Commons Park, Denver’s Open Space Jewel

by Mark Naylor, Civitas, Inc.

 Kids at Commons Park
Commons Park was designed to acquaint Denverites with the region’s native landscape. Here a group of school children learn about wetlands while providing weeding muscle.

Commons Park is taking its place among Denver’s finest and most appreciated open spaces. Located along the South Platte River, the 19-acre park has been a magnet for development in the Central Platte Valley (CPV), the former railroad yard-turned-neighborhood west of Union Station. As redevelopment continues, the CPV is being transformed into a mixed-use development overlooking Commons, solidifying the park’s role as a link between the South Platte corridor and Denver’s vibrant downtown. It is also being recognized as a natural place within the city.
To redefine the city’s attitudes and uses of the river, former Mayor Wellington Webb established the South Platte River Commission, whose charge has been to allocate resources to improve the river’s quality, access, and amenities. Commons Park is one of the many legacy projects of Mayor Webb and the Commission. Identified as a potential signature open space in the early 1990’s, the park presented a splendid opportunity not only to introduce nature back into the heart of the city, but to invite citizens to come to the river. Far too long regarded as an industrial backwater, the South Platte River has once again become a central amenity to Downtown Denver as well as the metro area. Just as Denver’s roots sprouted along the banks of Cherry Creek and the South Platte, urbanites are flocking back to the water for recreation, relaxation, and education.
Commons’ role as a connection between city and nature has been at the root of the park’s planning and design philosophy from the outset. On one hand, Commons conducts pedestrians to and from the 16th Street corridor, the major pedestrian artery through downtown Denver. This connection stretches from the state capitol on the east, along the 16th Street Mall, through the CPV and Commons, across the South Platte, and into the Highland neighborhood to the west. On the other, Commons allows citizens to experience the natural qualities of the South Platte River corridor- it is truly a place where city and nature meet.
The commingling of the river’s riparian influences with the city’s urban qualities sets Commons within a context which helped determine its edges, the central spaces, grading concepts, and landscape typologies. Its context makes it distinct from other Denver parks. It has an urban edge that addresses the needs of the city. Yet, a substantial portion of the park is planted in native grasses, shrubs, and wetlands to meet the needs of the river. The park is experiential, with many exciting places for people to see and touch the water, to watch wildlife in the wetlands and along the river, to sit, or to stroll.

 Commons Park Master Plan
The Commons Park Master Plan illustrates the different landscape types within Commons Park.

The park’s landscape encourages this diversity of use, yet also strives to tell a story about the relationship between topography, water, vegetation, and riparian influences. The erosive power of wind and water is reflected in almost every aspect of the Western landscape. For this reason, careful consideration was given to the designed topography within Commons, both for its importance in creating habitat for native vegetation and for its ability to form space. Over the decades, the banks of the South Platte within the CPV had been filled, burying natural wetlands, oxbows, and habitat. The subtle terracing that naturally forms along a river’s banks from variable river flows were obliterated. Re-creation of these vital habitat areas was a focus of the park’s design. Extensive earthwork was done to lay back the steep fill slopes to restore riverbank terraces and wetlands. “The Seeps”, the reconstructed wetland near 15th Street, was created by lowering the existing grades by 18 feet. Groundwater now provides the moisture necessary to sustain not only a bulrush wetlands, but also a moist riparian meadow and wet cottonwood woodland. Higher above the groundwater levels, The Seeps now host a native forest of plains cottonwoods (Populus sargentii) along with an understory of native shrubs and grasses. This gallery forest will soon approximate the landscape once found along the river’s oxbow.
Stormwater runoff is collected from nearby streets and from the park itself and purified as it flows through wetland swales within the park before reaching the river. These become vegetated features, rich in habitat.
Native landscapes and habitat are found in other areas of the park as well. Aside from The Seeps and river terraces, a drier shortgrass prairie creates a backdrop to the urban qualities of The Promenade, the walkway along Little Raven Parkway. This “Upland Grassland” is planted with prairie grassland species as well as native shrubs and forbs. Again, the topography here tells a story: undulating, dune-like mounds along the length of the Upland Grasslands recall the Sand Hills, a formerly dominant Aeolian landform throughout the Front Range.
The park’s plantings portray a subtle gradation of native landscapes, from wetlands to river terraces to shortgrass prairie. These areas give visitors a sense of the diversity of the native landscape of the Front Range, from the wet riparian to the dry shortgrass prairie. Future park phases may include interpretive programs to promote this educational aspect of the park. And yet, Commons is an urban park as well, and is flexibly functional while not being programmed with dedicated ballfields and courts. So, turf comprises the central portion of the park. From “The Green” near 16th Street, to “The Overlook Hill”, to the meandering, undulating “Great Lawn” extending north to 19th, the turf area will provide a venue for more traditional park activities.
While many areas of Commons Park are native in character, three of its edges abut the urban influences of the city. The east border of the park is formed by the curving alignment of Little Raven Parkway. As development fills in along the street, Little Raven is becoming more pedestrian and active each year. It is now a pleasant tree lined thoroughfare with mixed uses occupying the east side, facing the park. Along the park side of the street, a triple row of trees, walkways, lawn panels, and seating areas, welcomes visitors. A 28″ high wall, constructed of native Colorado sandstone, separates The Promenade from the “Upland Grassland” area. It runs the length of The Promenade, punctuated at park entries at 16th, Lipan, and 18th Streets. Each entry includes a stone-paved plaza, with fountains and pools planned in future phases. Colorado sandstone is also used to form retaining walls as well as the curving seating terraces along the south side of The Green. Sandstone was used for its indigenous qualities and its timelessness. The plan of Commons Park is composed of discreet parts forming the whole. The Overlook Hill sits atop The Green, which in turn overlaps The Seeps. The central meandering turfgrass meadow continues north from The Overlook Hill, giving Commons a green backbone. The edges, both urban and natural, create a multi-faceted wrapper. As a whole, the park is a delicate integration of urban and natural qualities unique to its location. While Denver’s Civic Center Park may be considered the heart of commerce and politics, Commons may ultimately be seen as its counterpoint- a place which connects the city back to the life-sustaining river which was so central to Denver’s development. It is a place where visitors will be able to escape from the rigors of the city and to learn of the natural processes which are active around them each day.
Civitas Commons Park Design Team
Mark Johnson
Mark Naylor
The Restoration Group, Deb Keammerer
S.A. Miro, Civil, Structural, & Mechanical Engineering
McLaughlin Water Engineers, River Engineering
Roos Szynskie, Electrical Engineering
HydroSystems, Irrigation Design

Colorado Riparian Association