Denver is investing a bunch of its park money in underserved neighborhoods

Cole’s Russell Square Park has made equity a priority. But that’s partially why the city has mulled over its plans for three years.

Neighborhood kids traced their hands in wet cement the last time Russell Square Park saw a big improvement project, a new playground that was installed in the '90s. Aug. 13, 2020.

Neighborhood kids traced their hands in wet cement the last time Russell Square Park saw a big improvement project, a new playground that was installed in the '90s. Aug. 13, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
KEVIN-lighter

It’s taken three years of planning, but Russell Square Park is finally getting ready for a makeover.

Last week marked the end of a community polling period that let neighbors weigh in on the top eleven possible changes for the green space at 36th Avenue and Vine Street in Cole. Residents will find out soon whether a “lively habitat garden,” extra picnic tables or an enhanced playground will emerge as the most desired new feature.

Why has it taken years to revamp a block-sized park? Mike Dugan, president of the Cole Neighborhood Association, said there’s a lot of different perspectives to take into account.

“That area of the Cole neighborhood is one of the most diverse areas in the entire city,” he said. “The city really wanted to be cognizant in making sure they got representation from all sides.”

Making sure parks are accessible is a big goal in the Denver’s “Game Plan,” a document finalized last year that guides decisions as the city works on new and existing green space. The plan followed a 2018 ballot initiative that increased taxes to fund parks.

Park equity means 100 percent of residents live within a ten-minute walk of a park, greenway or open space. But Chris Schooler, Denver Parks and Recreation’s project manager on Russell Square, said equity also means putting dollars into neighborhoods that have historically been underfunded.

Cole, he said, “is what we might call an under-served community.”

Women do yoga in Russell Square Park. Aug. 13, 2020.

Women do yoga in Russell Square Park. Aug. 13, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The city uses what’s called an “equity index” to make decisions about where to spend tax dollars on parks. It’s a number that combines park access with numbers on morbidity, poverty, education, access to food and more. Of the 37 upcoming and ongoing projects listed on Denver Parks’ website, 14 are located in the city’s most inequitable neighborhoods. Cole is one of them, and Schooler said it’s the reason the department decided to move forward on Russell Square.

New and ongoing Denver Parks and Recreation projects vs Denver's neighborhood equity index.

New and ongoing Denver Parks and Recreation projects vs Denver's neighborhood equity index.

Only three of those projects are in neighborhoods with the fewest homes within a quarter-mile of a park. While the department is targeting neighborhoods that are generally under served, it may have some work to do when it comes to the ten-minute-walk goal.

Just a handful of projects listed are for new parks, which are ultimately needed to bring grass to residents without green space nearby. The Platte Farm Open Space in Globeville is one of those, creating new green space in a neighborhood with little access to them.

Sandy Douglas, a longtime neighbor of Russell Square Park, said Cole’s under-served residents are excited for new things to come.

She’s lived in the same home for more than 30 years. The park, where she raised children, grandchildren “and now some greats,” is near and dear to her heart.

Douglas said she’s watched the area transform over time. Though old neighbors have left and the population has changed, she still knows a lot of folks surrounding the park. She got to know more as she canvassed Cole with flyers for the community poll, a job that came with her position as secretary for the neighborhood association.

While some residents — like the Jones family, who live on the corner across Vine Street — don’t want too much there to change, Douglas hopes to see a basketball court and an improved jungle gym. Families need more “planned play” opportunities for their kids, she said, since long-time residents can’t always access fun stuff elsewhere in the city.

“Many of our families don’t have opportunities to go to an amusement park. But to have a mini amusement park down the street is wonderful,” she said. “They have been priced out of going to some of these amusement places. There are other parks with activities, but they’re not close. Many people don’t have cars.”

Sandy Douglas stands in her beloved Russell Square Park. Aug. 13, 2020.

Sandy Douglas stands in her beloved Russell Square Park. Aug. 13, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Schooler said access to quality parks is more important now, during the pandemic, than ever.

“Park usership is hugely up,” he said. “It’s one of the only places people are going to feel normal.”

The new Russell Square may not be ready in time, depending on how long COVID-19 lock downs are necessary. Construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2021.

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