Denver Greenways

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.

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