy, active lifestyle."

Sustainability in the city center

Global trends illustrate that sustainable building, resource conservation and mindful energy practices are growing more vital to economic growth and the long-term health of our environment. The Downtown Area Plan set out to develop a strategy for downtown to reduce resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, grow alternative transportation opportunities, establish parking lot requirements and expand waste reduction programs.

In 2015, the Denver 2030 District -- an outlined area with the shared goal to reduce energy and water consumption and transportation related emissions by 50 percent in existing buildings over a 2003 baseline -- was officially established as a local public-private nonprofit under the aegis of the national 2030 Districts organization, and now encompasses 51 buildings and roughly 21 million square feet.

"Denver 2030 District works to create a on-stop-shop of sorts for building owners and managers who might not otherwise have time to develop and implement efficiency strategies," says district spokesperson Adam Knoff, senior sustainability manager for Unico Properties, the owner of numerous downtown office towers.

He adds that "with a new, aggressive energy code and upcoming energy efficiency policy and a close relationship with Xcel Energy and their rebate program, Denver is creating pathways to help property owners improve their building performance."

This year, Knoff and his team will launch the 2030 Districts Marketplace, which will make it more cost effective for building owners and mangers to improve their performance.

Checking off the Downtown Area Plan's box to "build a high-profile renewable energy project," the Colorado Convention Center added solar panels to its roof, visible from a lot of high-rises. According to Bishop, Denver Arts & Venues also has a sustainability campaign that encompasses all of its venues, demanding energy consumption reductions, local food production and water-use reductions, among other specific goals.

Says Knoff, "Denver is proving that it takes sustainability very seriously."

In 2005, two entities -- the City and County of Denver and the Downtown Denver Partnership -- developed what would become the 2007 Downtown Denver Area Plan, a comprehensive strategy establishing five overarching vision elements with 19 strategy elements -- all meant to guide decisions and actions affecting the form and function of approximately 1,800 acres divided over eight districts. In this series, we're examining each of the plan's five vision elements.

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
Signup for Email Alerts