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.

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