Study: If you’re not white or wealthy, you’re less likely to live near a Denver park

The city says it’s working on that.
6 min. read
Geese flee a well-meaning photographer at Green Valley Ranch’s Town Center Park, Oct. 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The effects of systemic racism known as redlining continue to ripple through Denver's neighborhoods today, keeping the balance of city parks in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods -- and not where people of color and low-income residents live, according to a University of Colorado Denver study.

The study, published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, examined Denver's housing and parks stock from 1902 to 1915. It's called, "What Shapes Uneven Access to Urban Amenities? Thick Injustice and the Legacy of Racial Discrimination in Denver’s Parks."

In 2015 white households enjoyed a 10-minute walk to about 31 acres of park space per 1,000 people, the study found. Black and Latino households each had easy access to about 21 acres per 1,000 people. The authors used Census demographic data to get those numbers.

Redlining is the 20th-century practice of systematically excluding minorities -- usually black residents -- from white neighborhoods with restrictive zoning and unattainable financing. It triggered the inequity in parks, the study says. But it continued after the era of government-sanctioned racism. Denver was "chasing economic development" instead of equitable distribution of parks even after Denver city officials shifted away "from overtly racist policies," the study states.

"We’re not maybe as overtly racist in our policies now, but essentially we created apartheid, the spacial sorting of race," co-author Jeremy Németh said in an interview. "It’s hard to come back from that. It’s as much about where you live as it is about park development."

Németh and his co-author Alessandro Rigolon quoted a former Denver parks and rec manager who said parks generate revenue, with more than $10 billion being invested in the South Platte river corridor. In 2015, a Denver Community Planning and Development employee told them that renovations to Cheesman Park trails probably "came from public meetings in which the voice of historic preservation people was very strong. Who speaks the loudest has the last word."

Cheesman Park on a lovely winter day, March 3, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Eighty-five percent of Denverites live within a 10-minute walk to a park, according to the city's draft "Game Plan," a 20-year blueprint for parks, recreation and urban nature.

However, that stat doesn't account for quality, and more than half of Denver's homes are not within a 10-minute walk of a playground. The city's "high-need" neighborhoods for parks and rec are mostly on Denver's west and north sides -- often inaccessible because of highways, the Game Plan states.

"There’s a public health issue, which I think is critical," Németh said. "People need access to open space to move your body and to breathe fresh air and to run and jog — we have an obesity epidemic. And we see that in a lot in low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color where people don’t have access to a large backyard to play soccer in like my kids do, or access to a quality park down the street that they can run around in ... or a $1,000 ski pass."

Most low-income residents can walk to a park in 10 minutes, by the city's count. Of the residents who lack a nearby park, only 16 percent are low-income, according to Game Plan.

Gordon Robertson, the city's director of park planning, design and construction, said he understands the historical ripple effects of past policies. But he takes issue with the idea that Denver isn't paying enough attention to historically marginalized neighborhoods. He points to new parks on the west side and on far East Colfax, as well as future plans.

"The idea that it’s still happening … that’s how the soundbite sounds, and I think that’s completely wrong," Robertson said. "Health and income will be a driving factor" in where Denver Parks and Recreation buys up land and builds new parks, he added.

Asked whether the city has prioritized minority or low-income neighborhoods for new parks, Robertson said planners haven't drilled down that far yet, but will start in 2019. Game Plan recommends "closing gaps in high-need neighborhoods" as a priority.

The city is exploring a new type of agreement with developers that would include green space negotiations, Robertson said.

Mayor Michael Hancock cuts a ribbon to officially open the brand new pavilion at Westwood Park, Aug. 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

One thing that's not being considered -- yet -- is making developers pay for parks.

The CU Denver study recommends developer impact fees. A parks and rec planner told the authors, "At Parks and Rec, we strongly advocate for an impact fee. We make the case for it every time we can. Decisions about impact fees are made at a much higher level. The mayor needs to be on board."

They work like this: If a developer wants to build, they pay into a fund for green space (or other amenities), likely based on the building's size.

City Councilman Paul López, who represents much of the city's west side, told Denverite he would support impact fees.

“The history of redlining in Denver isn’t history, it’s still apparent in every map of the city, whether it’s of educational attainment, poverty, childhood obesity, access to healthcare, income, grocery stores or sidewalks and access to park space it all tells the same story,” López said. "No matter where we live, all of us have the responsibility to close those equity gaps.”

The Hancock administration's Game Plan is not so direct. It only recommends studying "cost sharing" for parks and open space "with the development community."

"Denveright’s Game Plan recommends exploring several funding options to bring more parks and recreation opportunities to more people and more neighborhoods," said Michael Strott, a spokesperson for Hancock, in a statement. "Residents deserve equity in their parks system, and Mayor Hancock is committed to the goal of every Denver resident living within a 10-minute walk of a park."

Strott was noncommittal on developer impact fees. He pointed to last year's bond measures, pushed by forward by Hancock, to fund parks, and the parks tax on Novemeber's ballot, which Hancock endorses.

That's not business as usual, which Németh says is the last thing Denver needs.

"It’s about our will as a city and that comes from, generally, elected officials who all want their piece of the pie," Németh said. "If we agree that our parks are unfairly distributed right now, that the people who need them the most get them the least, and we continue to split this up equally … then we’re gonna continue this path. We’re only gonna continue the inequitable distribution of it. So I think it is political in many ways."

One thing that's lacked for a long time, according to anyone who works in or studies Denver's park system, is funding. City voters will decide whether to raise the sales tax to fund parks November 6.

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