Denver’s 5280 Trail: Designs and Strategies to Make People and Places Healthier

Case Studies

5280 Trail rendering

As an urban designer and city planner, the health of cities is important to me. The potential impact of an urban design project is massive, especially on the health of the city and its residents, and this potential is what has motivated my entire design career.

This is also what excites me most about The 5280 Trail in Denver. Originally identified in the Downtown Denver Area Plan, The 5280 Trail is a 5.280-mile loop that connects six distinct downtown neighborhoods with an integrated system of urban spaces, places and trails. It celebrates the unique personalities and populations—the cultural identity—of each neighborhood, and encourages connectivity within and between them. It promotes health by getting people outside, and it creates a stronger sense of place. This project will change minds about what it means to be in Downtown Denver.

The trail will no doubt become a tourist destination for visitors seeking an authentic Denver experience, but at its core the 5280 is designed for Downtown Denver residents. Colorado has a wonderfully active outdoor lifestyle, but this isn’t intended to be a high-intensity fitness route. It’s also not intended as a high-speed bicycle commuter route. While welcome, these are not the primary uses. The 5280 is designed for Denverites. Families out for a stroll. Parents pushing strollers or pulling wagons. People walking dogs. Friends and neighbors gathering. And yes, people jogging or biking, walking or riding to and from work. The trail is designed to be safe, accessible and welcoming to all.

Systems of small, localized parks are vital to the health of people and places, now more than ever.

Large, urban parks are still valuable, but the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the fact that we all need access to space that enables us to get outside easily and often—that helps us move and breathe—not just the people lucky enough to live near a big public park. As Mark recently wrote, “Today’s cities need networks of many small parks, woven together like an urban quilt. Cities need green space that is visible and accessible from every neighborhood, easily reached within a few minutes’ walk, and open to all.” And the reasons why go beyond COVID-19.

We certainly can’t discount how deadly the pandemic has been, and yet heart disease remains the United States’ biggest and most consistent killer. This and other noncommunicable diseases, like diabetes, are often linked to individual behaviors, lifestyle choices and environmental factors. And that’s what my Civitas colleagues and I are motivated to help with. By improving environmental factors, we can influence lifestyle choices and individual behaviors, and ultimately improve both physical and mental health. This is what the 5280 can do in Denver. The Trail plays a significant role in giving more people direct access to open space in proximity to their residences and jobs.  Space to spread out, socialize safely, connect with nature and to help mitigate some of the risks associated with COVID and other communicable diseases. But we were envisioning this trail long before any of us understood the implications of such a devastating pandemic—working with public health experts like Rupal Sanghvi before COVID even existed—so the 5280’s potential impact on physical and mental health is even broader.

Success builds from the bottom up.

A major component of our work is listening, educating and empowering communities to shape their future. In the case of the 5280, the key stakeholders are the neighborhoods and communities that the trail celebrates and connects. For this and any other civic project to be successful, it’s critical to appreciate that the public realm is not owned by the city. It’s owned by the public, and the city serves as its stewards. Community members can and should shape the public realm, using their collective voices to communicate what they need and want from their neighborhoods—what they want their neighborhoods to look and feel like.

We held numerous public meetings in each neighborhood and brought other stakeholders—academics, fellow designers, business leaders, and more—out to experience each district in person rather than just look diagrams, plans and photographs. Taking a tour around The 5280 Trail changes your perspective of the six neighborhoods and their proximity to each other. It makes Denver feel smaller and more intimate, and you immediately appreciate why connection can be powerful. By getting out there and looking and listening closely, we also help to educate people about each neighborhood and its residents, helping the true cultural identity of each place rise to the surface to be celebrated.

Our extensive research and community engagement has helped us expand the attitudes about this project’s potential. Early conversations revolved around typical goals to improve bike and pedestrian safety and accessibility in urban environments. The 5280 will achieve those goals, but we believed the project was about so much more.  It’s about people, health, culture and placemaking. It’s about celebrating and connecting neighborhoods. To this end, we developed our philosophy of the 5280 which included who our target audience was, and what we were trying to achieve for each neighborhood and as whole. Through numerous public meetings, we worked with each community to understand what was important for them to celebrate, the nuances of navigating a neighborhood on a bike or foot to access schools, libraries and grocery stores, where their most beloved coffee shop or bakery was located, and what they desired to improve. Each segment and turn of the 5280 is intentional and specific to the placemaking goals of the neighborhood.

Implementation requires a roadmap.

Denverites are passionate about bringing The 5280 Trail to life and the master planning process has created numerous champions in each neighborhood. In fact, the most comment complaint we heard throughout the process is “why isn’t the trail coming to my neighborhood.” People want this. Successful implementation requires a clear vision and plan, and ultimately City acceptance and approval of a radically different approach to the design and utilization of public realm. To this end, Civitas developed design standards and guidelines for our client, Downtown Denver Partnership. The overarching design intent is that the 5280 be a safe, beautiful ribbon that stitches together various unique districts and neighborhoods while not overpowering the character and soul of the community.

The guidelines describe primary components of the 5280 including Places, Links and Spurs and the extent to which the public right-of-way should be modified… ranging from removing a parking lane to removing vehicles altogether. A kit-of-parts including paving materials, vegetation, lighting and furnishings has been defined to create a continuous thread through the city, while also allowing each community the flexibility to express their own culture through design of public spaces and places. And overall, the guidelines establish design parameters and intentions that lead to more cohesive results as the trail is ultimately implemented by various design teams and contractors.

The 5280 is bold and visionary and will be a game changer for the city of Denver and future generations.  I am extremely grateful for our clients’ appetite to ‘Dream Big’ and the input, feedback and ideas generated by the community and stakeholders.

I’m proud of our design team’s thoughtful approach, thorough research, and listening and distilling of numerous ideas in order to create a bold, yet achievable vision. I’m also proud of the way Downtown Denver’s communities have rallied around The 5280 Trail and are now holding each other accountable for achieving the vision. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been involved in other stakeholder or project meetings and someone brings up the need to realize The 5280 Trail vision. Working together, as Denverites always have, we have an opportunity to change Denver in a fundamental and impactful way for future generations, and that’s incredibly exciting.

Want to brainstorm about ways to improve the health and wellbeing of your own community and neighbors? Reach out. We’d love to connect with you.