On Tuesday, community members celebrated the opening of a new climbing boulder at Montbello Open Space Park, a shortgrass prairie nature preserve (a work in progress) that aims to bring back a native ecosystem and make it available to Denver’s far northeast residents.
Sponsored by The North Face, it’s a sign that the outdoor industry is looking inward, beyond distant trails and into urban areas that they might not have paid much attention to in the past. It’s also an indication that the park is on its way to completion.
The site, which is just off Peoria Street and not far from I-70, sat vacant for years and was originally slated for commercial development. But the Trust for Public Land sought to buy the property with the express purpose of building a park. They closed the deal in 2012.
The park was designed, in part, by young people involved with Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK), a nonprofit founded in 1996 by Stacie and Scott Gilmore, now Montbello’s City Council representative and deputy executive director for Denver Parks and Recreation, respectively.
“We asked the kids what they wanted to see,” said Emily Patterson, a program director with the Trust for Public Land. “Climbing was on that list.”
So in addition to feeding other ideas into the parks planning, kids gathered together over a mass of yet-formed clay and were asked to build their dream wall.
“At first I thought it was going to be fake, like they weren’t going to put it up,” said Gio Heredia, who’s 12. “When I came here yesterday I was surprised,” he said. It looked just like he imagined.
At the boulder’s unveiling, the park was touted by organizers as a crucial initiative to connect Montbello residents with nature in a way that was previously unattainable.
Getting into nature can be tricky for some people, Patterson said. “A lot of the families here work two or three jobs, getting outside and exploring nature isn’t easy for them.”
Christopher, Gio’s older brother, agreed.
“Most people don’t have the opportunity to go into the outdoors and explore, because they don’t have the money or time or resources,” Christopher, 15, said. But it’s important that he and his friends get this opportunity: “It opens you up to the world and makes you learn new things.”
Plus, Gio added, it’ll help if he’s out in the woods and gets stranded. Maybe after learning about nature he’ll be able to survive.
With a landscape made of native plants, “It’s a real educational opportunity for people in this area to see what this ecosystem is like,” said Loretta Pineda, ELK’s executive director.
Another plus for Pineda, as well as the kids in her program, is the park will one day also house their headquarters.
She said she’s grateful for all of the partners who put resources into the effort, “in particular the outdoor recreation industry,” she said. “They’re now coming to the table to help the community.”
This may not have always been the case.
“We’ve always been about wild places and the outdoors. When we first started it was about places like Yosemite,” said Tom Herbst, vice president of marketing for The North Face. “More recently, in the last ten years or so, we’ve started thinking about people everywhere.”
For some at the unveiling, this is extremely important.
Monserrat Matehuala is a leader with Brown Girls Climb, an organization that focuses on highlighting diversity in the sport. She said she thinks about this park in terms of Denver’s growth, that it’s in a neighborhood where people of color have moved to as they’ve been displaced from other parts of the city.
“When you think about the industry as a whole, there’s definitely a lot of work that we still need to do,” she said. “So when a company is investing and creating an authentic relationship with a community and bringing in resources that aren’t tokenizing them … it’s really refreshing.”
Addressing the crowd, Herbst said that walls have become a central theme in social discussion today. “We see them not as a way to divide people. We see them as a way to bring people together,” he said, “to share and learn to see things from a different perspective.”
After it was unveiled, kids scrambled atop the boulder alongside North Face athletes. Peering down at their neighborhood from a new height, kids like Christopher and Gio certainly saw a new perspective as the sun lowered behind them.
The wall will be available now and again at ELK’s special events until the park is completed, which Pineda said should be in the spring or summer of next year. She said to follow them on Facebook or Twitter to keep up with activities at the park.