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Denver’s Park Legacy: An Evolving System
Nature Tamed: Parks from the City Beautiful Era

At the turn of the 20th century, Denver Mayor Robert Speer, who had been exposed to the City Beautiful idea at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, introduced the City Beautiful movement to Denver, then a city of dirt streets.

In 1906, Speer hired the prominent landscape architect George Kessler and planner Charles Mulford Robinson, who recommended a citywide system of boulevards and parks. Their plan produced some of Denver’s grandest civic spaces, such as the Civic Center, the formal parkways, and Cheesman Pavilion. Our park legacy was honored in 1986 when 32 urban parks and parkways were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

These historic park designs shared a vision of nature tamed as a refuge for residents living in an industrial and polluted cit. In arid Colorado, this meant replacing the original landscape—the natural grasses and trees of the high plains—with images of parks borrowed from lusher climates.

What results was a welcome but artificial green layer laid over the city’s formal grid. This “green grid” gives Denver neighborhoods their character and the city its overall urban form. Lush dark green lawns and formal flower beds, however, also use large amounts of water and require expensive and sometimes environmentally unsound maintenance procedures.