By Rachel Cernansky
Nicole LeSavoy spends a lot of time in Westwood Park. Directly across the street from her house, it’s become indispensable to daily life as a parent. If she notices her children, 3-year-old Ivan and 10-month-old Celia, have too much pent-up energy, a quick visit to the park is “something I can just pull out of my pocket,” LeSavoy says. “If I have to cook dinner in 30 minutes, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s go to the park for 30 minutes, I’m going insane.’”
But the park, in its current form, only opened toward the end of last summer, after undergoing major renovations. For many years, despite being the only park nearby—in a neighborhood with more children than any other Denver neighborhood—it was virtually empty most of the time. Some families didn’t feel safe going there.
“We would get calls about graffiti, homeless issues, drug issues, gang activity,” says Jesus Orrantia, aide to former Denver City Councilman (and now Clerk and Recorder) Paul Lopez, whose district included Westwood.
Only after significant community organizing and support from Lopez, among other factors, did the neighborhood come to have two parks that are now community gems. Westwood Park was renovated, and Cuatro Vientos was opened in 2014.
It’s still not enough; many Westwood residents remain farther than a 10-minute walk from a park, which is the goal set by the Trust for Public Land, an organization that advocates for better park access. (The national nonprofit just released its 2019 city rankings by park quality and access; Denver is not leading the way.) But the addition of the two parks in Westwood, a primarily Hispanic and low-income neighborhood, has made a significant difference for the residents who use them.
Across U.S. cities, people living in whiter and wealthier neighborhoods often have better access to parks than those living in communities of color and low-income communities.
Access to parks has implications not just for strengthening the social fabric in a community and for kids’ ability to get enough physical activity. It’s also a contributor to neighborhood safety, mental health and well-being, and other social determinants of health.
Jeremy Németh, associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver, and Alessandro Rigolon from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied Denver’s history, and found that past racial discrimination in housing and other city services is at the root of the inequity that exists today between who can and can’t access parks.
Historic policies have had fundamental impacts that are hard, if not impossible, to erase—and there are still inequities in distribution of funds and green space, they pointed out in a study published last year in the Journal of Planning Education and Research.
“We’re living with the legacy of a century of racist and discriminatory decisions,” says Németh. “It’s very, very hard to dig ourselves out a century of racist decisions.”
In their study, Németh and Rigolon found that three main periods in Denver’s history each had impacts that essentially compounded each other—the “City Beautiful and New Deal” period, 1902-45; the post-World War II shift toward suburbanization, 1946-82; and the “urban renaissance,” starting in 1983 and continuing today.
In Denver’s early days, they write, there were significant efforts to establish parks, but also profound discrimination against African Americans. Policies and practices like redlining and exclusionary zoning near large parks—for example, prohibiting anything but single-family homes on large lots abutting the parks—kept Black communities away from parks in the first place.
Then came suburbanization, which saw white communities fleeing urban centers while Black and Latino communities remained. “White people moved out to the suburbs, and all the money and investment went with them,” says Németh. A number of related practices or policies emerged that would influence the makeup of neighborhoods, he explains. Realtors, for example, were able to help prevent racial integration by steering clients to certain communities.
“It’s really about not just where we put parks. It’s also about where we put people,” says Németh. “The reason why we see a lot of this inequity, this unfairness essentially, where people who need parks don’t have parks is because… we relegated them to park-poor neighborhoods.”
Then, the 1980s began the wave of urban renewal that resulted in people moving back from the suburbs, in many cases displacing low-income residents who’d been there all along. Mayors in Denver (starting with Federico Peña, the city’s first Hispanic mayor) and the city invested in this renewal through various projects, including new parks and schools, Coors Field downtown, and eventually light rail and other developments and public amenities.
However, Németh and Rigolon argue that these developments were planned with economics in mind, rather than equity goals. The city supported the development of some parks to fill specific gaps, they write, but did not create robust affordable-housing policies to go with them.
The study points to Stapleton, Lowry, Riverfront Park and Union Station as examples of this: “New green spaces located in these neighborhoods have been used as urban marketing tools to attract new residents and boost property tax revenues for the city.” Without the city adequately funding, or requiring from developers, construction of truly affordable housing for Denver’s lower-income residents, the researchers posit, these new parks ended up out of reach for many of them.
“As part of concerted efforts to attract well-off folks back to the city, nearly all construction in these new developments has been market rate or above. As a result, nearly all of the large parks built between 1990 and 2015 are located in neighborhoods that are now affluent and majority-white,” the authors write.
(Repeated requests for comment from Mayor Hancock’s office were not returned by the time of publication. But Hancock has said in the past that equity is a goal of his—and “must be a value that applies to everything we do as a city”—and that affordable housing is a top priority for his administration, particularly with the city growing as quickly as it is.)
In November 2018, Denver voters approved a sales tax to raise nearly $46 million annually for the city to acquire new and maintain existing parks, trails and open space. Scott Gilmore, deputy executive director of Denver Parks & Recreation, said the city’s focus is working toward everyone having access to a park within a 10-minute walk. But will new parks in places with poor access to green space just speed gentrification? That’s the fear in some neighborhoods.
A park is currently being planned in North Park Hill, for example, a neighborhood that has been predominantly Black and park-poor. But community advocates are concerned the new park will exacerbate the gentrification that’s already occurring in the area. That’s not the goal, but Gilmore says, “I can’t control that. My job is to create the best park space we can,” he says.
“All of Denver is gentrifying and more needs to be done on affordable housing,” says Rachel Cleaves Dahlke, community development consultant and former director of local nonprofit Westwood Unidos. “Neighborhoods need a comprehensive solution to improve the quality of life, while helping people remain in their homes.”
One idea that Németh and Rigolon put forward in the study is for other city departments involved in land use planning, including transportation and housing, to engage and collaborate more with parks. Another idea is to simply get creative about finding places where parks can be, and what they can look like—closing intersections to build pocket parks, for example, or building linear parks along roads or waterways (the latter of which Denver already has in places, such as along portions of the Cherry Creek and South Platte River; and in the middle of streets like East 7th Avenue Parkway, East 17th Avenue Parkway and Monaco Boulevard). These strategies may help to boost park access in any area with limited space, perhaps underserved neighborhoods in particular, given city resource constraints.
Any solutions are certain to take a great deal of time and energy from within city agencies, as well as communities themselves.
“Our country was based on providing for the wealthy, and most of the time that was white and privileged individuals, and so that’s where a lot of the parks were built,” says Gilmore. “It took 400 years to get us to where we’re at. We’re not going to change it overnight.”