Denver slipped to 29th place in a new national ranking of cities’ park access and quality, buoyed by a wide distribution of parks but hurt by an overall lack of acreage. Mayoral run-off candidates Jamie Giellis and Michael Hancock on Wednesday grappled with this challenge.

Denver Post file
Denver mayors candidates Michael Hancock, left, and Jamie Giellis.

Giellis told The Denver Post she’d add 2,816 acres of new parkland in Denver and committed to an increase of 4 new acres per 1,000 residents. She pledged to make sure at least 10 percent of the city area is parkland.

Hancock, the incumbent mayor, declined to commit to a number of new park acres, but said he’d aim to reach the national norm for parkland.

“It is not as simple as stating, ‘We want XX% of the city to be parkland,’ ” Hancock said in a statement, “though we should aim to meet the national median.”

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The Trust for Public Land’s new park rankings, released Wednesday, showed that, while 90 percent of Denver residents can reach some sort of park within a 10-minute walk, only 8.3 percent of Denver is parkland. According to the trust’s researchers, the national parkland median is 9.4 percent of the area inside a city.

City officials argued that Trust for Public Land researchers counted Denver International Airport as part of Denver, which Hancock said “skews our percentage of park acreage.” But Charlie McCabe, director of the trust’s Center for Park Excellence, said that’s not correct. The city-owned DIA property is excluded from the trust’s calculations, he said.

The mayor also pointed to the 14,000 acres Denver owns outside city boundaries in mountain foothills including Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre, Lookout Mountain and Summit Lake.

Denver’s percentage of parkland ranks among the lowest percentages compared with other major U.S. cities in the Trust for Public Land rankings (New York is at 22 percent; Washington, D.C., is at 21 percent; and San Francisco is at 20 percent).

This ranking system — based on a Trust for Public Land formula that factors in access to parks, public spending on parks and “amenities” such as dog parks and playgrounds, in addition to acreage — is designed to help city leaders deal with intensifying climate change impacts and improve community health and cohesion.

Denver fell from 26th place last year and 14th place in 2014. Neighboring Aurora now outperforms Denver, ranking 23rd with 11 percent of its area being parkland and having a larger median park size (8 acres compared with Denver’s 6.7) and higher public spending ($145 per resident compared with $115 in Denver).

Starting this year, however, Denver officials have about $37.5 million to spend after voters approved a parks ballot initiative, and have indicated they’ll use $16 million to acquire land for new parks.

Washington, D.C., ranks first overall on the Trust for Public Land list, followed by St. Paul, Minnesota, and Minneapolis. The trust’s researchers identified 23,727 parks in the 100 largest U.S. cities, yet 11.2 million people in those cities cannot reach a park within a 10-minute walk.

A growing body of research has found people need to connect regularly with nature and that children, in particular, spend much of their lives indoors looking at computer screens.

“You need to offer parks close to home, even if just a small space,” McCabe said. “Once you are in a green space, surrounded by nature, it lowers heart rates, increases respiration. It’s the mental and emotional combining with the physical.”

This week, ballots went out to voters in Denver’s mayoral runoff.

The Denver Post on Wednesday asked Hancock and Giellis how they’d deal with the city’s the lagging parkland, how many new park acres they’d add to keep pace with population growth, and what target they’d set for parkland as a percentage of the city area (which is 155 square miles).

Giellis committed to add 2,816 acres and criticized the approach under Mayor Hancock, who has served two terms coinciding with rapid development and a booming population. Growth without adding significant new parks — diverging from Denver’s tradition as “a city within a park” — has led to a park space decline to 8.9 acres per 1,000 residents, below the national median of 13 acres and projected to fall to 7.3 acres by 2040.

“We have neglected one of the crown jewels of the city, and care of our parks is in free-fall,” Giellis said in a statement. “Parks are a critical component of any healthy, vibrant city. Previous city leaders made bold moves to incorporate green space throughout the city, and it is time to return to that strategy.”

Giellis also pledged to:

  • Require new green space in all city-backed developments
  • Review city holdings and “select appropriate sites for new neighborhood parks”
  • Establish new green space with “pocket parks” along city right-of-way corridors and new transit routes
  • Plant 1 million trees
  • Renew efforts to make the South Platte River “a generous green ribbon through the city”

Hancock campaign officials pointed to the city’s latest “Game Plan for a Healthy City” document to guide growth, which emphasizes increased housing for more people. Hancock said parkland as a percentage of city area should be increased to reach the national median.

“We cannot commit to a specific number of acres at this time,” Hancock said. “The city will continue to identify parcels and acreage in communities that need and deserve high-quality parks and prioritize acquiring lands in these neighborhoods.  We are committed to adding parks where they are needed most.”

Updated 11:05 a.m. May 23, 2019. This story has been updated to report that, despite Mayor Michael Hancock’s contention, the city-owned Denver International Airport property is not included in the Trust for Public Land’s calculations.