Where Do the People Roam?

I was alerted this morning to some interesting news coming out of New York.   It seems the acclaimed plaza of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in NYC is about to undergo a transformation – from a design by one internationally-known landscape architect (Martha Schwartz) to a new design by another internationally-known landscape architect (Michael Van Valkenberg).  You can read some info here…

This news raises some questions in my mind about the attention to the design of outdoor spaces in dear old Downtown Denver.  The fact that the current design is being scrapped is surprising – not surprising, however, is that the new space is being designed by an equally-iconic landscape architect as the previous and in a forum that is highly-public.  Given the context, history, and high profile of the plaza and a demanding public, “high design” is a must.  In my visits to New York, I’ve made it a point to visit the Javits plaza on more than one occassion, primarily because it is an iconic, photo-worthy space.  I’ve also made a point to visit the myriad of pocket parks, public squares, building plazas, and city parks scattered throughout Manhattan and the neighboring boroughs – because they are, in themselves, destinations.  And because the public understands not only the value of open space but also the value of dialogue about the quality of open spaces.


current javits plaza design

When I think about Denver, though, it seems that open space as destination is mostly missing from our vocabulary. Where is that ethic of design-expectation in Denver’s parks and plazas?  Where are our high-profile public spaces that demand public dialogue?  Off the top of my head I can think of three – the 16th Street Mall, Skyline Park, and Civic Center Park… each of which is a heritage project around which public dialogue is primarily focused on preservation issues.  Where is the groundswell to provide new spaces of varied size and character in our urban environments, or to improve those inoccuous spaces that exist today?

We live in a city that receives upwards of 300 days of sunshine every year.  As Coloradoans, we give tremendous value to the opportunities that the outdoors give us to walk, to stroll, to recreate.  But it seems to me that our high expectations for great open spaces generally fall as building height or density rise.

As a community, we have fairly active dialogue about architecture – and as public expectations have risen in recent years around the value of “good” architecture, “good” architecture has followed.  It’s time now for those public expectations to extend to outdoor spaces.  If we want Downtown Denver residents, employees and visitors to enjoy our city, we should be giving them enjoyable places to experience what is arguably the best aspect of our city – the Colorado outdoors.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Downtown Denver Partnership’s Leadership Program tackled this issue last year (you can find the final report on their website).

By | 2016-12-05T17:08:04+00:00 February 11, 2010|Categories: Public Spaces, Streets, Urban Design, Urban Form, Urbanism, Zoning & Regulation|15 Comments


  1. gash22 February 11, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    While I agree with the idea that we should focus on creating new iconic outdoor space, I actually think Denver is better than many cities when it come to our existing iconic outdoor spaces. Some major omissions from your list include City Park, Cheesman Park, and the Speer Blvd/Cherry Creek promenade. There is also a great focus on creating high quality public spaces at DUS.

  2. E February 11, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    I agree with your thoughts, except the part where you state “But it seems to me that our high expectations for great open spaces generally fall as building height or density rise.”

    I think if Denver were more dense, there would be a better appreciation of open spaces. The fact that most of the people who work downtown go home to their single family homes does not make them overly concerned about open spaces downtown.

  3. Chris February 11, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    gash22: I was speaking about downtown-specific open spaces, but perhaps did not get that point across very well. The parks you point out are certainly great spaces – just not downtown.

  4. DanW February 11, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    This is an interesting video that my friend showed me that I think relates. I’ve been waiting for a blog that is relevant to share it and I think this is it. Enjoy!!


  5. MarkB February 11, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    The most obvious opportunity to create a future great space would seem to be the block bounded by 16th, 17th, Market and Blake–once the RTD begins running their buses through Union Station, there’s a huge opportunity to create something really wonderful. And the best part is, except for the Office Depot parking lot the entire site is ringed with buildings, both historic and contemporary.

    For this space I would retain the two historic buildings that currently serve as RTD headquarters. If the agency stays, or if it moves elsewhere, the first floor facing the plaza could be activated with some retail or restaurant space. This large space is also ideal for a Union Square-style greenmarket. This could become downtown’s most important public space.

  6. Dave February 12, 2010 at 8:32 am

    Good video DanW. Something to think about for all of Denver metro.

  7. BruceQ February 12, 2010 at 10:02 am

    Well, there’s Commons/Riverside/Confluence Park and the Cherry Creek and South Platte greenways…

    While I think you raise a good point, and certainly something worthy of public dialogue, I think if you look at it on a per-square-mile basis, Denver would compare quite favorably to most cities, including New York.

    And I like the “Local Code” concept from DanW’s video. Definitely something to think about!

  8. Kyle February 12, 2010 at 10:22 am

    I definitely agree with your comments. While there are other great open spaces not mentioned, I believe Denver hasn’t had a lot of “iconic” open spaces built in recent times.

    Commons Park is a well designed park that gets a lot of use. I was amazed to learn how much that shaped the Riverfront area’s developments.

    Also, I agree that the space left by the RTD bus terminal on 16th & Market could be used as a great public open space. I think it would make a great outdoor market. If they ever decide to move the Federal Reserve Bank, that lot could be used as an extension of Skyline and maybe have an outdoor ice rink…

  9. Dori Littell February 12, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Wow, is this amazing! Folks actually comparing Denver parks with those within New York City? OMG!

    New York is a city with a thousand neighborhoods within the city. Go to Bryant Park or Battery Park or Columbus Circle and you’ll see parks within parks, not to mention Central Park. There are kiddie parks, dog parks and green spaces to relax everywhere within NYC and those who live within the City are militant about their parks! Thats why so many people actually want to live in New York City.

    NYC is blessed with rain that makes maintaining their parks and green spaces achievable whereas we’re drastically short of moisture. Though we may pine for more green we still need to remember that we have to water every thing we put into the ground because Mother Nature isn’t going to help us. That means we need to be dedicated towards providing the extra care necessary to maintain a green downtown which up to now falls dreadfully short with these aful B.I.D.s.

    Denver’s 16th street is not to be considered a park, please….it is a very successful traffic core with trees, NOT A PARK. Downtown has only Skyline, RTD and a slice of heaven at Broadway and 17th. Some of us used to call Writers Square a mini park but where did that go? So much for private control of anything resembling a park!

    Every downtown developer should contribute a portion of land or cash in lieu of towards a fund specific to develop pocket parks to dot our downtown. Afterall, if they are building amenities in the suburbs for their buyers, why not have them cough up a buck or two toward getting some little patch of green here and there in downtown. This needs serious City action to implement but something tells me, CC is hesitant to require developers really pull their fair share of anything.

    There’s a funny side to this dilemma. Do you think the day will come when resident downtowners actually exit the downtown lifestyle for greener pastures? Some think so. Ignore a problem long enough and watch what happens!

  10. Dana February 12, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Interesting topic. Comparing Denver to NYC is absolutely rediculous. But aside from that, I wonder everyone assumes a public space must be filled with lotsa green things. How about a public square with a beautiful water feature, some artwork, some benches, some chess tables? A public space does not have to have plants to be a place where someone can sit and relax. It is the city after all.

  11. gash22 February 12, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    From my understanding the RTD Market St. Station site will be sold to help pay for DUS and RTD HQ will be re-located to DUS.

    Dori Littell:
    Couple of things, I think the idea was public spaces, not necessarily parks, and the 16th St Mall is Denver’s signature public space. Columbus Circle is also not a park.

    You bring up a good point about maintenance. I actually think the BIDs do a better job of maintenance than NYC Parks, having moved to NYC after Denver my whole life. Once you stray from the main tourist attractions the parks, plazas and pretty much everything else in the city suffers from a severe lack of maintenance. The nice thing about a BID is that you get a dedicated revenue stream for a specific area. You also have more accountability for the day-to-day operations, the BIDs are run by the business owners, and they see if things are or are not being done on a daily basis. This holds in NYC too, the areas with BIDs are better maintained IMHO.

    I think pretty much everyone agrees that what happened to Writer Square was a tragedy, I went back recently and was sad to see what they did to what was once a very nice space.

    Actually if you look downtown IS dotted with pocket parks/plazas. Many blocks that contain an office tower have an open space element. Examples include the one you mentioned at 17th and B-way, 16th & Curtis, and 17th & Market, Curtis, Larimer and California to name just a few. Although most don’t have grass (for the very reason you mentioned about it being hard to grow) and all are privately maintained. There might be something to be said for converting some of those surface parking lots though!

  12. Dori Littell February 13, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Correction, Gash,

    Both Denver businessses and residences contribute to the Bids, not just businesses. As an eleven year downtown resident, we have been working feverishly in our own Bid district to get some accountability to no avail. Even the City has given up trying to get the Bid’s cooperation for us.

    The article to which my response was directed was about planned people spaces, non-discriptive, all-inclusive spaces that draw people not simply a place to sit and face down vehicle traffic from empty benches. And so that you know, the businesses that provide benches and trees do so for their tenants, NOT to attract dog walkers and joggers. Try doing either activity in/around one of these towers during the day and you’ll get a friendly escort away.

  13. Dave February 13, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    NYC DOT has a great program where they take poorly utilized traffic lanes and convert them into pedestrian plazas. Times Square is the most famous, but about a dozen have been created so far-


    Denver has so many underused roads and parking lots, an initiative like this could go a long way.

  14. Ken February 14, 2010 at 7:40 am

    The Downtown Denver Business Improvement District (BID) is assessed against just commercial property owners.


    One of the ideas being discussed is the creation of Community Improvement Districts that would allow mixed use areas with both residential and commercial uses to form BID-like districts supported by a special property tax, that would pay for a variety of services like streetscaping, cleaning and maintenance, marketing, etc. for the area.

  15. Dori Littell February 22, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Sorry, I misspoke. Ours is technically called a maintenance district.

    If you live in downtown, you as well as any commercial space do in fact, as we do, pay into a “maintenance district”. I apologize for confusing you. We already have these districts all over downtown. Our District already exists and is taken from our taxes, so in other words, it is not optional.

    What we need is oversight and transparency in these existing districts and those who run them now feel entitled to hand out as much/little information as they want.

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