Serving Up Main Image

Serving Up Healthy Places

Arvada seeks a more fit community by activating all generations, including growing “pickleball” leagues sharing park space with skateboarders and other users.
Photography by
James Chance

There are likely a hundred ways for a community to launch itself down a path toward becoming a healthier place to live.

But Arvada leaders can also think of one way not to do it.

“You’re fat, and we’re here to help,” is not a great conversation starter.

In an earlier neighborhood improvement effort, Arvada planners said, they opened a meeting with a message to that effect, “and we’ve been backpedaling with that group ever since.”

Spending more time listening than dictating is a vital lesson in a diverse, sprawling older suburb like Arvada.

The city of 108,000 on the northwest edge of Denver has new housing developments in the wide-open vistas toward Golden and Boulder married to smaller old homes, duplexes and aging strip malls on the southeastern edge abutting Wheat Ridge and Denver. City kids will ride the bus lines north to skateboard in Arvada’s innovative concrete roller mazes, while local elderly competitors have made the area a hotbed of pickleball (a cross between tennis and badminton). Arvada will soon be home to three highly sought commuter rail stations – yet fears of gentrification and the lingering “canyon” effects of wide car lanes on Wadsworth Boulevard and I-70 complicate healthier transit.

The chocka-block nature of Arvada’s layout can lead to a resigned shrug among residents, said Jessica Prosser, sustainability coordinator for the City of Arvada. “When they have a place to go,” she said, “they think about their route and say, ‘It may not be far, but there’s no easy way to get there.’”

Health experts and built-environment planners excited about healthy places also need to remember that not everybody shares their  enthusiasm – at least at first – for grand designs. To skeptics of big government, healthy planning may look like “social engineering,” leading them to ask “What is the government doing? This is not its job.”

Arvada is one of three communities in the state selected to receive the Colorado Health Foundation’s Healthy Places: Designing an Active Colorado initiative grants. To concentrate the effort where planners can have an impact, Arvada’s study focuses on the older southeastern neighborhoods, generally east of Kipling Parkway and south of 64th Avenue. That section is home to about 22,000 of the city’s residents.

At community meetings and in interviews, people quickly arrived at wish lists with common elements for activating parks, easing walking and biking for commuting or exercising, and providing recreation that could lead to a measurable “healthy places” result:

  • While the Apex recreation district has a massive, popular complex in the northwest and other useful locations, none are in the older southeast area. The lack of municipal recreation is compounded by retail quirks, residents note: Arvada doesn’t have a big, enclosed mall for strolling in long winter months.
  • The charm of Olde Town beckons to the thousands of residents living to the southeast of the fast-renovating “downtown,” but they find it hard to get from here to there. Wadsworth, skirting cars around Olde Town while also hosting massive Big Box retailers like Costco, feels like an impenetrable barrier to kids on bikes or a senior citizen not up to sprinting at a crossing. Southeast Arvada also needs infill of sidewalks on aging blocks that never required them, and better code enforcement of weed-strewn lots and other hazards that intimidate walkers, said neighborhood activist Rose Seavey.
  • Arvada is nearing its goal of developing enough parks so that every residence is within a half-mile of open space. Ongoing construction issues, though, such as light rail stations and lines, can temporarily cut people off from their traditional commute or their biking path to the parks. Arvada brainstorm sessions have included campaigns to let residents know where their closest park is, even a smartphone app with the shortest routes. Given the wide economic diversity in Arvada, park enthusiasts also need to develop more free or low-cost programs for kids, such as the NFL-backed flag football leagues or sponsored entries into youth soccer.

And once park space is open, the city and its partners can’t rest, Prosser said. “Planners assume it’s intuitive, how people use parks,” she said. “It’s not. You need programming to get people engaged and started on activities.”

Construction Update - March 2015

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) sent a team leader back to the three Healthy Places communities to report on their remarkable progress and share how recommendations are coming to life. [Read more]


This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Health Elevations.