Denver, The City I Love, Made Possible By Land And Water Conservation Fund

Standing on my front porch, on any given day, I watch pedestrians and cyclists navigating a trail that carries them to the literal and figurative heart of my hometown. It's where Denver's story first began and the point around which its current story revolves.

By Deborah Williams March 22, 2018

I am a green-plater. If you’ve been in Colorado for more than a couple decades, that will mean something to you. At its most basic, it means I was here before the Colorado DMV inverted the color scheme on its license plates from green to white. That might seem like an arbitrary milestone to you, but to me, it’s loaded with significance

The plate swap happened in 2000, which is, at least in my consciousness, the moment in time when Denver’s cat was undeniably out of the bag. People had discovered the best-kept secret in the West.

We natives could identify transplants by their white plates. Not gonna lie (and I’m probably not alone): I sneered every time I saw one. By 2000, urban sprawl had taken hold, the brown cloud was a regular fixture over the metropolitan area, and I-70 was beginning to groan under the strain of bumper-to-bumper weekend traffic. Green-platers blamed the white-platers for all of it. For me, for a long time, I thought white plates were crowding my trails, polluting my clean mountain air and unleashing general bedlam on my undiscovered—if nondescript and rough around the edges—childhood Denver.

But as a person hopelessly enamored with the Mile High City—and with the benefit of hindsight—I now associate the white-plate era with incredible gains and a sort of renaissance.

The Platte River festival brings together members of the Denver community and many outdoor and paddling brands for an urban whitewater event. (Courtesy of Visit Denver)

I am in love with the unique identity my city has discovered and cultivated in the past couple of decades: outdoorsy and cosmopolitan, casual and sophisticated. And any time I want to celebrate where we’ve been and where we’re going, I hop on one of my bikes and pedal two miles down the Cherry Creek paved path to Confluence Park.

But First, A Little Backstory

An illustration of Denver in 1859, a year after the start of the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA DIGITAL ID: (color film copy slide) cph 3b49610)

It was this literal confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek (or somewhere just a few miles south) where prospectors found the first gold nuggets that sparked the Pike’s Peak gold rush in 1858. The prospectors set up a camp, named it Montana City, and began mining. Within a few years, the encampment grew, changed its name to Denver, and attracted speculators in droves. The next hundred years brought the railroads which brought agricultural trade which brought investors who brought industry which brought laborers who brought schools, libraries, hospitals, etc. As often happens to industrial cores, the area around the confluence fell victim to pollution, refuse and degradation. Residents moved outward, leaving the intersection discarded and blighted. But in 1965, a flood washed away most of the infrastructure near the confluence and with it, the eyesores obstructing the potential of this historic cosmopolitan ground zero.

In the last few decades of the 20th century, Denverites (natives and transplants) began to see the potential of the area. In 1974, the Greenway Foundation was established in Denver when the city and community groups began to reclaim the area. And when the city received the first of what would eventually total $1.2 million in grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for projects along the South Platte River, the revitalization took off. An electricity substation was removed, the confluence was dredged, the urban whitewater park was designed, and industrial remains were buried and capped by lawn, and an amphitheater overlooking the water was built. Cue the white-platers.

What’s the Land and Water Conservation Fund and why does it matter to our industry and all Americans who like recreating outside, whether they live in urban, suburban or rural communities? Find out here with our LWCF 101.

Denver’s Park and Soul

Now, at the southwest edge of the downtown core, is a cluster of rolling green lawns bisected by paved multi-use paths with break-inviting brick eddies. At its heart is a whitewater park formed by a series of assisted rapids where the South Platte River and Cherry Creek intersect, giving the park its name. On any given day, the park’s gravity pulls in a colorful cross-section of Denver outdoorists. There are kids splashing along the banks of the creek, young parents in athleisure-wear pushing strollers over the footbridges, business people in suites having lunch, hardcore triathletes in Spandex running or cycling on the path, seniors doing yoga on the lawn, teens pedaling BMX bikes and skateboards, Millennials filming Instagram stories from the seats of their cruiser bikes, Gen Zers stand-up paddling the white water. We didn’t photograph our ConsumerVue segmentation report at Confluence Park, but we could have.

Every $1 in LWCF funds for South Platte River projects resulted in $2,083 in local public and private investments. Support the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

On the park’s western edge, a once-abandoned industrial brick warehouse is now home to REI’s flagship store. To the north and east of the park are sleek, modern high-rise condominiums, brick brownstones with three-and-a-half-season rooftop patios, refurbished historic buildings and Leed-certified office towers. The mixed-use, mixed-era buildings and the park that connects them are representative of Denver’s timeline. The park’s users are representative of the unifying power and community health benefits of public open green space.

According to the City Parks Alliance, LWCF’s $1.2 million in investments “galvanized over $2.5 billion in local public and private funding, an investment that has revitalized Denver’s downtown and continues to drive economic development and job creation.” I would argue it’s also revitalized and given identity to Denver’s citizens—natives and transplants.

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