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A bicyclist rides through the pedestrian and bike access point of the entrance gates at City Park in downtown Denver on Oct. 3, 2020. The gates were locked shut as a way to only allow foot and bike access into the park. (Forrest Czarnecki/The Denver Gazette)

When COVID-19 first hit, Denver residents flocked to city parks in droves to escape cabin fever from the new stay-at-home orders. So much so that the parks faced an unprecedented issue: overcrowding.

To maintain social distancing, the city fully or partially closed internal roads and parking lots at 11 of the city’s largest parks, asking residents to use parks closest to them instead of only the popular parks.

Now, Denver Parks and Recreation is considering making those car-restricting closures permanent in Sloan’s Lake Park, Cheesman Park, Ruby Hill Park, Washington Park and City Park.

“We were trying to give people more space and area to enjoy our parks,” said Cynthia Karvaski with DPR. “And then a lot of people said, ‘I really like this.’ ”

For Jill Locantore, executive director of Denver Streets Partnership, this pandemic experiment represents the future of what Denver can be.

“It’s opened people’s eyes to what parks can be like if we restrict vehicles and prioritize people,” Locantore said. “And they like it better that way.”

Denver Streets Partnership is a coalition of community organizations advocating for “people-friendly streets.”

A few months after the restrictions began, the organization sent surveys to Denver residents asking for opinions on the car-restricted parks. Locantore said they received “overwhelming support.”

Of the 800 respondents, 90% said they want the restrictions to continue permanently. The survey also reported increased use of parks since the restrictions began.

“It’s unclear to me what the benefit would be of deteriorating that experience by allowing cars back into parks,” Locantore said.

However, not everyone is on board with the restrictions.

Karvaski said she’s heard from people who don’t live near parks and can no longer drive to their favorites, or people who live near parks but don’t have access to certain amenities, and people who live near the restricted parks and are upset by losing the extra parking for residents.

Moira Wiedenman from The Alliance Center said that’s where the issues of vehicle restrictions begin.

“We equally value a healthy environment and healthy communities,” Wiedenman said. “Fewer trips in the car sounds like a good thing, as long as all Denver residents are able to access a park on foot.”

In Denver, 91% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park, according to the Trust for Public Land. That is significantly higher than the 55% national average.

Access is consistent within 1-2% when dividing the population by age and income. However, the residents with the lowest park access are Black, Asian and Pacific Islander.

“We know the city is actively working to address the lack of parks in areas populated by low-income communities and communities of color, but that process can be slow,” Wiedenman said, adding that park access can’t be “a privilege only reserved for some.”

To that, Denver Streets Partnership says, “driving isn’t the only way.”

Locantore points to biking and public transit as ways people can access their favorite car-restricted parks, transportation modes that are already more common among low-income communities and communities of color, she said.

And if driving is a resident’s only way to access parks, it’s still an option. Though the parks are car-restricted, many still have accessible parking lots.

Limited parking lots remain open remain at Sloan’s Lake Park, Ruby Hill Park, Washington Park and City Park. Cheesman Park and Washington Park also have extra ADA parking.

However, Karvaski admits that Denver’s park access is not yet equal for all.

“One of our major goals is that everyone has a park available to them within a 10 minute walk or bike ride,” Karvaski said. “There’s not that equity all across the city but we’re pretty close.”

One of Denver’s other COVID-19 experiments is aiming to address this inequality.

Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure has created several “Shared Streets” throughout the city to give residents more space to be outside.

These shared streets are closed to through traffic and allow people space to walk and bike, while still allowing for residents and their visitors to drive on the closed streets and park on them.

In early April, Denver closed segments of East 11th Avenue, Byron Place, Stuart Street and East 16th Avenue for the project. The city later added others on South Marion Parkway, Bayaud Avenue, Bolling Drive and Irving Street.

In the first 11 days of the Shared Streets program, an average of 1,026 people daily traveled down the East 16th Avenue location on foot or by bike, according to Denver Streets Partnership.

Locantore said these streets provide outdoor recreation for areas that are not near parks, like on Irving Street.

“We’ve been dedicating so much space in the city for cars,” Locantore said. “If we take over just a tiny fraction of that space and reallocate it for people, there’s so much more value that we can get out of that space.”

Right now, it’s unclear whether the Shared Streets or the car-restricted parks are here to stay.

DOTI has begun public conversations about making them permanent but has made no commitment to maintain the Shared Streets beyond the fall.

DPR sent a survey to Denver residents on Sept. 30 asking for public opinion on the car-restricted parks. Responses are due by Nov. 2.

In addition to community opinion, DPR is also considering factors like if the park is near bike or RTD routes, permitting in the area and if the park is near DOTI closures or bikeways.

Once the surveys are compiled, Karvaski said DPR will monitor the feedback and coordinate efforts with DOTI, Parks Maintenance, Permitting and Recreation Staff, Operations and Institutional Partners.

Karvaski said they will evaluate the five parks for the rest of the year and edit closures on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re just going to start public conversations and see where they go,” Karvaski said.

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