“We need more open spaces”: Denver residents feeling stifled by city’s building boom seek room to roam

Denver’s intensifying green-space crunch is hurting residents, creating stay-or-go quandaries and raising environmental-justice concerns as people search for nature near where they live.

Parents, in particular, say they struggle to raise healthy children as natural space increasingly is built over or paved.

“If they just stay inside, they grow up to be fat people on phones, all the technology things,” said Gabriela Azevedo, 27, a mother of two boys in north Denver.

Parker Alley, 7, flies a at ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Parker Alley, 7, flies a kite at Four Winds-Cuatro Vientos Park, in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood, on Dec. 21, 2018. The space opened in 2014, and at the time was the first new park in that community in more than 30 years, according to Denver officials.

One of her children, Sabian, 7, has asthma so severe that Azevedo and her husband recently moved him to a different school — away from Denver’s Interstate 70 redevelopment construction near their home, an area where asthma and blood lead levels are elevated. There’s a small park nearby.

“But when the air is really bad, we just stay inside,” Azevedo said.

A couple times a month, this family rolls across Denver and joins growing crowds at a bigger, cleaner park with open green space, large trees, a pond, playgrounds and birds. “The one near the zoo,” she said.

When possible, they escape to the mountains. Azevedo’s message to city leaders and developers: “Build more parks, think about parks more often, be more green. Because of our kids.”

Lack of sufficient green space has become a common complaint among residents such as Azevedo, as Denver morphs into a concrete metropolis. Rapid population growth and a development boom have combined to reduce green space per person. Ample backyards increasingly are relics as residents shift to condos, slot homes and high-rise buildings. More of Denver’s 155-square-mile area is paved or covered over each year, part of a national trend that has worsened heat waves and can cause havoc with stormwater runoff.

In parts of Denver, green space has decreased to fewer than 5 acres per 1,000 residents — less than half the national norm.

“It is different from rich areas to, like, this area — low-income people. It’s just different,” Jose Sotelo, 51, said on a recent afternoon after he escorted his kids to the newly refurbished Westwood Park, which features exercise equipment and a playground around open grass.

Green space in other parts of Denver seems “nicer, greener. I can see flowers. It is a little unfair. We pay taxes, too. Why?” he said.


“Fresh air’s the No. 1 thing”

A food warehouse worker and father of two in west Denver, Sotelo said he’s been struggling to find nature. The kids — Levi, 9, and Iraci, 10 — recently had to say goodbye to their 72-year-old grandfather, who retired to a Mexican village because it offered peace with fresher air, birds and starry night skies. Now Sotelo was looking for outdoor alternatives to computer screens after school.

“Nature here? We don’t have it. Not enough in Denver. Maybe in the suburbs they have it,” Sotelo said. “We need more open spaces, more natural spaces.”

At the end of summer, Sotelo realized Levi’s waist was as big as his own and that he seemed practically addicted to video games and television. So as part of a family initiative, they were aiming to go to a park every day after school, away from “suffocating” technology. If not for this park, “they’d be inside on the tablets.” He watched as Iraci played on swings and Levi lay on the grass by a flat blue soccer ball.

“The outdoors is to have fun,” Levi said. Sotelo nodded, adding, “Fresh air’s the No. 1 thing.” He kicked that ball with his son.

A growing body of scientific research points to a human health need for green space in cities. The research from psychologists and urban planners has found green space is essential to making cities livable.

People are healthier and happier when they have access to nature, researchers contend, correlating proximity to vegetation with lower stress, anger, aggression, diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. They have found that people exposed to green space tend to be more active physically, healthier mentally and more connected to other people. Children appear to suffer less from blood-pressure problems and asthma.

Denver’s green-space crunch, reducing contact with nature for residents unless they can afford escapes to the mountains, has mobilized voters. In 2017, they passed a ballot initiative ordering city officials to install green roofs on buildings (to absorb more of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and to produce more clean oxygen). Last fall, voters approved a sales-tax hike to raise $45 million a year to improve and expand green space.

“The younger population is more and more interested in keeping the world green and paving less. They are concerned about carbon emissions, social equity and resilience,” said Mark Johnson, president of the Denver-based urban design firm Civitas, which has helped establish green space here and other cities worldwide.

“Our marketplace and our culture is insisting on more environmental benefits,” Johnson said.

Sean Conlon, with his dog Roxy, ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Sean Conlon, with his dog Roxy, works out at Westwood Park in Denver.

“Living in a concrete box”

It’s gotten to the point where well-to-do people pay for nature therapy.

“A lot of people come to see me saying nature is kind of their church, the place they go to heal and feel better,” said psychologist Aleya Littleton, one of several “nature-based therapists” in the city.

Typical clients seek one-hour-a-week sessions talking outdoors “because they know it is so good for them,” she said, though many struggle to fit sessions into their schedules.

“There’s definitely an increase in stress and discomfort. The urban environment has a way of distracting attention that is violent and aggressive,” she said, compared with “subtle inputs of nature that we are biologically predisposed to receive. … We’re becoming more connected to our technology. It is a contrived experience. We are not more connected to each other.”

Around Denver, residents young and old increasingly migrate in vehicles to find natural space. During heat waves last summer, mothers stuck inside the city flocked to parks with water fountains, helping their children stay cool and active.

“Really important,” said Brittany Aynei, 32, who walked nearly 2 miles from her home west of downtown to the Union Station area where, though the plaza is paved, the fountain was not as crowded as usual, because the bigger kids were back in school. Her 2-year-old son splashed jovially while his 6-year-old sister waded around.

“I prefer to have my kids outside every day, just to be active. We don’t do TV,” Aynei said.

More green space is “necessary for a growing city,” she said. “I’m OK with building up vertically. Better than building new houses everywhere. But we could have more open space.”

It seems to bring relief.

 

“It is pretty important to have at least some sort of escape in the city. It gets alienating if you don’t have nature or greenery anywhere,” said Michael Perkins, 29, a University of Colorado Denver engineering graduate student and cafe barista walking through Lower Downtown.

Perkins grew up along the Front Range and said he’s noticed the increasing density of Denver as developers install high-priced modern apartments and condos.

“Feeling like you are living in a concrete box is going to change your psychology. You start to forget what it is to be human and to be a part of the Earth,” he said, noting the apartment he shares is close to a park.

“I would definitely favor more open space. And I would favor integration of nature into urban spaces — for solving the problems of urbanization.”

While the scattered “pocket parks” that Mayor Michael Hancock celebrates draw heavy use, residents living near them indicate they’d prefer something bigger.

A new public-access pocket-park courtyard that city officials painstakingly negotiated with a developer as part of a contested high-density development in Park Hill “is sort of pathetic. Everybody can see through it. Developers have a very clear profit motive, and this is a city that gives whatever it can to developers,” said Caleb Hannan, 35, sitting with his toddler daughter on a bench in a pocket park at Dexter Street and 23rd Avenue.

“Not the greatest green space, but it is 15 minutes away,” Hannan noted.

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

A kayaker makes their way along the west shore of the Chatfield Reservoir.

“We need green”

Farther away, Denver offers 14,000 acres of mountain foothills parks. While residents recognize that option, many say they need more of a tolerable environment right where they live and work.

“We need green. We gotta have something that puts oxygen back in our air,” said retiree Dennis Chambers, 63, who was fixing a fence at his Park Hill home. “But the mayor doesn’t want it. He’s going to go where the money is.”

Now that his children are grown, Chambers and his wife often drive to Chatfield Reservoir southwest of Denver and to Bluff Lake.

Workers often cannot escape.

“I feel more heat,” RiNo food market employee Sulema Palacios, 23, said while emptying trash into a Dumpster on an asphalt parking lot during Denver’s eighth consecutive 90-degree day in September.

At the very least, city planners should plant more trees, she said. “We need more big trees in the streets. For air.”

Denver Parks and Recreation officials pointed to privately installed open space that developers include as part of projects spanning more than 10 acres.

Yet one of those areas, near the Denver Indian Center off Alameda Boulevard and Morrison Road, contains AstroTurf instead of grass. It served well for the soccer-playing grandchildren of Lorenzo Clark, 54, who sat on a bench watching them. “But they should build a bigger park.”

In an ideal world, those kids would spend time in nature, Clark said. “It is better for them to grow up in open country. They can get off their computers. Get out and explore. Get on a horse. Build a fire. Have a cookout.”

One result of the green-space crunch may be that Denver residents increasingly envision their best life elsewhere, treating the city like a way station.

As Denver continues to grow some ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

As Denver continues to grow some are worried it may turn into a heat island, lacking green space.

Between rows of shiny box-shaped apartments installed atop the former Gates Rubber factory along South Broadway, neo-natal intensive care nurse Alexa Horn, 27, said there was no significant green space nearby and that rent of $1,500 a month felt steep even on her steady wages.

She could drive to Washington Park in about 15 minutes, depending on traffic.

Her tight apartment was sufficient for now, she said. “I mean, I lived in a college dorm” at the University of Wisconsin.

“Parks are important. I like the outdoors. A place to escape the city feel,” she said, noting that she grew up near a lake in Minnesota.

“I won’t be living here all my life. I want a house with at least a small yard. This is temporary,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to live here forever.”

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