In the Westwood neighborhood of southwest Denver, a few statistics sharpen the picture quickly.
A healthy community that encourages residents to get outdoors and get moving should have about 10 acres of park land for every 1,000 residents. Many of Denver’s most livable neighborhoods have 10 to 15 acres of park land for that many people.
Westwood, with 15,500 residents, should have about 155 acres of parks and public green space.
It has 24.2 acres, or about 1.6 acres for every 1,000 residents – far, far below the 10-acre standard.
It’s a deficit best understood visually: The Urban Land Institute produced a dramatic map (below) showing just how much of Westwood civic leaders would have to green up to make the open space look like City Park, Washington Park, Country Club and other shaded spots.
The numbers are not disconnected from the population. Westwood is 80 percent Latino and much younger as a percentage than Denver as a whole. Latino youth, meanwhile, are among the most vulnerable groups in America to the obesity epidemic, with 30 percent or more of Latino children already meeting obesity thresholds.
“Westwood is a victim of poor planning from the get-go,” said Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez, who represents the district and does not hesitate to throw a spotlight on pieces of the neighborhood that have lost out on funding to more vocal portions of the city.
It takes a mix of forcefulness, creativity and humility to fill such deep holes, Lopez acknowledged. That’s why he would be happy to take a “leftover” parks project rejected by some City Park residents – the City Loop multigenerational playground that Denver Parks and Recreation spent years on before the project was killed.
“If they don’t want it in City Park, we’ll take it in West Denver,” said Lopez, who keeps an artist’s rendering of the vibrant proposal on his desk. “We want more activity in our parks!”
Other goals outlined by community leaders in the ULI and Colorado Health Foundation Healthy Places initiative in 2013:
- Transforming the car-centric popularity of Morrison Road, which cuts an inviting but troubled diagonal through the heart of Westwood, into a stopping point. This will require traffic-calming measures and a “marketplace” urban center for retail, civic services and gatherings.
- New indoor recreational space on a 5.4-acre site identified at Morrison Road and Kentucky Avenue. The location would fill in a city-recreation desert between Barnum to the north and Harvey Park to the south.
- Safer paths linking homes to schools, workplaces, retail and transit. The city is now catching up on paving unsightly alleys, but more work is needed on completing sidewalk connections, removing intimidating graffiti and filling in lighting. ULI and others also recommended a circulator bus that would link transit-savvy residents to the nearest light rail station, which is currently three miles away in Barnum. Lopez has also called out B-cycle bike-sharing planners to add stations to the south and west of its current footprint.
Early “wins” for the healthy places movement in Westwood include the construction of the Cuatro Vientos pocket park at Alameda and Osceola; talks with Denver’s Office of Economic Development to demolish abandoned buildings on Morrison Road; and Denver Parks and Recreation pledges to activate Weir Gulch as more usable green space. Denver’s Planning Department will run a neighborhood planning process for Westwood in 2014-2015, putting ULI principles into an official city document, said Rachel Cleaves, LiveWell’s Westwood coordinator.
Lopez has heard the arguments that change should come from the inside first, creating demand for things like B-cycle. Or that market forces will provide more fresh produce stores when they see public demand. Progress doesn’t always work that way, he said. Sometimes the power of the city can push change down from the top.
“It is a chicken-or-the-egg thing sometimes,” he said. “Frankly, I like chicken better than eggs.”
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.