by Chris Loftus, RLA
I held a smartphone in one hand, the left handlebar grip with the other, and navigated the streets of suburban Thornton, Colorado at 7:00 am. The neighborhood streets led to Niver Creek trail, which crossed into an easement between agricultural properties. As I passed farm fields, prairie dogs scurried across the concrete trail. Along Niver Creek I spotted an egret downstream from a raft of ducks. Willows and cottonwoods shaded portions of the creek near its confluence with the South Platte River. Along the South Platte River Greenway, rabbits appeared from piles of brush and darted across the trail toward the river below. A Great Blue Heron stood stoically at the river’s edge. All of this occurred within a patchwork of residential, commercial, agricultural, and industrial land uses.
In an increasingly urbanized world, greenways like the South Platte River corridor play an important ecological role. Greenways – multipurpose corridors that include vegetation, recreational trails, and oftentimes waterways and urban infrastructure – hold the potential to connect parks, open space, and other habitat nodes and create expansive networks of green space. Small mammals, numerous bird species, and fish inhabit or migrate through rivers, tributaries, and riparian vegetation. Riparian greenways provide habitat, improve air quality, and reduce sedimentation and pollution of adjacent waterways. When implemented at a sufficiently large scale, greenways reduce urban heat islands and improve watershed and aquifer health. Greenways also improve air quality by encouraging non-motorized transportation, thereby reducing vehicular emissions.
As I continued to pedal toward Denver’s urban edge, I took a rapid inventory of the greenway’s condition and found environments of variable quality. Stretches of the trail wove through a mosaic of agricultural and industrial landscapes. An array of olfactory hues, from the ammonia-heavy stench of chicken houses, to oil refinery emissions and the scent of wastewater treatment, wafted over the trail at various locations. The quantity and quality of riparian habitat varied along these heavily impacted zones, and non-native species dominated in places.
Despite the greenway’s varying conditions, the South Platte has come a long way in the past forty years. Prior to major cleanup efforts initiated in 1974, some termed the South Platte “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.” In 1965, a major flood, compounded by decades of degradation from unregulated industrial and agricultural land use caused $325 million in damages. The event motivated City officials to take action. In 1974, the City of Denver formed the Platte River Development Committee to strategize reclamation of the river corridor. The committee evolved into the non-profit Greenway Foundation in 1976, and continues to play an instrumental role in coordinating planning efforts and funding sources for the vital community amenity.
The Greenway Foundation and its partners have made substantial improvements since the initial efforts began, including over 100 miles of trails, over 100 acres of park land, and significant water quality and riparian habitat enhancements. Along its most traveled sections through Denver’s core, the greenway is a vibrant urban corridor embraced by the community. The Greenway Foundation’s South Platte River Master Plan outlines additional improvements to be implemented in the future, including upgrades to existing parks, construction of new parks, riparian buffer and wetland enhancements, increased ecological connectivity, additional public access points, and the incorporation of public art projects.
Pedaling through areas identified for future improvements in the Master Plan, I took a hairpin turn and rode up a steep switchback, leaving behind the relative serenity of the greenway’s underutilized northern segment. I emerged between a McDonald’s and a gas station, negotiated a few Denver streets, and arrived at the office. While my commute took me through some raw industrial zones, there were also thriving natural areas along the way. The potential for enhanced habitat connectivity and better community access was clear. As the greenway evolves and improves through the implementation of additional restoration and revitalization projects, the City of Denver, surrounding communities, and the region’s urban ecology will continue to reap its many benefits.
And for anyone concerned for the safety of a phone wielding bicycle commuter, I’m happy to report that I only needed the smartphone’s map on the first of many commutes.
Smith, D. S. and Hellmund, P. C., Ecology of Greenways: Design and Function of Linear Conservation Areas, 1993